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What are the Different Types of Headlight?

Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer

Headlights are built into every car, truck, and other kind of vehicle on the road. What many people may not realize is that there are various headlight types available, and not just one single form of lamp that comes standard with each car. Headlight types include halogen and incandescent lights, xenon lights, fog lights, and pencil beams. No matter what type of headlight is being used, it provides the best kind of automotive night vision there is. If turned on as they should be when they should be, these lights allow you to see other vehicles, pedestrians and obstacles on the road whether it is dark or the weather is affecting visibility.

The most basic form of headlight is an incandescent light. This bulb has a filament like a regular light bulb. It is just built bigger than one you would fit into a lamp at home. Incandescent headlights have been used for more than 100 years and glow when heat is added to the tungsten filament. They are widely available for automotive use and can be replaced easily and relatively inexpensively.

Headlight types include incandescent and halogen bulbs.
Headlight types include incandescent and halogen bulbs.

Halogen lights also have a tungsten filament, but they are filled with halogen gas that causes the evaporated tungsten to condense back onto the filament. Therefore, the filament is not worn down as quickly and the bulb lasts longer. A xenon light operates in a similar way, but this gas also makes the light shine brighter, all from inside a sealed bulb where the light is ignited by an electrical charge. The glare can be quite intense if the bulb is not installed properly, but the higher light output and less drain on the vehicle's battery is appealing to many car owners.

Incandescent headlights have been used for more than 100 years.
Incandescent headlights have been used for more than 100 years.

A fog light is another form of headlight that focuses the light beam so it does not reflect off of fog as well as rain or snow, therefore improving the line of sight for drivers in inclement weather and reducing the risk of traffic accidents. In addition to standard driving lights, or high-beam lights that offer an adequate visibility range of 800 feet, there are also long-range, or pencil beam lights. These can illuminate a field of view up to 2,000 feet ahead of the vehicle. They are so bright that they are listed as illegal in some states. Regardless of the type of headlight, it must be adjusted at the correct angle so it doesn’t distract other drivers.

Discussion Comments


If you do get fingerprints on the bulb, I've read you can wipe them off with denatured alcohol.


@NathanG - I like the blue tint of the xenon headlights. They’re really striking out on the road, not to mention they just look cool too. They provide superior intensity and clarity in night driving too.

Some people have lights underneath their cars too, in the form of strips, although I guess technically these wouldn’t be called headlights.

The xenon lights can be pricey, although you can buy some aftermarket headlights if you’re looking for a discount. If you’re buying a new car you can request to have xenon lights installed too, although these are usually with the higher end models of whatever car you’re buying.


@nextcorrea - I understand what you’re saying about being blinded by some of those lights. I think that’s why some of the pencil beam lights are illegal in some states. The beams are just too strong.

Do you really need that much illumination for that much distance – even in the worst weather conditions? Worse, imagine what would happen if someone had such lights, and then decided to kick them into “high beam” (as if that was even necessary).

I think the fog lights make sense however. Where I live we get a lot of fog and mist and sometimes our regular headlights just aren’t up to snuff.


I've always thought it would be cool if everyone had colored headlights. I'm talking really aggressive colors like red, green and orange.

I can understand why they don't. It would be a huge distraction and the different colored lights probably don't illuminate the road as well as traditional white light.

But imagine what it would look like at night if everyone was projecting colored light everywhere. It would be surreal. Maybe if it can't happen in real life someone could film a movie and include this in one of the scenes.


One tip that a lot of people forget about when changing their headlight bulbs is to never touch the glass of the bulb with your bare fingers. In fact, I usually use a pair of latex gloves when I install them.

The reason you shouldn't touch the bulbs is that the oil from your fingers can get on the bulb and then become superheated when the bulb is turned on. The bulb can very easily burst and then you are missing a headlight and out 10 bucks.


It really annoys me when people use those super bright LED headlights. If a car has them that is approaching from the opposite direction you run the very real risk of being blinded. I have had a couple of close calls myself because of them.

I can understand why people buy them, I just don't know how they could feel so selfish that they think they need them. Sure it's great to be able to see everything on the road at night. But what if you end up blinding other drivers in the process? That would make me reconsider but I guess not everyone is as conscientious as me.

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    • Headlight types include incandescent and halogen bulbs.
      By: Željko Radojko
      Headlight types include incandescent and halogen bulbs.
    • Incandescent headlights have been used for more than 100 years.
      By: Douglas Tomko
      Incandescent headlights have been used for more than 100 years.
    • A headlight must be adjusted at the correct angle so it doesn’t distract other drivers.
      By: aigarsr
      A headlight must be adjusted at the correct angle so it doesn’t distract other drivers.