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Headlight restoration: What you need to do

Driving in the dark or in harsh weather can be difficult. Maintaining your headlights can ease the stress of driving in these conditions.

Keeping your headlights in good working order is also a legal requirement. Not to mention that poor visibility could result in an accident, driving up your car insurance costs. 

Here's what you need to know about headlight restoration.

A white car with headlights on at night 

What is headlight restoration?

Headlight casings can get foggy, dull, yellowed and cloudy over time from oxidisation. This happens when the UV protective layer starts to degrade and can be made worse by some of the cleaning solutions used when you get your car washed.

When your headlight has become too dull it affects your visibility at night. If they become too faded, it might get flagged during an MOT as an advisory.

However, it's possible to check your headlights and carry out headlight restoration at home.

To determine if you need to restore and protect your headlights, first clean them with warm soapy water and then rinse. Run your fingers over the casing and feel if there’s any grittiness or marks in the plastic. If there are, here are a few headlamp restoration options for you.

Clean your headlights with the toothpaste method

This is a cheap alternative to professional headlight restoration that requires a little effort and time.

Pick up some toothpaste with baking soda, or you can add some yourself for some abrasion.

Wash the headlights first, then apply a thick coat of paste with your fingertips. Grab an old toothbrush and rub in small circles for between 5 and 10 minutes until the debris and grit is gone.

Use baking soda and vinegar to clean your headlights

Good low-cost household cleaners can also come to the rescue of cloudy headlights – albeit temporarily, as you’ll need to keep it up regularly.

You can combine the 2 cleaners and use a microfiber cloth, or toothbrush, and see whether there’s any improvement after rinsing.

You might need to repeat the process. You can then add a coat of waxing compound after the plastic dries to polish the headlights to a shine.

Buy a headlight restoration kit

There are headlight restoration kits of varying quality and prices. It’s worth checking out reviews to see what will best suit your needs.


How can I find a headlight restoration service?

If you don’t have time or you are concerned that the damage is more serious, it might be worth taking it in to a garage or a specialist that offers a headlight restoration service.

This typically involves using a combination of wet and dry abrasives to remove the oxidisation on the headlights. Your headlights then get a thorough machine polish, before a fresh UV protection layer is applied.


How much does a headlight restoration service cost?

Depending on the severity of the damage, expect to pay in the region of £50 for a specialist headlight restoration service.

It is a bit of an expense but you should get a better finish and longer-lasting results.


How do I prevent cloudy headlights?

The plastic on headlights is durable. But the protective film on top tends to degrade over time from sunlight, moisture and road and environmental pollutants.

It’s best to clean and maintain your headlights regularly. But if they degrade so much that it affects your visibility, then you can try to restore them.

You could also buy a vinyl film to get headlight protection. Make sure you choose one that’s transparent and UV protected, and follow the manufacturer instructions carefully.

If your car is more often parked than in motion, try to park it in a sheltered area where it’s cool and dry. If you can, get a protective cover for it.


Headlight maintenance tips

Headlights should be a part of your regular car maintenance checks. Here are some ways to keep yours shiny and bright.

  • Always make sure your headlight casings are clean.
  • Check brake lights and indicators. Get a friend to look around the vehicle while you’re inside working the controls.
  • Be aware, you may not notice a broken headlight. Usually, you’ll notice a drop in brightness first, or other road users might flash their lights at you.
  • If your indicator bulb blinks faster than it should, it could mean it’s not working correctly.
  • If you're replacing bulbs, it might be worth doing so in pairs. There’s a good chance the other one isn't far behind. If you’re in doubt,visit your local garage for advice.

What are the headlight laws

At night, your headlights should be switched on, as well as during times of reduced visibility. The Highway Code defines night-time as the hours between ‘half an hour after sunset and half an hour before sunrise’.

‘Reduced visibility’ is when you can’t see more than 100 metres ahead of you. There are strict legal requirements to using your dipped headlights. If you fail to use them correctly the police could give you an on-the-spot fine of £50. The law says:

  • Sidelights and rear registration plate lights should be on between sunset and sunrise, except on a road lit with street lighting. These roads usually have a 30 mph speed limit.
  • You shouldn’t use any lights in a way that would dazzle or cause discomfort to other road users. This includes pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders.
  • You must also use headlights when visibility is reduced. For example, when you can’t see more than 100 metres (328 feet) in front of you.
  • You may also use your front or rear fog lights, but you must switch them off when visibility improves. 

In stationary queues of traffic, you should use your parking brake. You can then take your foot from the footbrake. This deactivates the brake light and minimise glare for other road users.

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How do I know if my headlights need replacing? 

Often the first time you know your headlights aren’t doing what they’re meant to is a warning light on the car’s dashboard.

On older cars, it’s when your headlights seem less bright that may clue you in. Sometimes a kind passing motorist may flash their lights at you at night.

Of course, flashing your lights like this isn't strictly allowed. But it’s a common practice 

The easiest way to check is to have another person stand outside and look while you operate the lights from inside.

If you’re on your own, try parking near a window or reflective surface and checking for the right reflections.


My headlight bulb needs replacing, how do I know what bulb I need? 

To determine which headlight bulb you need, use an online bulb finder like Powerbulbs. You enter the make, model and year of your car and it gives you the fittings for each type of light for your registration.

You can find bulbs for all the positions in your vehicle including:

  • Dipped beam
  • Full/high beam
  • Side lamp

If you can’t find it online, you can check the car manual or call up the manufacturer and ask for the fitting information.

If you feel capable, it’s possible to remove the headlight, remove the bulb and check the base for details of the fitting.


Different types of car headlights

Xenon HID technology

If you’re driving along and notice a slightly blue tinge to another driver’s headlights, the chances are they’re HID bulbs.

HID bulbs have no filament, which can be prone to vibration. Instead, they’re filled with xenon gas and contain two electrodes (one on each end of the bulb).

When the bulb is on, an electric current passes between the 2 electrodes and the xenon gas lights up.

This is only used during start up. Once the lamp reaches the desired temperature, other gases ensure it stays lit.

The benefit of Xenon HID bulbs is the increase in brightness. They also use much less energy to produce this light, making them an efficient option for drivers.

Pros and cons of Xenon HID technology:

  • Produces very bright light
  • Offers vision further ahead
  • Slower to turn on
  • Bright light can irritate drivers and impact their vision

LED headlights

This stands for light-emitting diode. It uses a semiconductor diode, which glows when a current passes through it.

The benefit of these is that they’re bright, and they use far less energy than halogen bulbs. You also might avoid periodic bulb blows, as LEDs tend to last for more than 20 years.

The brightness of these bulbs tends to be better than halogen lamps. They’re also slightly superior to xenon-HID bulbs, as they tend not to dazzle other road users.

Always use a reputable seller if you’re interested in LED lights. Cheap LEDs can often be too bright, and cause discomfort to other road users. You must also ensure that they’re properly aligned so they’re not shining directly in the eyes of other road users.

Pros and cons of LED headlights:

  • Allow driver to see a wider area 
  • Turn on and off immediately
  • Can be a more expensive option
  • Cost more to replace

Halogen headlights

Headlights with halogen bulbs are the most common in cars.

These bulbs have halogen gases, bromine and iodide, filled inside them. The gases prevent the filament from thinning and reduce the blackening that can occur inside bulbs.

Pros and cons of halogen headlights:

  • Cheap and easy to replace
  • Last for a long time
  • Slightly yellow in colour
  • Don't cast further ahead

Laser headlights 

Laser headlights aren't as sinister as they sound. They offer the most powerful illumination, but tend to be found in cars on the upper end of the market.

And if you want to fit them to your car, you could be looking at spending more than £5,000 – however, they're expected to drop in price as they become more mainstream.

Pros and cons of laser headlights:

  • More efficient than LED headlights
  • Greater visibility that doesn't also dazzle other drivers
  • Expensive to fit
  • Expensive to replace 

Headlight alignment

In the UK, headlights are dipped to the left to avoid dazzling oncoming drivers. Since 2016, the aim of the headlamp testing during an MOT changed.

The new standards emphasise correct alignment, and it’s not a quick check either.

You might not be aware that the alignment of your headlights is incorrect unless you get regular frantic flashing from annoyed oncoming motorists.

If you’re technically minded, you could try and realign the headlights yourself.


Dashboard signals and their meaning 

Symbol Type of light Description
full beam
Full beam
Usually a blue coloured symbol on the dashboard.
Dipped beam
Dipped beam
This is the symbol you should see if you’re on a highway at night and encountering traffic.
front fog light
Front fog lights
These should be used when you can't see for more than 100 metres (328 feet) in front of you. Once visibility improves, they should be switched off.
rear fog light
Rear fog lights
These should be used when you can't see for more than 100 metres (328 feet) in front of you. They should be switched off when visibility improves.
self leveling headlights
Self-levelling system
When a car behind you goes over a speed bump, the light can catch in your rear view mirror, briefly dazzling you. Self-levelling headlights stop this as they keep the lights aimed at the road.
brake light warning
Brake light warning
If there’s an issue with your brake light this symbol will usually appear.
bulb fault
Exterior light/bulb fault
This symbol will appear if there’s an issue with your exterior headlights. Either a bulb malfunction or an electrical issue.
parking lights
Parking lights
The small lights on the side of the vehicle used for parking at night.

Other dashboard warning lights can signify faults or checks that need to take place. Always keep an eye on them.