Car Wash & Auto Detailing

How to Clean Headlights: A DIY Guide

Are you looking for a DIY guide on how to clean headlights?

Look no further, Washos has compiled a step-by-step guide on how you can get those car headlights looking shiny new.Click To Tweet


How do you describe your headlights?

Are they foggy, dull, yellowed, or cloudy?

Over time, and less time than you might imagine, the plastic headlight covers on your car can, and will, become a cloudy, yellowed, or foggy mess. Unfortunately, this is all too common, or should we say inevitable.

I. Why You Should Restore Your Headlights

Not only does the lackluster appearance of your headlights downgrade the overall look of your vehicle, but more importantly, the condition of your headlights impacts your visibility while driving at night.

In a report to Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed a two-fold problem related to dirty or damaged headlights which includes producing a decreased level of light on the roadway and improperly diffusing needed light from the perspective of the driver, which reduces forward visibility. At the same time, these problem headlights project higher light levels toward oncoming vehicles which can momentarily impede the functional eyesight of an oncoming driver.

Know why it happens to understand how to fix it.

towel in bucket

The plastic used to cover of your headlights is a tempered form of polycarbonate plastic which, although extremely strong, is inherently porous. The manufacturer covers the plastic with a protective film to compensate for the porous nature of the plastic, however, due to conditions such as extended exposure to sunlight and UV rays, harsh chemicals, and built-up gunk and road spatter, the film begins to degrade and the plastic becomes oxidized.

The first step – Is this for you? The first thing that you should do is thoroughly wash your headlights with warm, soapy water and rinse. Afterwards, if you run your hand over the headlight and can feel grittiness and pock marks in the plastic, the following DIY tips to clean and restore your headlights are for you. If the plastic is smooth to the touch, the problem may be inside of the light and will need further inspection.

How to Clean Headlights

There are many methods out there touted as the best way to clean your headlights. Some work, some don’t. Some work for a few days.Some can cause permanent damage to the clear coat or the paint of your car.

Here’s a quick rundown of some common methods and our recommendations of the few that work best (read to the end because we save the best way to clean headlights for last!):

II. The Bug Spray Method

Washos does not highly recommend this method. The DEET in bug spray is noted to remove the oxidation of headlights. However, this is a quick and easy way to instantly improve the appearance of the plastic.

The DEET in the spray actually works because it tends to melt the film on the plastic, and can actually melt the outer layers of the plastic itself. While it produces results, they are temporary. The dull and cloudy appearance will return within a month, and begins within days.

Washos specifically recommends that the bug spray should be applied with a towel and never sprayed directly on the headlight.

Then rinse the bug spray residue from the clean headlight lens.

A word of caution: Even though the car headlight is rinsed, chemical residue can still run during wet weather and damage the clear coat, or paint, with which it comes in contact.

III. Baking soda and Vinegar Method

Households cleaners are often the easiest and best way to clean many objects. Some people tout the use of vinegar and baking soda, either alone or in combination, to clean headlights.

Using a microfiber cloth, or even a toothbrush, rub the vinegar, baking soda, or a combination of both into the headlight lens.

Then rinse and repeat as needed. A coat of waxing compound can be added after the plastic dries to polish the headlight (buff the wax from the lens as you would when waxing a car).

The naturally abrasive quality of baking soda can work to release grime and dirt, but this method may not be up to the challenge presented by severely oxidized plastic. You can try this low cost alternative and see how well it does, just know that any results will be temporary and that you will have to regularly perform this cleaning ritual to maintain the appearance of your headlights.

IV. Using Headlight Restoration Kits

There are many headlight cleaning and restoration kits on the market. Some are better than others.

We recommend reading reviews based on customer experiences to help you decide if this option is right for you. Washos does not recommend a specific brand since our technicians do it themselves.

These kits vary greatly in the compounds used and the methods they entail. Instructions for each product is included with the packaging, and range from applying a compound and buffing the residue (similar to waxing) to using abrasive methods in addition to compounds for a more detailed result.

V. The Toothpaste Method

Learn how to clean headlights using toothpaste for a reliably easy way to clean and defog headlights inexpensively. A trip to the dollar store for a tube of toothpaste can bring remarkable results.

It is noted that you should use regular toothpaste, not a gel. Better results can be had with toothpaste containing baking soda, or you can add baking soda to the toothpaste you buy, as it will add a desired abrasive element to the toothpaste.

After cleaning the headlight, apply toothpaste to the plastic with your fingertips. Apply a good, solid coat.

Using a toothbrush, begin with small circles and brush the toothpaste into the plastic to remove grit and grime from all crevices. This will take approximately 5-10 minutes of work.

Then using warm water, remove all residue of the toothpaste from the plastic. You can repeat these steps as necessary to improve the quality of the outcome.

Once you are satisfied that the plastic is as clean as possible and the plastic is fully dry, add a coat of paste wax to the plastic. Let it dry and then buff it out. The results of this method will last longer than most others but this not a permanent solution.

VI. Wet Sanding Method

The wet sanding method produces the best results of any other process and is, for all intents and purposes, a permanent remedy. Note, however, that this method is time and labor intensive and includes some steps that you may not feel comfortable attempting yourself.

The first thing to consider with this method is the fact that you vehicle will need to remain non-operational for at least 24 hours. Next, you will need to perform the final step without the intrusion of any wind so that no dust or dirt will come in contact with your headlight lens.

What you’ll need to restore your headlights:

headlight restoration kit

  1. A roll of paper towels (no lint/low lint)
  2. A pair of scissors
  3. A trash bag or plastic sheeting
  4. A roll of blue painter’s tape
  5. A bottle of common isopropyl rubbing alcohol
  6. 3 pieces of sand paper to include 600 grit and 400 grit
  7. A piece of 2000-3000 grit sand paper
  8. A tin of carnauba paste wax
  9. A spray bottle filled with warm water
  10. A spray can of gloss clear coat made for plastic that is formulated to be UV resistant and non-yellowing (these descriptive elements will be on the front of the spray can label).

Step 1

What you’ll need to restore your headlights:

Begin by taping around the headlight, ensuring that you get a tight seal between the headlight and the vehicle’s paint.

Step 2

Using the 400 grit sand paper, drench the headlight lens with water and wet the sand paper. Be sure to keep the lens and sand paper wet at all times.

With a light touch (very little pressure), move the sand paper around the lens in a large circular pattern while simultaneously and continuously spraying the lens with water.

After a short period, end the circular pattern and move to horizontal moves with the sand paper, back and forth, while still spraying water. Stop. One last spritz with water and wipe the lens.

Note: With each step, you’ll probably notice a white, milky residue on the lens, or dripping from the lens. This is remnants of the film and oxidation coming off of the lens and is perfectly fine. You will also notice some fine scratches appearing on the plastic; these too are expected and will be treated with the finishing process. However, don’t press hard while sanding, we’re not working on a piece of wood here.

Step 3

Repeat the above process with the 600 grit sand paper, applying a little more pressure this time. Repeat as above, simultaneously and continuously spraying water while sanding.

Step 4

wiping headlights of car

Repeat the process as described above with the 2000 or 3000 grit sand paper. The pressure applied this time should revert back to a very light touch. Again, continuous water and a circular pattern followed by horizontal motions. During this step, get into the groves all around the edge of the headlight. Rinse and wipe dry.

Note: At this point, the lens will still exhibit a hazy appearance. This is expected.

Step 5

Using a paper towel, wipe the lens with the rubbing alcohol to remove any natural oils.

Step 6

Cover the hood, bumper, and any exposed paint in the vicinity of the headlight with sheeting plastic or a trash bag (the trash bag can be cut to open for better coverage).Tape to the car. Use scissors to cut out the headlight from the plastic sheeting and then add tape on top of the plastic around the headlight.

Step 7

Complete one more wipe with the rubbing alcohol to ensure that the lens is perfectly clean.

Step 8

Spray the clear coat. Ok, this is easier said than done, but here are a few good tips:

  1. If you’re new to spray coating, practice a few times on something to get a feel for the pressure you need to apply when spraying and get the knack of perfecting light, even strokes.
  2. Always start your spray on the protective sheeting before the lens and end the spray on the other side on the sheeting. Never begin or end spraying on the lens itself.
  3. Spray strokes go in one direction only at a time.
  4. A light application is want you want. No heavy spraying.
  5. Do not spray too close to your target or the spray will pool on the lens.
  6. Let dry for 5-10 minutes before spraying another coat.

Step 9

Apply two additional coats of the clear coat as above. Dry for 24 hours after the third coat is applied.

Step 10

Apply a coat of carnauba paste wax to the lens and let it near-dry before buffing it.

Ta da! You’re done. As stated before, this process is time and labor intensive. If this, or any of the other methods described, does not work for your needs, the experts at Washos are happy to help. Our trusted professionals can get you back on the road safely and in style with beautifully clean and restored headlights.

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Call Washos to clean and restore your headlights for you. Get $5 off your first car wash with “LOVETHEBLOG”

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Julius Wither Amberfield
    January 9, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    It was really informative when you said that the plastic used to cover the headlights were strong, however, because they become exposed to the sunlight, harsh chemicals, and other things, they degrade over time. It was good that I came across this article and learned a few things. I was planning to get my headlights checked and upgraded next month. I have been using the same car for two years, so it’s only fair that I do some changes. Thanks. I’ll go get someone who can upgrade my headlights to projector headlights right away.

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