Riding around with hazy, yellowed headlights doesn’t just make your bike look terrible – it is actually dangerous! But you don’t need to replace your headlights, because restoring them to crystal clear perfection is easier than you think. We show you how in this quick guide.
As motorcycles age and rack up miles, they tend to experience a problem very common to four-wheeled vehicles on the road, and that’s cloudy, hazy, yellowed headlights. It looks horrible, because no matter how clean you get your bike, the hazy discoloration will really show your bike’s age and make it look dirty. But it’s not just a cosmetic annoyance, it’s an actual safety hazard, as that haze can dramatically cut down your night time visibility (and we all know how important it is to be able to see on your bike!)
Cloudy or yellowed headlights affect almost every vehicle eventually, and it can be a frustrating problem – but luckily, the solutions to it are actually fairly easy, and can be accomplished by anyone in less than an hour! In this article, we’ll explain why headlights end up looking that way, then explain a few methods to correct it – and you’ll be surprised how easy all of them really are.
Why Do My Headlights Look Like Crap?
Headlights can become hazy or cloudy in two ways – on the outside, and on the inside. The way you treat lens cloudiness is completely different depending on which side of the lens it’s on, so this should be determined first.
Cloudiness On The OUTSIDE Of The Lens
Back in the day, headlights used to be made of glass, which was durable, but difficult to manufacture and more dangerous to the rider in a crash. Modern headlights are made of a clear, durable plastic called polycarbonate, which is less prone to shattering, but is also softer and easier to scratch, and also tends to turn yellow from exposure to the sun’s UV rays.
To prevent this, headlights have hard, UV-resistant protective coatings on them to protect the surface. But as headlights get beaten on by the elements, dirt, debris, the sun’s UV rays, water spotting, chemicals and improper washing, the coating wears away, exposing the softer polycarbonate underneath – at that point, even simply washing them improperly will cause the hazing to get even worse.
This side by side photo shows the effects of years of damage of the elements, then the dramatic improvement after doing a simple restoration process. This is an auto headlight, but the principles are the same on motorcycles.
When the outside of your lens is cloudy (which you can detect by touching it and feeling a rough, pitted, or dry-feeling surface) you will need to put some elbow grease into resurfacing and polishing the surface. The good news is, it’s fairly easy to do, and you don’t have to remove any parts.
How To Clean It
Because in this case we know we’re dealing with a worn, scratched, pitted surface, some resurfacing is actually going to be necessary when fixing cloudiness on the outside of the lens.
In this case, what you’re going to be doing is literally sanding away a thin layer of polycarbonate, where the damage exists, and then polishing the new, undamaged surface to a shine. This is not at all unlike the process of sanding and buffing worn, dull auto paint.
In doing this, you have a few routes you can take – the “official” way, and of course, a couple of “life-hack” methods that you may find work just as well.
A Pre-Prepared Headlight Restoration Kit
Headlight restoration kits are the easiest way to go, because they contain everything you’ll need, along with instructions on how to use it. There are several kits available that you can get at any auto parts or big box store, but the most popular is the 3M Headlight Restoration Kit, which contains sandpaper in multiple grits to work your way through on the surface, along with a buffing wheel and polishing compound. All you’ll need is a drill to attach the supplied head to, and you’re in business.
The 3M Headlight Restoration Kit is probably the most popular kit on the market, and will work just as well on motorcycles as it does on cars.
When doing this, you’ll first want to put some blue painters tape around the headlight lens to protect any trim pieces around it (you may want to do a couple layers, since you will be sanding the surface, and the lower grits are fairly aggressive.)
All you’ll be doing is wet-sanding the surface, working your way from lowest to highest grit, then buffing and polishing the surface to work away any swirls and scratches and bring it to a high, clear shine. Once finished, apply a coat of UV protectant to the surface, such as Meguiar’s Headlight Protectant – remember, the surface of your headlight is now ONLY soft polycarbonate without the factory coating, so you’ll have to take this step to prevent the problem from repeating.
A DIY Headlight Restoration Kit
While a kit can’t be beat for convenience, the process of restoring your headlights is simply one of wetsanding, buffing, polishing, and protecting – just like you would do with a painted surface. That means, if you know what to look for, you can piece together your own kit too.
To do this, you’ll simply need some automotive sandpaper (1000, 1500, and 2000 grit is plenty, but you might even be able to get away with just using 1000 grit), polishing compound, and some soft cloths to apply it. Soak the sandpaper and spray the surface with water, sanding it evenly back and forth (do not use a circular motion.) When done, dry it, and apply the polishing compound with a soft cloth until it becomes shiny. This will require some elbow grease, but it will come to a shine pretty quickly. Once that’s done, remember to apply a coat of UV protectant to prevent the surface of yellowing again.
The Ghetto Version – Raiding the Bathroom
Before you even take a trip to the auto parts store at all, if you really want to do this on a budget, you can try this life hack – buffing your headlights with toothpaste. That’s right, toothpaste is actually a good substitute for rubbing compound because it has mild abrasives in it, and it has many uses, including restoring polycarbonate headlight lenses to a shine.
To do this, simply treat the toothpaste as if it were rubbing compound, and apply it to a soft cloth and start rubbing away. It will take some elbow grease, but if your surface is not too damaged, it may do the trick!
Cloudiness On The INSIDE Of The Lens
The inside of your lens isn’t exposed to the elements, so it doesn’t have a bunch of environmental factors beating away the surface. But it still does become hazy – this is actually from gas residues that accumulate on the inside of the surface. The good news? They are quite easy to remove. The bad news is that you’ll have to remove the headlight body and do some poking around to access the inside of the lens.
How To Clean The Inside of Your Headlights
Because you’re only cleaning a residue, the process of cleaning the inside of headlight lenses is surprisingly easy – the hard part is accessing them! Before you can even get started, you’ll have to remove your headlight bodies from the bike, which is by far the most time consuming part of the job (consult your owners manual for this, because it varies by bike.)
Once you have the headlights removed from the bike, and the bulbs are pulled out, all you need to do is pour some denatured alcohol into the headlight body, and rinse it around. The alcohol will dissolve and rinse away the residue (you may need to do this several times.)
If it is still cloudy, you may need to do a little rubbing – to do this, make a swab out of a bit of terry cloth wrapped around the end of a chopstick (or something similar) with a rubberband. Stick your swab into the body of the headlamp and use it to rub around the inside surface until it’s clear.
This photo from a how-to by user GaoZiNuo on Imgur shows the dramatic result of defogging using the “chopstick method” on a Ducati 996.
Once that is done, you will need to dry the headlight completely before reinstalling it; the easiest way is with a blow dryer, though you can also simply let it sit in the sun (the denatured alcohol will evaporate and dry very quickly.)
Once done, simply reassemble your headlight and you’re good to go!
What tips or tricks do you have for restoring old headlights to a sparkling new shine?