Headlight Restoration DIY | How to Clean Headlights
With just a little research and effort, you can learn how to clean headlights like a pro in no time.
Many people experience the problem of foggy or clouded headlights, but don’t know how to clean headlights themselves. Then they hear about how restoring headlights can go wrong, permanently damaging headlight lenses, and they get even more nervous. But cleaning your headlights can be a straightforward, simple, and incredibly satisfying process. In this article you’ll learn how to clean foggy headlights and get some great tips for cleaning headlights DIY style.
What’s most important is that you choose a method for how to clean headlights that is not only effective, but long-lasting. Many headlight restoration methods look good at first but leave you right back where you started a few days later.
You’ll also want to take into account your comfort level with DIY projects. Are you familiar with sanding, and terms like ‘grit,’ ‘buffing,’ and ‘clear coat?’ If you’re not, it’s important to either do a little research first or opt for a prepackaged kit. This will take you through how to clean headlights and provide all the materials you need. You can find a list of our favorite kits in the table below:
Finally, it’s important to note that attempting to restore your headlights without care and knowledge can have consequences. Headlight lenses can be damaged, sanded too far, or scuffed beyond repair. If you’re worried about whether you know exactly what you’re doing, consult a professional or do some research first. The time you invest at the beginning of the process will ensure an effective, easy, and satisfying headlight restoration experience.
But before we learn about the process of headlight restoration, lets learn a little about why it’s necessary in the first place.
Why do headlights become foggy?
The science behind why headlight lenses become foggy over time is not as simple as you might think. While it’s true that grime and dirt buildup are part of the problem, there’s more at work than simple dirty plastic.
When exposed to certain elements and conditions, plastic experiences something called oxidation. It’s a process by which the chemical structure of the plastic actually changes. One cause of this oxidation comes from ultraviolet rays, such as those given off by the sun. So in addition to dirt and grime from the road, your headlights have to contend with the sun itself.
That oxidation buildup occurs on the outer shell of your lens. That’s why when you’re looking to find out how to clean headlights, the most effective solutions don’t just use cleaners. They actually use sanding and abrasives to sand down that outer, oxidized plastic. What’s revealed beneath is the clear, clean plastic below.
This is why it can sometimes be found that sunnier, hotter areas experience more issues with cloudier headlights. But this is not a hard and fast rule. Areas with lots of rain or cooler temperatures are also known to develop problems with foggy headlights. No matter where you live, you’ll want to know how to clean headlights at some point.
While ultraviolet rays from the sun are part of the problem, buildup from the road is also an issue. The exterior of your car is exposed to a lot of elements, and those elements can add up over time. The best restoration processes address every angle of the problem to create a lasting, truly clear restoration solution.
Related: Best Headlight Restoration Kit
Why are foggy headlights a problem?
If you’re new to the entire idea of headlight restoration, you might be asking yourself one simple question. Why should you care whether your headlights are foggy in the first place? It’s worth asking, but the answers might just leave you reaching for your restoration kit in no time.
First and foremost, foggy or muddled headlights are a safety issue. It’s been found that many vehicles could be operating with as little as 80% of their total headlight power, thanks to foggy buildup. That means that when you’re driving at night, you’re experiencing only 20% of the visibility that’s been deemed safe by your car’s manufacturer. This can lead to dangerous driving conditions for you, your passengers, and other drivers on the road.
That danger isn’t only due to your reduced visibility. Fogged over headlights have even been shown to focus light unevenly toward oncoming drivers. This means that they might suddenly be blinded by a focused beam of light form your headlights. That leaves them unable to see, and a hazard on the road to you and others. It’s your responsibility to know how to clean headlights to keep yourself and others safe.
Obviously safety is the most important consideration, but it’s not the only one. You might be wondering how to clean headlights simply because your headlights don’t look good anymore. Foggy headlights make a car look overused, old, and run-down. And while many other processes for making a car look newer can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, restoring your headlights doesn’t. It’s a quick, inexpensive way to instantly make your car look newer and nicer than before.
How do you know your headlights need cleaning?
But how can you tell exactly when your headlights need to be cleaned? There’s certainly no indicator light in your car that will let you know they’re past the point of being too foggy. Much of it comes down to the eye test. If you take a look at your headlights and notice that they look foggy, grimy, or opaque, it’s time to get them restored. You’ll be able to see the reduced clarity in comparison to newer cars or those that have had their headlights treated recently.
You might also be alerted to the need for cleaning if your visibility is reduced while driving at night. If you sometimes wonder whether your headlights are actually on even when they are, it’s definitely time for a restoration. Remember, it’s not just about visual cleanness. Foggy or opaque headlights are a hazard to you and other drivers and pedestrians. As soon as you realize your headlights have become a bit cloudy, it’s time to do whatever you have to get them restored.
Methods for How to clean headlights
Now that you’ve determined that your headlights need some care, you’ll now have to decide what process you’ll use to restore them. There are a wide range of solutions shouted from pros and amateurs alike. These range from the super-effective to the downright useless and wasteful. Let’s take a look at some of the most common recommendations and determine whether they actually get the job done.
Cleaning Headlights with Toothpaste
One popular method for headlight restoration DIY enthusiasts is to use toothpaste. You’ve probably read a lot of opinions about this method on the internet. They can range from claiming that it’s an utterly useless method to it being just as good as a full restoration. But as is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Using toothpaste to restore your headlights can be effective. But it’s not as permanent or thorough as other, more involved solutions for the best way to clean headlights.
That said, here’s how you can get the best out of that tube of toothpaste for a quick, fairly effective headlight restoration method.
First of all, you’ll want to use a toothpaste with baking soda. This offers a bit of fine grit that will help during the restoration process. Clean your headlights first, then apply a full cover of toothpaste with your fingers. Make sure you get all of the headlight covered.
Next up, you’ll use a toothbrush (hopefully not the one you use to brush your teeth) to brush the plastic. This will help dig the toothpaste into he plastic and remove grit, crusted scum and grime from the surface. Give this about five or ten minutes of scrubbing, then rinse off the toothpaste with some warm water. If you want even more results, repeat the entire process from the beginning.
Once you’re done, you can add a coat of paste wax to the headlight for a longer-lasting finish.
This may not be the most permanent answer to how to clean headlights, but it’s quick and will get the job done for now.
Using the Bug Spray Method
It might sound like an old wive’s tale, but many people do swear by the use of bug spray to quickly clear up headlights. There is one caveat. The amount of DEET in average bug spray can remove some of the oxidation in the plastic of your headlights. It can also easily run onto the paint of your car and cause chemical residue or damage.
Plus, the whole reason bug spray works is that it melts the outer film surrounding the headlight plastic. But if it’s too powerful or left on too long, it can go beyond that and actually melt the plastic itself. This will damage your headlights. It’s very important to be cautious if you use this method. But if you want a quick fix that will last a month or so, here’s how to do it with the least risk of damage.
Don’t spray bug spray directly onto your headlights. Spray some onto a towel or rag, then rub it over the headlight thoroughly. When you’re done, rinse the bug spray from the lens with some warm water. You’ll notice that your headlights are noticeably clearer. Unfortunately, this effect does not last long. You’ll be right back where you started within a month. That’s why we don’t necessarily recommend using this approach when cleaning your headlights.
Restoring Headlights with Baking Soda and Vinegar
If you’re looking for a cheap, natural solution that doesn’t have any risk of corroding or damaging your headlights, this is your best bet. Baking soda and vinegar already have a solid reputation as household cleaners. They’ve been used on everything from stainless steel to glass and everything in-between. So it’s not surprise that in an article about how to clean headlights, this classic duo would make an appearance.
But how can you effectively use baking soda and vinegar to clean and restore your headlights? And just how effective are they really? Let’s find out.
You’ll want some sort of fine cloth or brush for this process. Even your toothbrush can get the job done. Create a mixture of the baking soda and vinegar. Then use your brush or cloth to rub it thoroughly into the headlight’s surface.
From here, you can rinse your headlight and repeat the process as many times as you want.
Baking soda and vinegar are fairly effective because the abrasive texture helps get rid of crusted-on grime. But oxidized plastic is not easy foe, and this home remedy might not be completely up to the task. But it’s a cheap enough option that you can give it a shot and see how it goes. Then move on to more intensive solutions if necessary. And remember—whatever success you have with baking soda and vinegar may not last months or years as you might hope.
Doing It Yourself, the Right Way
These DIY solutions above might work fine, but the only way to ensure quality and lasting restoration is to devote a bit more time to the traditional method. Even if you decide you can figure out how to clean headlights without a kit, you’ll want to know the right way. This is important because mistakes can lead to costly damage to your headlights. That said, with a little planning and care you can permanently improve your headlight clarity.
It’s also important to note that by using this process, your car might not be usable for as long as 24 hours. This is because the steps need time between each other during the process. That may be a nuisance, but if you’re wondering how to clean headlights—this is the best way.
Before we begin to go through the process, let’s take a look at the materials and tools you’ll need.
3-4 Pieces of sandpaper, ranging from 400 grit to 600 grit roughness
1 piece of 2000 grit sandpaper, or something close
Garbage bags or plastic floor covering
Tape (Painter’s tape works best)
Warm water (preferably in a spray bottle)
Plastic coating gloss, UV-resistant and non-yellowing
Now that you have all of your materials, let’s get started.
- The first thing you’ll want to do is tape around the edges of your headlight, making sure to be as exact as possible. This is to protect your car’s paint job from being damage by the rubbing alcohol or coating gloss. Like painting a room, taking time during taping will save you frustration and time later on.
- Next up, you’ll want to use your warm water to completely saturate the surface of the lens you’re cleaning. Make sure that it’s completely soaked. You’ll also wet your 400 grit sandpaper. Remember that you want to keep your sandpaper wet the entire time you use it. That also goes for the lens.
- Applying only a small amount of pressure, begin rubbing the sandpaper over the lens. Use a wide circle rubbing pattern and keep spraying water on the lens as you go. Then move to an up-and-down rubbing motion. Once you’re satisfied, give the lens another spray of water.It’s important to remember that some residue will come off the lens as you sand. That’s normal. Just make sure you’re not sanding too aggressively like you would on a wood project.
- You’ll now do exactly the same thing you did in step 3, but with the 600 grit sandpaper. You’ll also use more pressure as you sand. Don’t forget to keep spraying water as you go.
- Now it’s time to move up to the 2000 grit sandpaper. You’ll be tempted to sand even harder now, but you actually want to do the opposite. Sand very lightly, while still spraying water, and be sure to reach the little grooves on the sides of the headlight. When you’re done with this step, rinse off the lens and wipe it completely dry.If your lens looks hazy, don’t panic! You haven’t actually made your lens worse than before. This is a normal part of the process and will be gone soon.
- Next up, it’s time to use your rubbing alcohol and a paper towel. Rub the rubbing alcohol along the entire headlight. This step is important for removing any oils or residue remaining on the lens before the final set of steps. Remember, you don’t need a huge load of rubbing alcohol. Just enough to get the job done. (Note—it’s always wise to work with rubbing alcohol in a well-ventilated area.)
- Now is the time to really cover the area of your car near the headlights you’ll be working on. Your painter’s tape won’t be enough. Use your garbage bags or plastic sheeting to make a full barrier surrounding the outside of your headlights. Use tape to adhere it to the vehicle. Once again, taking time and care here will save you from damage or frustration later on. When you’re done, wipe the lenses with rubbing alcohol one last time for peace of mind.
- It’s time to spray on the clear coat solution. Here are some general tips to help you get the job done without mistakes or stress. First, try out the spraying mechanism on a different surface—a sheet of paper, the garage floor, a tarp, etc. This will give you a sense for how much will come out and how fast. When it is time to spray the headlights, remember to start spraying outside the lines of the headlight. Then move across the headlight and release the spray once you’ve passed onto the covering on the other side. Starting your spray directly on the headlight will leave an uneven finish.It’s also important to only spray in one direction at a time. Also, be sure to apply just a very light coat. You’ll add more later. Remember not to spray too close or the solution will pool and become tacky.
- Wait for about ten minutes, then apply a second coat. Repeat for one more, resulting in three total coats of clear coat. Once you’re done, you’ll need to wait 24 hours before driving your car or proceeding to the last couple of steps.
- It’s time to apply the carnauba wax to your headlights. Then wait until it’s almost completely dry before moving to the final step.
- The last step is to buff the headlights for a finished, sparkly clean clarity. Buffing can involve hand-working the surface with a buffing sponge or rag. It might also mean using a buffing tool or adapted drill for a more thorough buffing. Whatever you use, after this step your headlights should be good as new and as clear as they day you bought the vehicle, or clearer!
Should I go DIY or purchase a restoration kit?
This is a tough question, as it all comes down to personal preference and how well you know how to clean headlights. There are pros and cons associated with both the DIY route and the prepackaged kit. A lot depends on your personal preferences. Some people enjoy a thrill that comes from finding workarounds to common problems. They enjoy doing things themselves, using household products that cost them nothing at all. But at the same time, buying a kit is simpler, easier, and can take less time while achieving better results.
When going DIY, you have the option to save some money if you know how to clean headlights for cheap. You might have some of the materials required at home, so in theory you could restore headlights with $0 spent. That said, most DIY alternatives are either A) not as effective or B) much longer and more labor-intensive. Most prepackaged headlight restoration kits require an hour or less time and do an excellent and lasting job of restoring your lenses. And if cost is a concern, it’s worth noting that most restoration kits cost less than $30.
Only you can decide what’s going to be the best route for you. If you want to save money and like working with your hands to get things done, go the DIY route. But if you want to be sure you have everything you need for lasting, clear restoration, consider a kit.
Another factor to consider is that most restoration kits will be reusable for the future. So you might have to spend a little money, but you’ll be investing in the future. Someday when your headlights fade again, you’ll have everything you need to fix them.
Related: Best Wheel Cleaner
How do you choose the right headlight restoration kit?
If you do decide to go with a pre-packaged restoration kit, that brings its own set of questions. How can you determine which one is the best? What features when you need when it comes to restoring headlights effectively?
The majority of quality headlight restoration kits have the same basic components. These include a set of sanding papers, a buffing sponge, a drill attachment (sometimes), and a set of solutions/finishing sprays for the job.
If you’re trying to choose the highest-quality option available on the market, you should use these criteria when making your decision.
This is everyone’s first thought, and it’s definitely worth considering. Remember that the most expensive product available won’t necessarily be the best. By that same metric, just because a restoration product is fairly priced doesn’t mean it won’t get the job done. Just because you know how to clean headlights doesn’t mean it’s not worth investing a little bit to do it right.
As we mentioned above, most headlight restoration kits use the same general approach of sanding and buffing. But be sure before you purchase. You want a product and process that you’ll feel comfortable with, so take that into account when buying.
This should go without saying. Don’t opt for a cheap option if it doesn’t have a track record of getting the job done. Lasting power is also important. Some products might make an immediate impact, but the fogginess and grime on your headlights returns weeks or even days later. Choose an option that’s well reviewed for effectiveness. Knowing how to clean headlights won’t do any good if the product you choose is sub-par.
If you want to use a buffing drill, make sure the product you buy comes with a drill attachment. Don’t have sanding disks of your own? Be sure that whatever restoration kit you buy provides disks for you to use. This will ensure that you don’t get started only to find you don’t have everything you need.
Ease of Use
Complicated processes are not what buying a pre-packaged kit are about. Even if you have no idea how to clean headlights, a kit should help you figure it out. From the professional to the average car owner, you’ll want simplicity.
This is just as important as ease of use. You want to balance the effectiveness and quality of the cleaning with a quick process. Most can get the job done in under an hour, but some will take longer or far shorter. It’s all about how much time you want to invest and what kind of results you really want.
When you combine all of these features when choosing a product, you’ll be better informed to make the right choice. Then cleaning and restoring your headlights won’t be a chore, but a pleasure.
Learning how to clean headlights will help you enjoy your vehicle far more and for far longer than before. There’s no single best way to clean headlights, and It’s up to you which method you ultimately choose. Just be sure to be diligent when it is time to restore your headlights. You’ll be rewarded with safer driving, a better-looking car, and the knowledge of how to clean headlights for a lifetime.