How to clean headlights

A hand wiping a white sedan headlight with a yellow microfiber cloth.

  • Gather your materials.
  • Mix your headlight cleaning solution.
  • Clean thy headlights.
  • Apply the paste to your clean headlights.
  • Proceed to scrub the headlights.
  • Rinse off the headlights.

There are many misconceptions about cleaning headlights. The first is that it is a difficult process. The second is that cleaning means sanding out the scratches and dings from the road. Neither is true. The process of sanding out road damage is meant to restore your headlights, and is complicated, though not difficult. However, this article is going to cover how to clean and remove the oxidation from your headlights, and make them shiny and pretty once again.

Cleaning Headlights (and Taillights, Too)

  1. Bucket of Cleaning SuppliesGather your materials. You’ll need a bucket, dish soap (Seventh Generation makes an inexpensive Earth friendly dish soap that works perfectly for this purpose), a sponge, a hose connected to a spigot (a hose by itself will not help you at all), 3 tablespoons of baking soda, a clean towel, and a bowl. If you do not have a hose (or an outdoor spigot, really), you will need a second container of water. This will be for rinsing your sponge, so it doesn’t have to be very big.
  2. Water in a bucket and dish soapMix your headlight cleaning solution. Fill your bucket with about half a gallon of warm water, add 2 or 3 tablespoons of dish soap, and give a good mixing. Set that aside for the moment. Put 3 tablespoons of baking soda into the bowl and add enough water to make a healthy paste. Once you’ve done this, move the operation outside to where you’ve hidden the shamefully dirty headlights (and supposedly the car with them).
  3. Scrubbing headlightsClean thy headlights. Take your sponge, dip it into your bucket of soapy water, and scrub your headlights. This will clean off bugs and other minor road debris. Small, circular motions will work best for this, so wax on, wax off, grasshopper. Do this to your headlights and taillights, applying generous amounts of soapy water. Rinse off your sponge and wipe away the soapy solution. But wait, there’s more.
  4. Putting on baking powder pasteApply the paste to your clean headlights. Rinse your sponge thoroughly, or use a second sponge if you have one available. Dip a corner of your sponge into the baking soda and water mixture, and put small dabs evenly across all the lights. Don’t be stingy with the paste; you have more than enough for all of your headlights and taillights.
  5. Scrubbing off the paste from the headlightsProceed to scrub the headlights. Once you have applied your cleaning solution, scrub the paste into the lights using the same small, circular motion from above. You don’t need to apply a great deal of pressure, as the baking soda will do most of the work by soaking up the oxides that makes your lights discolored and unsightly. Bear in mind, you may need to rinse the solution off and repeat the process two or three times to get any kind of significant results. And you will see results.
  6. Rinsing the headlightsRinse off the headlights. With a rinsed sponge, proceed to wipe off the lights until they are completely free of the baking soda paste. You may want to give them another once over with the soapy water just to make certain it is all clean. Use your towel to dry off the lights once it is clear of soap and baking soda. Turn on the car and flip on the lights. Proceed to admire your beautiful sparkly clean headlights. If you’re doing this in a garage, be sure the garage door is open when you do this; I don’t wish to be responsible for your slow asphyxiation as you gaze in wonderment.
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PSA On Clean Headlights & Clean Taillights

Headlights and taillights are even more important than most people realize. It’s important to remember that as much as they help you to see at night, or when it’s overcast or raining, they also help other people see you. If your head- or taillights are filthy, or worse, not working, that reduces the chance that oncoming traffic can identify you. Police can and will pull you over for either infraction, so keeping the lights on your car clean and functioning is in your best interest. Okay, lecture over.

Headlight Cleaning Products

Bottle of Seventh Generation SoapSeventh Generation Dish Soap. An Earth friendly, inexpensive, and commercially available product that is perfect for cleaning headlights. Plus, it can clean your dishes pretty well. It’s available plenty of different retailers, I buy mine from Target.

Box of baking sodaBaking soda.Keep this stuff on hand! The more research I do on these articles, the more I realize how much baking soda can do. You can clean headlights, jewelry, and shoes. Plus, it makes a neat volcano if you just add vinegar! Adding an open box in your fridge helps absorb sells, but remember to replace it every three months.

picture of a headlight restoration kitHeadlight restoration kits.There are kits available to come with instructions on how to restore your headlights, and everything you need to do so. This is for unsightly dings, dents, chips, and scratches that a simple cleaning won’t be able to fix. There are quite a number of Headlight Restoration Kits available at Amazon.

A hand wiping a white sedan headlight with a yellow microfiber cloth.

  • Headlights
  • Alias: Headlamps
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Requirements: bucket, dish soap, sponge, hose, spigot, baking soda, clean towel, bowl
  • Gather your materials.
  • Mix your headlight cleaning solution.
  • Clean thy headlights.
  • Apply the paste to your clean headlights.
  • Proceed to scrub the headlights.
  • Rinse off the headlights.
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How to Clean Headlights

As a first step, wash your headlights and surrounding surfaces with soap and water. Cleaning any exterior grime from the housings will avoid scratching the lenses and shows off your hard work when the project is complete. Be sure to thoroughly dry the cleaned portion so moisture doesn’t make its way onto the headlights during your restoration.

how to clean foggy headlights car before 2 how to clean foggy headlights car tape 1 Miles Branman/The Manual

Next, it’s time to bust out that painter’s tape. Avoid using a more adhesive tape so you don’t damage your car’s paint. Make a perimeter of tape around each headlight, leaving all of the actual housing exposed (aka the part that needs to be restored). You can choose whether to tape off your turn signals or leave them exposed for cleaning as well, but these typically don’t fog as much.

With Toothpaste

Of the three cleaning methods, the ol’ toothpaste fix is the easiest and least expensive. As is often the case with quick fixes, this may not be as effective as the other methods, but how many opportunities are there to use toothpaste for anything other than cleaning your own teeth? Live a little.

how to clean foggy headlights car toothpaste 2 how to clean foggy headlights car toothpaste 3 Miles Branman/The Manual

The process is simple. Apply some toothpaste to a rag or towel, then spread it in circular motions over the entire headlight. Rinse the housing with water, dry it with a towel, and crack open a beer (cuz you’re done). No seriously, it’s that easy. Toothpaste is lightly abrasive, so applying it to your headlights scrapes away the crud while filling in any scratches. Why do you think 5/5 dentists recommend using the stuff to fight plaque? One important caution: Use plain toothpaste like Tom’s or Arm and Hammer. Anything with flavor crystals or other particles can scratch your headlights.

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With Sandpaper

Too good for hygiene products? The sandpaper method requires only a bit more effort (mainly finding sandpaper), but can shave away more grime from your headlights. If you haven’t already, clean your headlights with soap and water, then dry thoroughly. Apply a bit of water to the sandpaper (800 grit to start), then work it in circular motions around the headlight, followed by a horizontal path. Do this lightly — pressing too hard can scratch the housing.

how to clean foggy headlights car sandpaper 2 how to clean foggy headlights car sandpaper 1 Miles Branman/The Manual

Now, grab finer sandpaper (1600 grit or more) and do the same process from the other direction. Once finished, wipe off the headlight with rubbing alcohol (this helps the headlight dry). Everything should look pretty clear at this point, but as a finishing touch, polish the plastic with toothpaste (like above) or a specialized headlight polish.

The Outsourced Method

how to clean foggy headlights car outsourced 1 how to clean foggy headlights car after 2 Miles Branman/The Manual

If using toothpaste seems strange and trying sandpaper is a fearful endeavor, you can always pay for a kit like this one from 3M. You’ll still need to get your hands dirty (or clean?) with an all-in-one setup, and the results will be about the same as the sandpaper method, but at least the kits aren’t expensive and are widely available.

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