Have you ever driven your car during the night and think to yourself “this isn’t how my headlights used to shine”? If you have, don’t worry – we’ve all been there. Headlights don’t last forever and there are countless of issues that can occur to them from a broken bulb to burnt reflectors and hazy plastic covers. Since this issue has been bugging drivers for decades now, there logically are a bunch of methods to deal with it. In this article I will review I will show you how to clean your headlights and review each of the ways individually.
The simplest way of cleaning your headlights is sometimes enough for a dirty headlight. Use warm water and soap or car shampoo and clean away! If this doesn’t work there are other methods such as the sandpaper one. Sanding your headlights will remove the damage sealant layer and will leave you with a clear plastic top which you can wax and seal anew with a new UV sealant. There are special kits for this job on the market but you can also do it on a smaller budget by buying the materials on your own.
If you don’t feel comfortable sanding anywhere near your car, make sure you watch a video or check your user’s guide to see how to remove your headlight from the car. Be careful as some car’s xenon systems have high voltages in them. If you don’t feel confident enough it’s better to leave this to a professional but be prepared to leave your car to them for at least a day. Now, let’s start with one of the most important questions regarding this topic:
Why Do Headlights Need Cleaning?
There are a bunch of reasons headlights go dim and the main one is simply that they get dirty. This is why your first thing to do is to thoroughly clean them with soap and water. If that doesn’t work, then go for the other methods.
Another reason that you “lose your vision” during the night is that the sun has damaged the UV protective layer of your headlights known as the UV sealant. Some other reasons are that chemicals used to treat roads during the snowy months damage everything in your car including the plastic covers of your headlights.
The last factor is simply time. As a car ages, it loses a lot of its initial properties, and the sealant on the headlights is one of those things that cars lose over time. The thing with it is that it doesn’t just disintegrate but it turns yellow which both looks bad and worsens your car’s night headlight range.
Now, let’s discuss which are the various methods you can use to clean your headlights.
The Normal Way
This might seem a bit pointless to mention but sometimes the good old classic washing is good enough for most headlights. Before you move on to sanding your headlight and/or adding toothpaste or other chemicals, simply clean the headlight with water and soap or a car shampoo. As I mentioned, headlights can get dim and yellowish due to dirt piling on them over time without being cleaned.
Put some muscles into the rubbing and wipe those headlights clean! If you don’t see a difference then the problem cannot be fixed with this method but it was worth the shot wasn’t it?
Using A Special Kit
There are special headlight restoration kits out in the market which feature all of the needed items in them, such as three types of sanding paper, towels, UV sealant, and wax. One of the most famous ones is Meguiars restoration kit. If you don’t mind spending a few extra bucks, this is a great option as it makes sure you won’t forget something behind when you start working.
Other than that, you can gather all the materials yourself and follow the steps listed in the next chapter:
Cleaning With Sandpaper
Apart from the method where you use specially designed kits for the issue, this is by far the one that yields the best results. Before you start doing anything there are a few preparations step here:
- Gather all the materials you will need (sandpapers, spray bottle, wax, towels, polisher)
- Clean your headlight good!
- Mark the bodywork of the car with masking tape if you aren’t removing the headlight for the procedure
These are all very important steps for a couple of reasons. Cleaning your headlight will remove the chance of small particles being left on the surface which can later create deep scratches and grooves onto the plastic cover of the headlight. If you decide not to remove the headlight make sure you wrap the surrounding bodywork of the car in masking tape. Trust me, there is nothing worse than sanding your paint by mistake.
Now, that you are done preparing, let’s get to the actual process.
Wet the headlight and start sanding with a 400-grit sandpaper. Constantly add warm water between the sandpaper and the headlight and don’t let them both dry out. Make sure your sanding is in circular motions.
You can do this with a 1000-grit sandpaper. Some people go for 1000-2000-3000 grit combinations, while others go for 400-600-2000. My advice is to decide on your own. If the headlight is very dim and yellow, get more abrasive grit such as 400. If it isn’t that bad, start with 1000.
Once you are finished (5-10 minutes) sand in horizontal lines from end to end to finish off this step.
Repeat the same process but using less and less abrasive sandpapers such as 600-2000 or 2000-3000. If you’ve finished off by sanding in horizontal lines for the first step, try sanding diagonally here. And with the last sandpaper do the opposite diagonal movement so that you cover all angles on the headlight.
Don’t forget to constantly wet both the sandpaper and the headlight surface. Having a spray bottle for this task is very handy.
This is the semi-last step. Wipe off your headlights and dry them thoroughly. If you don’t have a polishing compound you can skip this and just clean them well and be done with it. Still, I recommend using a polishing material. Apply it with a microfiber towel for a few minutes in circular motions. Add wax at the end if you want the effect to last longer. Wax your headlights as if you are waxing a car.
This step isn’t mandatory but I think it is very important. During the sanding process what you did was remove the old oxidized sealant. this means that you will be leaving your headlight without UV protection unless you add a UV sealant again. That will protect them from going yellow or dim in the future. Apply the sealant using broad strokes with a paper towel. Make sure you fully cover the headlight. Read the sticker of the sealant you are using. Some require just one layer while others require two or three layers to do the job properly.
Want to know to how clean the rest of your car in a great way during winter? Check out my dedicated article on the topic.
The Old Toothpaste Trick
Last and maybe least is the so-called toothpaste trick. It has been used by decades by people all over the world and there is a reason for that – it simply works. Murky and oxidised headlights stand no chance against the corrosive ingredients in modern toothpastes. Moreover, this is a very cheap method since every household has the items necessary and you don’t even have to go out shopping.
The things you will need for this method are:
- A brush (even a toothbrush)
- Spray bottle
- Toothpaste with baking soda in it
Rinse the headlight with water and soap before starting just to remove dirt and dust from it. Then start off by rubbing the toothpaste into the headlight with the brush. Do it until you feel the headlight is getting cleaner. From time to time spray some warm water and wipe clean the headlight. If you see a noticeable difference you can stop there. If you are not satisfied with the results, keep digging!
For the best garage-cleaning tips, check out this article.
Why does toothpaste clean headlights?
All toothpastes contain small abrasive particles in them, which buff out any surface you rub them at (teeth, headlights, etc.) and make them cleaner. People have figured that out long ago and nowadays toothpaste is used for a lot of cleaning purposes, including the one we are going through right now.
Can Windex clean headlights?
Yes, absolutely. It has no ammonia in it and is safe to use on any kind of plastic, glass or other polished surfaces. It won’t do anything against foggy headlights but at least it will make them squeaky clean.
Does Windex ruin car paint?
That isn’t a very good idea. Sure, it will clean the surface well but it can be a bit of an overkill even for your glasses. The alcohol and ethylene glycol in it make it a potent cleaning substance but also can be damaging to cars which have lost their top protective layer. Even on windows, it can attract dust or oil if not wiped properly.
If you are having trouble with your car’s engine or just have a trouble code bothering you on your dashboard, make sure you check out my extensive Buyer’s Guide on OBD scanners that will help you diagnose the car’s issue on your own!
Knowing how to clean your headlights isn’t a bad tip to have in your skill set as it can save you a lot of money and make your car “see” again during those long night journeys. Still, if you don’t feel confident enough, leave this process to the professionals. It won’t be cheap but it isn’t something you do every year. I’ve done this once on my car and I’ve owned it for 6 years. In other words, if done properly, headlight restoration should last as much as 10 years!