Headlight Cleaning: The Ultimate Checklist For Pros

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Your car is your calling card. It’s the first thing that people see when you’re driving around town, so you want it to look amazing. But keeping your car looking like new isn’t always easy if you aren’t a car person with endless knowledge about them. There are lots of different parts to your car, all of them needing specialized cleaning treatment, including your headlights.

The most common problem when it comes to headlights is oxidation. Because headlights are usually made from plastic, UV light, chemicals in the atmosphere and road debris cause them to become oxidised. This is what makes your headlights turn cloudy or yellowed. And it doesn’t matter how well you care for your car because all headlights will become oxidized over time. This can make your car look uncared for, impair your vision at night, and lower the value of your car as well.

Replacing headlights can be expensive and the truth is that it’s unnecessary most of the time. With a little know-how and effort, you can return your headlights to their show room condition without spending hundreds on new ones. If you’ve been thinking about replacing your headlights but don’t want the expense, this guide will give you a variety of techniques to clean your headlights no matter how cloudy or old they look. And some of them don’t cost much more than the price for a tube of toothpaste, which will make your wallet happy as well. So, here’s what you need to know. 

Contents: 

Why Should you Clean your Headlights? 

Have you ever really had a look at the front of your car? Your headlights look a little bit like eyes, don’t they? In fact, if you think of them this way, then you might understand why you need to keep them clean. If your headlights are dirty or cracked, it will make your car look like no one has cared for it for a long time. It will reflect on your attention to detail. And that’s the last thing you want when you’re building a business or representing a personal or business brand. 

But there are other reasons to clean your headlights too, more serious ones. Your headlights are the light you see to drive by at night. They’re also a warning to other drivers that you’re there. But if your headlights are dirty, it can cause serious, if not life-threatening problems such as: 

  • It will reduce your ability to see obstacles and other drivers. 
  • It will increase the variability of the amount of light that oncoming drivers see. 
  • The uneven light from dirty headlights can cause eye strain. 
  • Dirty headlights can actually make your car unroadworthy! 

All these issues are serious threats to your health and safety. Obviously, when you drive at night it’s important that you can see as well as possible. You need to be able to see if a biker in dark clothes is turning into the street, and you also need to see when a cat is about to run over the road. If the light from your headlights is disrupted by dirt or grime, it’s all too easy for you to miss these hazards. 

If your headlights are dirty, it will also change the distribution of light from your headlights, which could create a problem for other drivers. Dirt and other grime can obscure the light in some places and increase its intensity in others or change the angle of the light. This can cause discomfort to oncoming drivers and even lead to them becoming blinded by the glare. And this is a problem because it’s estimated that headlight glare is at least partially responsible for around 1 percent of vehicle accidents.  That’s why keeping your headlights clean is so important. 

How to Start Out: Buying What you Need

Before you start out, you need to decide how you’re going to clean your headlights and gather your supplies. Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding what to buy: 

What’s the best way to clean headlights? 

Well, that depends on what state your headlights are actually in. If you clean your car regularly and they’re not too bad, then usually toothpaste and other environmentally friendly options will be enough. But if you’ve neglected your car for a long time, go the heavy-duty route and buy a restoration kit.

How do I know if my headlights need the heavy-duty cleaning option?

If they’re yellowed, really cloudy and old, then you’ll probably need a headlight restoration kit. 

What if I’m concerned about the chemicals and want to try an environmentally friendly option?

If that’s the case, then you can create your own restoration kit using toothpaste, baking soda, and other environmentally friendly, safe options.

What’s the best sandpaper grit to buy? 

You need a few different grades of sandpaper if you decide to make your own headlight cleaning kit. Try starting with 400, 600 and 2000 grit sandpaper and remember that the lower the number, the more abrasive it will be.

What to use for cleaning headlights?

If you’re making your own kit then you’ll need painter’s tape, polishing compounds, a UV sealant, different sandpaper grits, paste wax and some microfiber cloths. If your headlights aren’t that bad, toothpaste or baking soda work well to clean headlights too! 

How to Clean Mud, Bugs and Dirt

If it’s been a while since you’ve cleaned your headlights, or you’ve been off-roading since the last time, cleaning your headlights might be as simple as washing them. Make sure you do this before trying any harsher headlight cleaning techniques. Here’s how: 

  1. Soak the headlights with a hose. 
  2. Keep rinsing until most of the mud is gone as this will prevent the mud from scratching the headlights when you use the sponge.  
  3. Add car wash to the sponge. 
  4. Lightly sponge the headlights in one direction to prevent scratches. 
  5. Rinse and repeat if necessary. 

How to Clean Surface Dirt with Vinegar

Vinegar is a safe substance that removes streaks and grease on glass. There are a few different ways that you can use this liquid, with the first being as a spray to wipe away dirt and dust. It works best on headlights that have surface grime only. Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Fill a spray bottle with one cup of white, distilled vinegar and three cups of water. 
  2. Shake the bottle to mix well. 
  3. Spray the mix all over the headlight. 
  4. Leave it to sit for 2 minutes to loosen any dried dirt. 
  5. Wipe away the dirt using a microfiber cloth. Use broad circular strokes to reduce streaking. 
  6. If there are any stubborn stains, you can spray the area again and scrub with the cloth. 

How can I Clean Headlights with Toothpaste?

Another household substance that’s good for removing dirt, grime and oxidation from headlights is toothpaste. This might sound silly, but toothpaste contains a mild abrasive that cleans the enamel from the toughest substance in your body – your teeth. So, it will certain work on a piece of plastic. 

An added benefit of this is the fact that everyone has some at home, so you don’t have to run to the store if you need to clean up your car in a hurry. Just don’t use toothpaste if you have glass headlights, as this is the mildest abrasive cleaner in this list, and it isn’t abrasive enough to remove the dirt on glass. Here’s how to turn your mouth cleaner into a car cleaner: 

  1. Squeeze a small amount of ordinary toothpaste onto an old cloth. 
  2. Scrub the headlights slowly and in a circular pattern. 
  3. Make sure you avoid the paint or any other surfaces other than the lights. 
  4. Rinse with water until all the residue is gone. 
  5. Wipe dry with a paper towel and repeat if necessary. 

Removing Dirt and Oxidation with Baking Soda and Vinegar

Another effective way to remove dirt and oxidation from headlights is by using a mixture of baking soda and vinegar. This mixture is also good for headlights that look yellowish or appear foggy even after the surface has been cleaned. Here’s how to use this foamy mix: 

  1. In a measuring bowl mix two tablespoons of baking soda with four tablespoons of vinegar. 
  2. Watch as the mixture starts to foam. 
  3. Using a clean cloth, rub the mixture over your headlights using small circles. 
  4. Make sure you cover the whole headlight. 
  5. Fill a spray bottle with clean water and use it to rinse off the headlight. 
  6. Keep rinsing until the white haze is gone, which means the baking soda has been removed. 
  7. If there is any white haze remaining, dip a sponge in clean water and use it to scrub away the residue. 
  8. Dry the headlights with a clean cloth. 
  9. Repeat if necessary. 

How to Clean your Headlights with Glass Cleaner and Polish

You can also use household cleaning products to clean oxidated headlights. Here’s what you’ll need: 

  • Glass cleaner. 
  • Painter’s tape. 
  • Plastic gloves. 
  • A soft cloth. 
  • Water. 
  1. Stretch the tape on the pain around the headlights. This will keep the paint safe. 
  2. Put on your gloves. 
  3. Spray the glass cleaner over the headlights. 
  4. Wipe with a soft cloth. 

The Absolute Best Way to Clean Stubborn Stains and Fogginess

If using vinegar doesn’t work, then you can take it one step further. Here’s what you’ll need to get your old headlights looking new again: 

  • Rubbing alcohol. 
  • Paper towels. 
  • A spray bottle full of water. 
  • Painter’s tape. 
  • Garbage bags. 
  • A pair of scissors. 
  • Three strips of sandpaper: 400, 600 and 2000 grit. 
  • Clear coat. 
  • Car wax. 
  1. Carefully put tape all around the headlights to protect the paint. Do not put tape on any part of the headlights. 
  2. Spray water liberally on the headlight and on the 400-grit sandpaper.  
  3. Brush the sandpaper over the headlights in circles. Do this gently. The water should protect the headlight from scratches but be careful anyway. 
  4. Use the same sandpaper and rub horizontally. 
  5. Repeat the exact same process with first the 600-grit sandpaper and then the 2000.  
  6. Dip a paper towel in the rubbing alcohol and wipe the lights. 
  7. Cover the front of the car with garbage bags, securing with tape if necessary. 
  8. Cut around the headlights with the scissors and use the tape to secure the bags around the headlights. 
  9. Wipe the lights again with a paper towel dipped in rubbing alcohol and leave for 5 minutes to make sure they’re dry.
  10. Use horizontal, even sweeps of your arm to apply one layer of clear coat. 
  11. Leave to dry for five minutes before applying a second coat. 
  12. After another five minutes of drying, apply a third coat. 
  13. Leave the headlights to dry for a full day and night. 
  14. If the headlights look bumpy, wet a piece of 2000 grit sandpaper and rub gently in circles to smooth it out. 
  15. Use a clean cloth and apply car wax. 
  16. Buff the headlights until the wax vanishes. 
  17. Remove the garbage bags.

How to Protect your Headlights with Vinegar Wax

Once your headlights are clean you want to keep them that way. And the best way to do that is by applying a wax that will prevent any grime from building up. You can buy car wax at any car store, but you can also make a simple and environmentally friendly wax at home using vinegar. Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Boil water in a saucepan. 
  2. Put a metal bowl or second saucepan over the top of the boiling water. 
  3. Add two tablespoons of beeswax, four tablespoons of carnauba wax, one cup of linseed oil and half a cup of apple cider vinegar to the metal bowl or saucepan at the top. 
  4. Stir the mix until the waxes have melted, leaving a pinkish liquid behind. 
  5. Pour the mixture into a heatproof, clean container that has a lid and leave it to cool until it’s solid. 
  6. When the wax is cool, you can use it on your headlights. 
  7. To use the wax, scoop up a small amount with a clean cloth and work it over the headlights using circular motions. 
  8. Once the headlight is covered, get another clean cloth. 
  9. Rub the wax off the headlight with the cloth. It should look clean and clear when you’re done with no cloudiness. 
  10. If there’s any wax left, seal it and store it someplace cool for next time. 
  11. You should wax your headlights every three months for best results. 

What About the Inside of the Headlights?

Oxidation and cloudiness are usually limited to the outside of your headlights. After all, this is the part of the plastic that’s most exposed to the environment. But if you do have damage on the inside surface of the headlights, it means that moisture has seeped inside. And unfortunately, this usually means that you will have to get your headlights replaced. It’s important that you don’t put this off either, because if there’s water inside the headlights it can wreak havoc with the electrical systems that run through there. And if the electrical systems get damaged by the water, it’ll be a much bigger job to fix it! 

What about Headlight Restoration Kits? 

Fixing oxidation isn’t as hard as you might think. If you can do the dishes, you can probably restore your headlights with a restoration kit too. This will save you money and it will also allow you to improve the appearance of your car in an hour or so on the weekend! 

The best headlight restoration kits are significantly cheaper than buying new headlights. In fact, they’re usually hundreds of dollars less. These kits contain everything you need to make your headlights look like new again no matter how yellowed or foggy they are. They also contain compounds that will remove scratches or cloudiness. Every kit is a little different and this is reflected in the price. The cheaper headlight restoration kits have fewer the tools inside them and they also don’t work as well as the more expensive kits. As with most things, you get what you pay for. If you do decide to go this route and buy a kit, make sure that you get a kit that will actually work. Here’s a general guide to using them: 

  1. Wet the headlights. 
  2. Wash them by hand with a general, all purpose car cleaner. 
  3. Dry the headlights and ensure that all the product has been rinsed away. 
  4. Wet sand the headlights with the products from the restoration kits, from lowest grit to highest. 
  5. Use the supplied polisher to remove any fine scratches left behind. 
  6. Buff the headlights with the buffing pad. 
  7. Dry and clean any residue on the headlights. 
  8. Apply a new layer of sealant. 
  9. Leave to dry. 

How Often Should You Clean Your Headlights? 

Well, how often do you clean your windshield? Chances are that you check it out and give it a scrub every time you fill up your car. And you need to start doing the same with your headlights. If you sponge off your headlights every time you fill the fuel tank, they will stay cleaner over the long term, and you won’t have to keep using these tips to remove old dirt and grime. In fact, if you wash them on a regular basis, you should only have to use these tips as the headlights age and then only once every 3 to 6 months, just to keep them in the best condition possible. 

Using these tips and ideas, you’ll be able to clean your headlights and return them to their pristine, show room condition. And this will help ensure that you make the best impression possible as you go about your daily life. 

Have you tried any of these tips? Did they work? Let us know in the comments. And if you have any other tips for cleaning stubborn headlights, then share them with us! 

Kenzie Clean

Kenzie Clean

Dubai's Industry Leader in Automotive Washing and Detailing Solutions.