How to Clean Headlights – With Commercial Cleaner, or a DIY Solution

If you’ve started noticing your headlights don’t produce as much light as they used to, the first thing to check is how clear they are.

This is before you decide to spend all your money on either replacements or repairs.

There are multiple ways to tidy up your lights and restore them to their former glory. That’s why, today, we’ll be talking all about how to clean headlights, and how to check whether they even need to be cleaned in the first place.

shining the headlights on a detailed silver car with a green cloth

Once you’ve determined whether they need a good clean or not, in this guide, we teach you a handful of different methods for the cleaning process, using both commercial products, and those you might already have at home.

We hope that you’ll walk away from this guide knowing how to keep your headlights shining bright all year long!

Skill Level: Beginner

Time to Complete: A couple of hours

Tools Needed: These vary depending on your chosen method. Please consult the different sections below to ensure you have the correct tools!

Why Would You Want to Clean Your Headlights?

The most important reason for keeping your headlights clean is safety.

There’s no stopping the front of your car getting dirty, but there’s a big difference between dirty paint and dirty headlights. The build-up can reduce the light intensity, making it harder for you to see in the dark and for other road users to see you.

That isn’t to say you need to get replacements straight away, though. It takes little effort to get them cleaned up, and even get them to be as bright as the day you first got your car.

Do They Need Cleaning?

To know whether your front lights need to be washed or not, you’ll need to do an inspection. Don’t worry, it’s easy, and is the same process for HID or LED headlights.

Visual indicators such as the headlight being cloudy, dull and yellow are a good sign that they need cleaning. Bear in mind that yellowing can occur on both the inside and outside. If it’s just on the inside, the methods we discuss here won’t work, and further internal inspection and cleaning is needed.

All clean headlights have a hard layer over them that protects the lights themselves. If you see that this layer is wearing off, it’s a sign that your lights have hazing and will soon have a crusty yellow surface.

To confirm your visual suspicions, run your hand over the outside of the light. Is it bumpy and rough? If so, this is a clear indication that the problem is on the outside. You may also notice that the top layer wearing off or is flaking. If you leave the lights like that for a long time, they’ll begin to crack.

If you’re still unsure, take a look at your lights during the daylight while they’re turned on. Then, check them in the daylight when they’re turned off.

At any point, if you see any big scratches or damage, get a professional to check them out because that’s a serious issue.

A Pre-Emptive Clean

If you see your front lights are dirty in any way, so you cannot be sure whether they’ve been damaged, you should start by washing them. Just do a regular wash, just like you do with the rest of your car, with some soap and water.

After the wash, wipe them down and leave them to dry. Once they’re dry, you can see whether they are due for a fix up or replacement.

Happy to continue with the cleaning process? Check out our different methods of doing so below…

Headlight Cleaning Kit

A headlight cleaning kit, also known as a headlight restoration kit, is something you can use to quickly return them to their original clarity, shine, and brightness.

Since clean headlights these days have plastic covers, they tend to decay over time due to road grit and the exposure to UV rays. These restoration kits can reverse the symptoms of this damage and get them back in great working order.

Tools Needed

  • Headlight cleaning kit.
  • Masking tape.
  • Towels.

Step by Step Guide

Step 1: Pick the Timing and Location

It’s important that you choose the right time of day and weather conditions.

You should do this process on a day when the weather isn’t freezing or wet. The car also needs to be in the shade.

Step 2: Set Down the Masking Tape

With the masking tape, you’re going to cover the area that surrounds each of the front lights. You’re doing this to protect the top coat of your car from the chemicals and processes that you’ll be using when washing your lights.

Step 3: Prepare the Headlights

Next, you should prepare the surface of the lights. Get out the pads and washing supplies from the kit.

Put a small drop of the washing compound on a cleaning pad and then scrub the lenses of each of the front lights, alternating between side-to-side and circular motions.

Step 4: Check if You’re Done

Wipe down the lenses with an unused towel. If you see that the lenses now appear to be frosty, then you’re done. If not, repeat step 3 above.

Step 5: Wipe and Dry

Give the lights a final wipe over with a damp towel and then let them dry.

Step 6: Headlight Coating

After the headlights are completely dried, you’re going to use the headlight coating solution from the headlight cleaning kit.

Generally, you should look to apply a coat and wait 5 minutes before applying a second coat. Always check the specific instructions on the product you’re using though, just in case the manufacturer advises differently.

Step 7: Let it Sit

The headlight coating solution is going to feel dry a few minutes after you’ve applied it. However, you should let it cure for about a day.

Place your car somewhere dry and check on it the next day to see that your lights are back to their former glory.

Using Vinegar and Baking Soda

Many household items can be used to clean headlights if you’d rather not use a cleaning kit, vinegar and baking soda can have a good cleaning – but no restorative – effect. In fact, a solution made out of baking soda and vinegar is great for washing out practically everything.

Tools Needed:

  • Vinegar
  • Baking soda.
  • Bowl.
  • Spray bottle.
  • Water.
  • Towel.

Step by Step Guide

Step 1: Vinegar and Baking Soda

First, you’ll need to get some white vinegar and some baking soda. Then, mix two tablespoons of the baking soda with four tablespoons of the vinegar, inside a bowl.

Step 2: Clean Your Headlights

After making the mixture, using a fresh towel, apply it onto the lights. Make sure you rub and cover the entire surface of the lights, and that you’re using circular motions.

Step 3: Rinse the Headlights

After covering the surface of the headlights with the baking soda and vinegar mixture, you can then rinse them off.

Regular household water is fine to use here, either with a sponge or a spray bottle. Just keep rinsing with water until everything looks nice and cleared.

Make sure that there are no leftovers of the mixture on the headlights. If you see any white haze on them, it means they haven’t been rinsed off well enough.

If the lights don’t appear fully clear while doing this, repeat the entire method until everything looks spotless.

Using Polish

Another option for clearing up your lights is using a polishing compound. The polish is specifically made to be able to remove any of the surface scratches for your car, which means it should do the same to your front lights.

If you already have a non-abrasive cleaner for tubs and sinks at home, this might work well too.

Tools Needed:

  • Polish compound.
  • 2 x clean microfiber towel.

Step by Step Guide

Step 1: Get the Polish

You can get any kind of polish for this. If you already have something that you use to polish your car’s paintwork, that will be fine. You don’t need anything expensive or fancy here.

Step 2: Work Slowly

Apply a small drop of polish to a fresh microfiber towel made for vehicle cleaning.

Buff it onto the front lights in small areas with a circular motion. After a few minutes, the area that you’re scrubbing will start getting clearer and clearer, and then you can move on to another small area.

Continue with this method until the entire surface of each headlight has been cleared. But, know that you may need to apply several layers and work it in over time to get the desired results. It all depends on how hard you work and how bad the condition of the lights is.

Step 3: Wipe, Rinse And Dry

Wipe off any residual polish and give the lights a good rinse with regular tap water. Grab an unused microfiber towel and dry the lights for the completed look.

Wet-Sanding

Wet-sanding your front lights is a long process, but one that can bring back shine and brightness as if they were new.

It’s a process that removes the oxidation on the lenses of the headlights, which when present makes them look faded and produce less light.

Tools Needed:

  • Wet sandpaper – Several grades: 400, 1,000 and 2,000 grit.
  • Masking tape.
  • Towles.
  • Spray Bottle.
  • Water.

Step by Step Guide

Step 1: Get Sandpaper

Make sure you have varying grades of sandpaper for this method: A coarse 400 grit, a fine 1,000 grit, and the finest you can find for the finish (2,000 grit or higher.)

If the sheets are really large and awkward to use, there’s no harm in cutting them to a size that’s more snug in your hand.

Step 2: Use the Masking Tape

Now it’s time to prep the area you’re working on.

Tape the entirety of the area that surrounds each headlight. This is to protect the surrounding painted areas of your car.

Step 3: Get the Sandpaper Wet and Start Sanding

Get your spray bottle and fill it with water, then spray the sandpaper.

Start with the sandpaper that’s the coarsest and apply even pressure with your hand on the headlight. Make sure that you’re sanding in one direction only.

You’ll know that you’re done with that grade of sandpaper when you see a dull finish on the front lights.

Then you can get a square of a finer grade of sandpaper and repeat. You can also spray some water while you’re sanding to make things easier, as well as make the sandpaper last longer.

Get the last and finest grade of sandpaper and repeat again. When your front lights have a satin-like finish, you’re done.

Step 4: Rinse and Dry

Even though you haven’t used any products in this process, it’s still a good idea to rinse off any dirt and grime debris, to really finish the job off properly.

Once rinsed with regular water, buff the lights with a clean microfiber towel and revel in your accomplishment.

Uv Sealant

After you’ve washed your lights, with any of the methods, it’s good to use a UV sealant over the top.

This type of sealant will protect your lights from the harmful sun rays that can cause the discoloration you just cleared up and removed.

All of your hard work is going to be for nothing if you skip this step. Your lights will become discolored more quickly without applying this protection.

Tools Needed:

  • UV sealant kit.
  • Paper towel.
  • Masking tape.

Step by Step Guide

Step 1: Get the UV Sealant

Depending on the kit, you’re going to be getting a UV sealant that you’ll need to pour onto some paper towels or one that’s in a spray bottle. Check the instructions on the kit to see if it mentions the need for additional equipment.

Step 2: Use the Masking Tape

At this point, you’ll be doing this process after you’ve cleared your front lights thoroughly. If you’ve already used masking tape and haven’t removed it, keep it on for this process.

If you haven’t used masking tape in the cleaning process, now is the time to tape around the outside of the lights to protect the surrounding paintwork.

Step 3: Apply the UV Sealant

If you need paper towels, apply a bit of the sealant on them, then apply that to the headlights. Make sure you’re using broad, sweeping strokes and cover the entire surface area of the lights.

If you went with the UV sealant with a spray bottle, spray the entire surface of the front lights.

With both types, you only need to apply a single coat, unless the instructions of the kit say otherwise.

Step 4: Dry Time

Finally, after you’ve covered the lights with the sealant, put your car in a dry place in sunlight, so that the sealant can cure, and admire your clean headlights after!

Shine Bright Like a Diamond

As you now know, there are a few options to clean headlights and restore them to their former glory. However, always make sure that you inspect them as to whether they really need to be cleaned or if they need replacing.

If you’re unsure about anything, you can always ask a professional to take a look and tell you what needs to be done.

No matter your cleaning method of choice, don’t forget always to get a UV sealant to finish. Otherwise, you’ll be back to where you started, with oxidized headlights that you need to wash again.

If you have any tips or questions, make sure that you leave them in the comments section below.

Kyle Palmer

From childhood go karting and motocross, to collecting and obsessing over scalextric, matchbox and radio controlled cars, I've always had an obsession with cars. Learning through manuals, books, trial and error, and more knowledgeable family members, I've also enjoyed tinkering with the mechanics and electronics of any vehicles I've owned. Now, over 3 decades later, I've started this site as a place for me to share my knowledge, to teach others how to care for and maintain their vehicles themselves, at home, so they can get the most of their vehicles and save a pretty penny compared to always seeking out professional help.

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