How to Clean Headlights in a Few Easy Steps
We can’t see if you can’t. Let’s put those headlights back in the fight.
So you want to clean your car's headlights? Well, you’ve come to the right place as your headlight lenses may have gone yellowy over time, become fogged or filthy, or might have found new purpose as a terrarium for indigenous worms and insects.
Luckily, The Drive’s crack How-To department is here to help get those lights luminous once again. Driving with crappy headlight lenses isn’t just unsafe for you, tootling along in the inky blackness of night, but also for others on the road. Restoring your headlights to fresh-from-the-factory clear is also one of the easiest ways to make your aging ride look like new.
The bottom line is your lenses need a good polishing, and here's how to do it.
Headlight Cleaning Basics
Estimated Time Needed: 30 minutes to 1 hour
Skill Level: Beginner
Vehicle System: Lighting
What Is Cleaning Headlights?
How mad would you be if we went through all of this just to tell you to make sure you hit the lights with some soap and water during the next wash? While trolling can be funny, that sort of content has very little value to you. Thankfully, that's not what we're talking about.
We're talking about how you can get headlights with some mileage on them looking as good as new. You know, the hazy, faded housings your buddies always knock you for? We'll walk you through how you can put their hazing behind you.
Headlight Cleaning Safety
Working on your car can be messy, especially when you’re cleaning surfaces you’ve never bothered to clean before—hello, bug-splattered headlight lenses—so here’s exactly what you’ll need to ensure you don’t die, get maimed, or lose a finger and that you keep your jeans, shirt, and skin spotless—hopefully.
Everything You’ll Need To Clean Your Headlights
We’re not psychic, nor are we snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to get the job done.
- Paper towels
- Spray bottle of water
- 3 microfiber towels
- A bucket for soap and water
- Headlight restoration kit
- Painter’s tape
- Sandpaper in a selection of grits (i.e., 1000, 2000, and 3000)
- Polish and wax
You’ll also need a flat surface, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking that’s also well-ventilated. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.
Here’s How To Clean Headlights
Let’s do this!
Cleaning and Masking Your Headlights
- Wash the headlight lenses, those plastic assemblies that protect the bulbs, with soap and water. Pay particular attention to any surface imperfections, bug carcasses, and any detritus that’s embedded itself into the surface.
- Dry lenses thoroughly.
- Tape the areas around the lenses to protect your car’s paint while sanding and polishing.
Sanding Your Headlights
- Using the spray bottle, dampen a sheet of 1000-grit sandpaper.
- Spray the entire lens with water to thoroughly dampen.
- Rub the dampened sandpaper over the lens evenly, occasionally spraying the lens with additional water to keep wet (dry-sanding the lens can cause damage).
- Continue for 5-10 minutes.
- Wipe down the lens with a microfiber towel and re-spray with water.
- Dampen a sheet of 2000-grit sandpaper and repeat the sanding process, occasionally spraying the lens with water.
- Continue for five minutes.
- Wipe down the lens with a microfiber towel.
- Repeat the wetting-and-sanding process with 3000-grit sandpaper.
- Continue for five minutes.
- Clean and dry the lens completely.
- Repeat the entire process with the second headlight lens.
Polishing and Waxing
- Squeeze a little polish onto a clean microfiber towel or buffer pad.
- In a circular motion, rub the polish into the lens, as directed.
- You’ll know when you’re done when the lens is clear.
- Wax the lens in the same way you’d wax the rest of the car.
Pro Tips to Clean Headlights
The Drive asked RJ de Vera, Global Customer Engagement Leader at Meguiar's, for tips on the best methods and products to use while cleaning your car's headlights.
- If you have headlights with light oxidation or yellowing and you want to work by hand, a basic kit is all you'll need. Can I suggest Meguiar’s® Basic Headlight Restoration Kit? With this kit, it’s recommended to mask off around the headlights and soak the included pads in water for a minute. Then, you lightly sand with each of the four different pads working from coarser to finer. This is repeated multiple times on each headlight until they are clear again.
- If your headlights have heavy oxidation, and you have a corded drill (YAY, POWER), can I have you consider Meguiar’s® Heavy Duty Headlight Restoration Kit? With this kit, you clean the lights thoroughly and then mask off around each light. Lightly sand with the two different grades of fine sandpaper and water. Work the first disc horizontally and the second vertically, making sure they have a uniform frosted appearance before following with the included cleaner and polish. Here you apply the polish to the included wool buff pad using a standard corded drill to polish the plastic back up to clarity. Work for 1-2 minutes wiping off the residue before it dries, then repeat this process if needed until the lenses look like new again. Clean with a good glass cleaner and apply a medium coat of the included headlight coating overlapping your passes by 50 percent. Allow to cure and apply a second coat for a thorough seal. You're all done.
We always make sure to include a video here so you can get a better feel for the steps we've discussed. In this situation, we also see this as a great way to give you a look at one of the more popular systems on the market. This way, you can see the product in action while preparing to take it on yourself. The clip below is from RainX and highlights its Premium Headlight Restoration kit. Even if that's not the product you'll use, it's still a solid source of information regarding the process.
FAQs About Cleaning Headlights
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers!
Q. What Household Items Can I Use to Clean My Headlights?
A: There are videos of people successfully combating headlight haze with baking soda and vinegar, toothpaste and other home-brewed elixirs. While it's not fair to say that they don't work, you will have better results using a dedicated headlight restoration kit.
Q. Is WD-40 Good for Cleaning Headlights?
A: No, you shouldn't use WD-40 to clean your headlights. It may make them shiny, but that's really not what it's meant for. You will also leave oily residue behind when you use it.
Q. Can You Get Pulled Over for Foggy Headlights?
A: While they aren't common, there are laws against driving with faded headlights, and you can get pulled over and fined for it in some parts of the country. Even if these rules aren't in place where you live, you should still do your part and make sure your headlights are clear.
Q. Does Toothpaste Really Clean Headlights?
A: You may see moderate improvements when using toothpaste to clean your headlights. That's because there are light abrasives in toothpaste that can help polish the lights. Just like the baking soda and vinegar solution, though, the results won't be as good as they will be with a dedicated kit.
Q. Is it Worth it to Clean Headlights?
A: Yes, it is worth cleaning your headlights. They will fade with time, but the expense of new headlight assemblies vastly outweighs the cost of a restoration kit and a few minutes of your time.
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