How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Take a look at the front of your car. If it's a few years old, there's a good chance that those cheap plastic headlamp lenses the manufacturer slapped on there are starting to look as yellow as a heroin addict's teeth.

As a matter of fact, it's a miracle that any light at all shines through them anymore. So why not clean 'em up and make those headlights sparkle again. Sure it'll make your car look better, but more importantly, it'll increase the effectiveness of those two little bulbs that light the road while you're driving at night.

Basically, what's happening is that the crappy plastic the automotive engineers calculated would save weight, money, fuel, shipping costs, etc. is, well, crappy, and the outer surface is weathered. No need to go buy new headlamp lenses, this is essentially like getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist — rubbing off that nasty yellow film to reveal the shiny stuff beneath.

You can go out and get your own sandpaper, rubbing compound and drill bits, but there are kits available that work pretty well and don't leave you with a bunch of leftovers. I bought 3M's kit at the local auto parts store for $27.

It takes roughly 30 minutes to uncloud each light. Maybe a little extra if you run out of beer and have to get more. But you should have thought about that when you were out getting the kit.

Now then, you can read the directions and all, but here's how I did it.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

To start, you'll need some supplies. The kit supplies almost everything, but you'll also need a high speed drill, some painters tape, a little bowl of water and a rag, and, of course, beer.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Step one: Read the directions. It won't kill you, and will help ensure that you don't screw this up.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

After years of sun beating down on lame plastic, it's no longer clear. My friend's van only had one original headlamp lens, so I only needed to do half the work. He replaced the other one after a windy day at the Santa Barbara City College parking lot did the other one in. He saw a pretty girl in a sundress, and as he was wondering what the wind would do to it, BAM! He ran into the back of someone's truck. Nice one, but yeah, less work for me.

I started by cleaning the headlamp lens and the area around it, so that the tape would stick.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

You'll be using sandpaper attached to a high speed drill, so it's a good idea to mask the area around the light. That way you won't damage the paint and get rust there when it rains (especially if you live in one of those rainy/cold/salty places).

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Drink some beer.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Give the lens another swab with the wet rag and dry it off with a dry towel or paper towels.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Per the directions, affix the 500 grit sandpaper disc to the little sanding bit that comes with the kit. It's all hook and loop, so they're easy to take on and off.

If the sand paper gets all gummed up, throw on another piece.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Supporting the drill with both hands, apply gentle pressure to the lens, moving the sanding disc back and forth in smooth, even motions. Not too fast, not too slow. And don't press too hard!

It'll look a little rough initially, but that's what you're going for. You're stripping off all of that nasty plastic.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

When you're done sanding, wipe the whole thing off with the wet rag and dry it with the dry one. You don't want all that dust on there when you move to the next step.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Next, put on the 800 grit sandpaper.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Do the same thing you did with the 500 grit paper. Smooth, even motion. Hold the drill steady. Don't forget the edges!

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Again, wash the lens with the wet rag and dry it off.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Looks like it's time for another beer. I was lucky enough to be on a friend's farm in Ojai, Calif., and he has 80 gallons of beer on tap. That comes in pretty handy for a job like this.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Next, you'll be using a rough sponge that comes with the kit to further smooth out the plastic. You're doing the same thing you did with the sandpaper. Make sure you're really smooth and thorough so that the lens looks good at the end of the process.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Repeat the wash/wipe after this step.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Squirt some rubbing compound onto a sponge disc. Both come with the kit.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

Again, smooth, even, back and forth. Make sure you evenly cover the surface of the lens, and get the edges, too.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

When you're done, wash and dry the lens, then peel off the masking tape.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz

How To Clean Your Headlamp Lenses

There you have it. Before: crappy minivan with a yellow headlamp lens. After: crappy minivan with a clear headlamp lens.

If you need to do the other headlight lens and/or the taillight lenses, you'd better refill your beer and get back to work. Otherwise, refill your beer and go do something fun. You're done!

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Juliana Schatz