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How To Clean Your Headlights

By Melissa Spicer | October 7, 2021

Clean headlights make your car look cleaner, but that’s not all. They also keep you safer on the roadway by allowing you to see more clearly and others to see you better. Grime, salt, sand, soil, gravel and dirt all take a toll on the clarity of your headlights, not to mention UV rays—one of headlight’s most ruthless natural enemies.

Keeping your headlights clean is a dirty job, but fortunately, one that you can easily DIY at home using things you probably already have in your kitchen garage or garage shelf (or in the automotive section of your big box retailer or choice).

This primer on cleaning your car’s headlights offers several suggestions that can help the process go more smoothly and efficiently.

The Toothpaste Method

Toothpaste can be an effective medium for cleaning headlights. It has mild abrasives that help to slough away built-up residue.

To use toothpaste to clean your headlights:

  • Wash your headlights as you normally would, and then allow them to dry.
  • Mask around the headlights with masking tape to protect your car's paint job.
  • Add toothpaste in dabs across the whole headlight, rubbing it in firmly. You may want to wear disposable gloves at this point. Rub each headlight for around five minutes.
  • Use clean water to rinse the toothpaste from the headlights.
  • Allow the headlights to air dry.
  • Buff each headlight using a clean cloth.
  • Add car wax to the headlights if desired to prevent debris buildup.

The Vinegar and Baking Soda Method

You may already know about baking soda combined with vinegar as an all-purpose cleaning solution. It works for headlights too.

To use this method:

  • Clean headlights as you normally do with soap or dish soap and water.
  • Give the headlights time to air dry.
  • Mix one part of baking soda and two parts of distilled white vinegar in a container. Combine the mixture by shaking or stirring.
  • Dip a microfiber cloth into the baking soda mixture, and rub the mixture on the headlights, taking a couple of minutes to rub each headlight. Add more cleaner as needed to achieve the desired level of clean.
  • Using clean water, rinse the mixture from the headlights.

The Car Polish and Window Cleaner Method

Another simple method of keeping your headlights clean is one as old as Windex itself. This method involves masking the headlights to protect your paint job, and then generously squirting window cleaner on the headlights, allowing it to remain and soak on the headlight for a few minutes. Use a microfiber cloth to help the product do its work.

Once you’ve cleaned the headlights with the window cleaner, use a separate clean, dry cloth to apply car wax to the headlight’s surface, working in a circular motion. Rinse any extra wax, and then dry the headlights using a microfiber towel.

Are Your Headlights Truly Dirty (Or Are They Cloudy?)

If you’ve followed the cleaning tips and solutions above and your headlights still seem to be less than clean, chances are good that your headlights are not dirty at all—they’re cloudy. You can clean foggy headlights all day long, but nothing much will change.

Unlike the glass headlights of yesteryear that could be readily cleaned just like you would a window or a mirror, today’s headlights are made from polycarbonate plastic. And beyond their construction with plastic, they are further coated with a UV protectant which serves to keep the plastic from drying out or deteriorating.

As time passes, this UV protective shield on a car’s plastic headlights gets brittle, oxidation occurs, and makes the headlights take on a cloudy look, almost like a translucent or opaque presentation. This, in turn, gives you the impression that your headlights are not clean—and they certainly perform like they’re dirty, putting out less light and leaving you less visible on the roadway.

Is all lost when your headlights reach this condition? Certainly not. To make your headlights shine like new diamonds again, you just to use a little elbow grease to remove that ugly, cloudy, yellowish UV protectant that may have even started to fleck off.

To remedy the situation, you need:

  • Sandpaper in three different grits (320 to 800, 100 to 1500 and 2500 to 3000)
  • A dish sponge or padded sanding block
  • Orbital sander
  • Headlight polish
  • Clear coat/UV protectant for headlights
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Bucket of water
  • Painter’s tape
  • Soft cloth

Don’t want to track down all these items? Take the fast route by heading to the auto parts store and picking up a headlight restoration kit.

Once you have your supplies ready, getting the gunk off your headlights requires you to:

  • Use the painter’s tape to tape around the headlights. This preserves your paint job.
  • Using a left-to-right motion, sand the headlights. Start with the lowest grit possible, working your way up with a steady motion and even pressure. Don’t worry when you notice that your headlights become even uglier and cloudier. That’s supposed to happen as the UV layer is roughed off.
  • Use the water to rinse the headlight. Wipe with a soft cloth, removing any debris.
  • Use the 1000 to 1500 grit paper that’s rated for damp sanding. Add some water to the sandpaper, and sand the headlight once more time, using an up-and-down stroke. This is the opposite direction as the first step and serves to sand down ridges created on the first pass. Rinse with the water. Wipe the headlights down again with the soft cloth.
  • Use the 2500 to 3000 grit sandpaper to give the headlights a final once-over. Use a little bit of water on the sandpaper, and work in a left-to-right motion, removing any remaining cloudiness. Rinse again with water, wipe again with the cloth.
  • Using an orbital palm sander (equipped with a clean microfiber pad), add buffing/polishing compound to the pad, and then polish the headlights. You will notice them begin to take on a clear appearance again.
  • Use alcohol to wipe down the headlights.
  • Apply the UV protectant/sealant based on the package instructions to the headlamps. It is typically packaged in a spray bottle and a cinch to apply
    Admire your handiwork. You just made those hazy headlights look like new.

The Bottom Line

You can keep your headlights looking good longer (and stave off the cloudy, hazy deterioration caused by UV light) by parking your vehicle out of direct sunlight when possible or buying a protective cover for your car and/or headlight covers for your headlights.

As you can see, cleaning your headlights, while not the most entertaining way to spend a bit of time on your Saturday morning, is a fast, easy and worthwhile endeavor to prevent headlight deterioration and replenish cloudy headlights.