Bug spray

This is why you might not need to use bug spray to clean your lights.

I realize this is nothing new, but thanks to the cyclical nature of things on the internet, sites like TikTok introduced something big about five years ago: using bug spray to clean up old cloudy headlights. The results look pretty dramatic, and it’s hard not to want to try it, so I did – but there’s a pretty big caveat.

OK, first you know I’m not lying to you that it’s a current thing on electric motion picture networks, here’s a video from May pulling together a bunch of TikTok trends, and the headlight / bug spray stuff is there:

Now my wife saw some of these videos and was very curious; she showed it to me, and I was too, so we impetuously thought we would give it a try. I mean, the videos make it seem like it sounds pretty convincing, and somehow none of us have come across these videos in the past.

The videos are convincing:

So, I jumped on the hype on the internet, we tried it out on his Tiguan and got really good results. Its lights weren’t too bad before, but a quick application of bug spray really made them crystal clear:

Image: Jason Torchinsky

It was fun, and we did it with some excitement, so I didn’t really stop to think Why it worked so quickly and so efficiently. In fact, I was so taken with the reaction, I thought I would try a little test on my Pao’s plastic tail light lenses, which were a bit cloudy due to age. I first tried the transparent inverted lamp and was impressed with the result:

Image: Jason Torchinsky

Hey, check this out! The lens is much clearer, less yellowed and overall more beautiful! A victory, right?

Well, not so fast.

True to my lifelong idiot brand, I decided to see what was really going on after I sprayed the stuff on my lights, and the results confirmed something bubbling up in the back of my brain: the plastic is melting, a tiny bit.

The reason it seems to work so well is that the insect repellents that do it contain a chemical called DEET, also called NOT,NOT-Diethyl-meta-toluamide when he’s in real trouble with his mom.

DEET appears to do an effective job of “Masking” odorants produced by humans so that insects cannot detect them as effectively. It is also a very good solvent and can soften hard plastics, which we see with lights.

When you spray DEET on a rag and wipe it on your lights, it effectively removes an outer layer of plastic. This removes a lot of dirt and oxidized material, but can leave the plastic sticky and malleable, and it will likely reoxidize and cloud again.

In the case of the Tiguan lights, we seemed to be lucky because they still look pretty good. My taillights, probably because they are an older, possibly more porous type of plastic, didn’t perform as well and had this side effect about an hour after applying DEET:

Image: Jason Torchinsky

See all that white bullshit in there? After sitting in the air and the humidity, the lights started forming this white layer of, dunno, crystallized bits of my own idiocy? It could be scratched or wiped off, but after cleaning them, it reappeared.

Why am I so stupid? Did I screw up my taillights in a futile attempt to get them back to their youthful glow? Does that pride hit me where it knows it’ll hurt the most, right in the taillights?

May be. I learned a hard lesson here, and one that I would like to pass on to you: while the bug spray trick can be effective for the hard plastics of modern headlights, if done carefully (do not spray directly on light, use a rag, be careful not to get any on the paint, test an area to make sure it doesn’t make the plastic too sticky, etc.) I would like not do it on older taillight plastics, lest you end up in my dumb shoes.

All is not lost, however; if you did this like i did i am happy to say i found a solution.

Since it looks like the problem is with DEET breaking down a thin outer layer of plastic that reacts with air to form this white crap, I thought maybe some sort of barrier could help.

I took some orange oil cleanser and sprayed it on the lights, letting the orange oil drip into the plastic, and it seems to have done the trick; the lights remained bright, free of anything white, and as an added bonus now smells of Jolly Ranchers orange.

Image: Jason Torchinsky

So this is it. Don’t believe everything you see on the internet, of course, and in this case, well, maybe you can believe part of it: the bug spray. Is make the lights bright again, at the expense of a layer of plastic. Some lights may be suitable for this treatment, at least temporarily, some may do what mine did.

And, if you screwed up, try orange oil.

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