How to Clean Car Headlights: 3 Best Methods

By: // Updated: August 29, 2020

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Driving in the middle of the night may come with hazards of its own, but if you have full visibility of the road ahead of you, there’s nothing to fear. If you’re committed to chasing late-night driving city, knowing how to clean car headlights is a crucial part of heightening your safety.

Your headlights are quite literally your guiding light whenever you’re driving in the dark. Keeping them at peak performance will ensure your view is never obstructed in the slightest.

In this article, we’ll explain a handful of reasons why cleaning your headlights is a necessity. In addition, we’ll walk you through effective methods to do so.

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Why Do I Need to Clean Car Headlights?

Closeup of headlight on an orange luxury car

As with the rest of your car exterior, your car headlights are constantly exposed to potentially harmful elements like UV rays, rain, road debris, and salt. Over time, the visibility of your headlights will begin to decline, which will reduce your safety and your passengers’ safety at night.

When it seems like your headlight bulbs aren’t shining as bright as usual, it’s typically due common issues with your actual car headlights, such as:

  • Yellowing: Your headlights can naturally age as they become affected by oxidization, UV rays, and other pollutants. Without proper and routine cleaning, this leads to noticeable yellowing. General dirt and grime can also contribute to your headlights turning yellow.
  • Scratches: No matter where you’re driving, your car exterior may be faced with some abrasive road debris that’s hard to avoid. As the damage adds up, the scratches may prevent your car headlights from being as clear as usual.
  • Fogging: Much like yellowing, cloudy or foggy headlights can be caused by oxidization and UV rays. It is also be caused by moisture seeping into your headlight covers, if the waterproof seal around them breaks down as your car ages.

Fixing these issues proactively will also ensure that you always pass the headlights check on your 19-point vehicle inspection, which is required annually for all rideshare drivers.

How to Clean Car Headlights: 3 Best Methods

Light blue BMW parked outside

Achieving clean headlights can easily be done at home, no matter your skill level in the realm of car care. With many DIY headlight cleaning methods out there, you can choose the best one for your situation without spending extra for a professional’s time.

In this section, we’ll describe how to clean car headlights with three different methods, whether they’re yellowed, scratched, or cloudy headlights.

1. Use a Headlight Restoration Kit

One of the easiest and most straightforward methods of cleaning headlights is using a kit dedicated to the job. Products like this headlight restoration kit are highly effective, with polish formulated specifically to tackle common car headlight issues. Cleaning kits also offer clear directions for cleaning stains and buffing out any imperfections.

Purchasing these kits ensures everything you need is supplied within a single box, minus basic car maintenance needs, like microfiber cloths. Some products may additionally require power tools for buffing, but many brands also offer kits that use manual sanding processes.

While headlight restoration kits typically lasts for a large amount of uses, it should still be noted that this method runs on the expensive side. On average, cleaning kits cost between $10 and $25, and included items are not multi-functional, so the investment will solely be for the purpose of cleaning headlights.

Still, we highly recommend headlight restoration kits for car headlights with extensive damage, as the best products can easily eliminate yellowing and leave you with a smooth surface. Many kits provide professional-grade polishes that leave behind a protective film for longer-lasting visibility.

2. Use Toothpaste

How to clean car headlights: Use toothpaste and a toothbrush

If you’re a driver who prefers effective home remedies to expensive kits and professional help, the toothpaste method may be your answer. Toothpaste can clean car headlights just as effectively as it can clean your teeth, thanks to its stain-fighting formula.

All you need is a few microfiber cloths, water, and a tube of toothpaste. Make sure your toothpaste is plain, rather than gel, with no abrasive additives (like crystals) that may scratch your car headlight lenses. Toothpaste with baking soda, like this non-abrasive Arm & Hammer product, can prove more effective, since baking soda is known to be an effective cleaning agent.

Then, follow these simple steps to achieve a solid clean:

  1. Squeeze a small amount of toothpaste — about a quarter-sized drop — onto a clean microfiber cloth.
  2. Apply the toothpaste onto your first headlight by rubbing it on in circular motions to loosen up any dirt and grime.
  3. Repeat Steps 1 and 2, applying the toothpaste on your second headlight this time.
  4. Dampen a clean cloth, wringing out excess water, and gently scrub your headlights. Repeat as necessary until your headlights are clean.
  5. Using a dry and clean microfiber cloth, wipe down your car headlights fully.

It should be noted that, while using toothpaste can fully clear up your headlights, this method is the least effective in the long run. This is because it doesn’t offer any extra protection from the elements and doesn’t rid your car of any scratches. For more stubborn yellowing or physical damage, consider one of the other methods.

Regardless, knowing how to clean car headlights with toothpaste can save you time and money when you’re in need of an immediate and cost-effective method, or if the issue is minimal.

3. Sand and Polish

How to clean car headlights: Closeup of headlight on black car

If you’re willing to spend a little extra time to do a thorough cleaning, wet sanding your car headlights is an effective method that won’t cost you as much as a headlight restoration kit. To start this process, all you need is:

  • Painter’s tape
  • 400-grit sandpaper
  • 600-grit sandpaper
  • 2,000-grit sandpaper
  • A spray bottle filled with water
  • Paper towels
  • Rubbing alcohol

Then, follow these steps to complete the wet sanding process, which will remove the oxidized layer of your car headlight surface:

  1. Use your painter’s tape to tape around the perimeters of your headlights. This will protect your car’s paint from getting damaged throughout this process.
  2. Fully wet your headlight lenses and 400-grit sandpaper, then very lightly sand down your lenses in circular motions. As you do so, continue spraying water to keep all surfaces wet.
  3. Wet your 600-grit sandpaper and sand again with a tiny amount of added pressure, continuing to spray all surfaces.
  4. Wet your 2,000-grit sandpaper and lightly sand the surface, again continuing to spray all surfaces.
  5. Apply rubbing alcohol to your paper towels and wipe down each lens to remove any remaining debris.

Then, wax your headlights with a thin layer of carnauba wax — the same paste wax you use for your car body is fine — to polish your headlights. This will help you achieve an evenly clear and smooth surface. Many drivers additionally choose to spray on a clear coat of UV-resistant spray to further protect their car headlights.

Frequently Asked Questions

Black car driving on foggy road

Once you know how to clean car headlights in three different ways, you’ll be able to clear up your view of the road whenever necessary. Here are some frequently asked questions that you may want to consider as you maintain your vehicle:

1. How can I prevent my headlights from turning yellow?

Routine car headlight cleaning is the best way to prevent yellowing. You can also make a habit out of car washing, which helps you remove buildup and abrasive materials. Avoiding direct sunlight or using car covers can be especially effective for protecting plastic headlights, and will provide the additional benefit of preserving your car’s paint job.

2. What products can I use to add extra protection, if I’m using the toothpaste method?

While toothpaste in itself will not offer any protective qualities, many drivers will add on a clear coat of protective spray, like this trusted Meguiar’s product. This spray will act as a basic shield against UV rays, which are the primary culprits behind unclear headlight lenses.

3. If condensation is getting into my car headlight cover, how do I reseal it?

Over time, the waterproof seal surrounding your headlight cover may break down. If this occurs and you notice moisture seeping in and causing foggy headlights, you can use butyl rubber sealant like this headlight-specific product to ensure your headlight interior is protected once again. Make sure to follow the directions provided on your product’s box to apply as recommended.

Clear Views Ahead

Keeping your car headlights clean will keep you and your passengers safe, even when you’re driving in the darkness of the night. Understanding how to clean car headlights from home can help you save money and a trip to a professional whenever you notice your headlights dimming. With proper care, you’ll never have to worry about your car headlights failing to guide your way.

Another necessity in keeping your view of the road clear is a clean windshield. Read our guide to cleaning car windows to ensure you always have the best visibility, no matter the time of the day.

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