Consumer Reports: Headlight Cleaners

January 31, 2012 4:29:51 AM PST
With the downturn of the economy, people are keeping their cars longer. That means more wear and tear, including --believe it or not -- on your headlights. They can cloud up over time, reducing visibility.

Headlight cleaners claim to help. Consumer Reports tested several to see if they can brighten the road ahead.

Whether you're driving in a daylight downpour or along a street at night, you rely on your headlights to get you down the road safely.

"Many headlights now have plastic headlights instead of glass, and the plastic is susceptible to discoloration and weathering, which affects how much light gets through," said Bernie Deitrick of Consumer Reports.

Headlight cleaners promise to fix this. Consumer Reports looked at four from 3M, Sylvania, Turtle Wax and Fast Brite, which is an infomercial product.

To test, Consumer Reports rounded up cars with cloudy headlight covers. Then testers got to work, literally.

"It's a lot more complicated than just wiping on a cleaner and then wiping it off," said Deitrick.

To start, you want to mask off the area around the headlights. Next you need to remove any remaining coating or oxidized plastic on the lenses. Depending on the product, this might involve sanding -- either by hand or with a drill.

You might even need to do some polishing and more sanding. And with some of the products, you'll need to apply a final sealant or top coat.

Testers measure the headlights' brightness before using each cleaner, then after. The brightness often doubled.

But there were tradeoffs with some of the cleaners. The $17 Fast Brite was the easiest and fastest to use, but it left headlights noticeably less clear, and its sealant wore off.

The Turtle Wax's Headlight Restorer left headlights clearer, but its sealant also wore off.

The best overall cleaner? The Headlight Restoration Kit from Sylvania. It works well on all types of headlight lenses.

A caution from Consumer Reports: Headlight cleaners are abrasive and can damage lenses. First, try using a glass cleaner; that may be all you need. But if that doesn't work, then it's time to consider a headlight cleaner.