How to clean your car headlights: 14 steps (with pictures)

How to clean your car headlights: 14 steps (with pictures)
How to clean your car headlights: 14 steps (with pictures)

There was a time when your beautiful, brand new headlights were so clean they shone. But today, it looks like they are covered with a layer of fat. It is better that you learn how to clean and polish them yourself to extend the life expectancy of your vehicle. Learn how to inspect your headlights to determine their condition first, this will help you maintain them. Then you will learn how to repair the mess to finally clean it up and make it look like new.


Part 1 of 3: Prepare

Step 1. Inspect the headlights to determine the correct method

If you have noticed that your headlights are not or no longer illuminating as they used to be, examine them in broad daylight, when they are on and off. It is essential to be able to determine the extent of the damage before knowing which cleaning method will be most effective, whether you need to have it professionally examined or if you need to have it replaced. A crack or scratches will indicate a more serious problem.

Step 2. Clean the headlights with soap

Dust and mud from the road can dirty your headlights and prevent you from determining if there is damage. Before you see if your headlights are damaged, wash your car with hot water and car soap. Scrub the headlights and let them dry. Examine them when they are clean to see if they are damaged.

Step 3. Check if they have turned opaque

The headlights will become opaque when the hard plastic layer degrades and the polycarbonate layer is exposed, it gets scratched easily and therefore becomes opaque. The optic will quickly be covered with a dark yellow crust.

If this turns out to be your problem, a quick and inexpensive cleaning will be an effective solution that will slow down the degradation of your headlights. However, a more thorough cleaning may be required

Step 4. Check to see if your headlights are turning yellow

They will turn yellow when the hard layer begins to break down and no longer adheres to the polycarbonate layer. UV rays have wavelengths such that they modify the carbon chain of the optics, in particular by absorbing blue radiation, which gives the headlights a yellowish appearance.

If you notice that your headlights are turning yellow, you'll need to go for a more thorough cleaning, with Rain-X or some other polish to clean them and repair the damage

Step 5. Check for cracks and cracks, if any

When the hard layer starts to deteriorate, you will see spots appear in some places, especially in the upper parts or in the corners. You will have the impression that the hard layer is peeling or peeling off. Ultimately, you will notice some cracking in the optics. This means that a professional will have to renovate the optics.

If this is the case and you need to have your headlights optics renovated or have them replaced entirely, it will cost you more. In the meantime, clean them as best you can with a simple method and find out about the cost of new headlights

Step 6. Have your glass headlights professionally examined

Most headlights are made of plastic, which can exhibit the damage described above. Glass headlights, on the other hand, which adorn classic cars and older models, are more complicated to maintain and you'd better have them examined by a professional. If your glass headlights start to wear out, take them apart and have them examined.

Part 2 of 3: sand the headlights

Step 1. Buy a few sheets of sandpaper

They are used for dry or wet sanding. To begin with, you'll sand down the headlights using increasingly fine-grit sandpaper. In general, 3M is the best brand for this type of sanding. You will need a heavy grit sandpaper (about 1500) and a fine grit sandpaper (about 2000) to finish the sanding. If you want to start with a thicker paper, it's your choice.

Step 2. Don't forget the masking tape

When using sandpaper on your car, you should be careful not to scratch the body. This is why it is often advisable to use masking tape all around the headlight, where the body begins, to avoid damaging the paint. You don't have to, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

Before you start polishing, we recommend that you clean your headlights once more with a clean paper towel and a little rubbing alcohol. This product will dry quickly and you can start polishing

Step 3. Wet the sandpaper and start polishing

Using a spray bottle of water or a small amount of water in a bucket, sand the headlights thoroughly with the heavy-grit sandpaper. While maintaining even pressure, sand the headlights until you get a smooth result.

If the factory coating starts to peel off, you will notice a fuzzy “line” that will start to appear and change shape as you sand. It is usually best to sand all of this coating

Step 4. Switch to a finer grain

After sanding with the coarse-grit sandpaper, switch to a finer grit and repeat from the beginning until you get a smooth, smoother result again.

For headlights with an interior texture that sometimes prevents you from seeing the bulb, you can usually stop at 1500 grit paper. The headlights will look cloudy, but the result will be smooth and the yellow will be gone

Part 3 of 3: polish the headlights

Step 1. Choose your tool

After you've sanded down the headlights and removed the blur, it's time to decide what you're going to use to polish them. You have several solutions available to you, including products from McGuire's, M105 and 3M. Visit an auto equipment store for more options. Aluminum polishes are the best way to make your headlights shine. A non-abrasive cleaner for acrylic sinks and tubs is made for plastics. This product also works great and maybe you already have it.

If you are looking for an inexpensive solution, simple blue toothpaste will do the trick. Use plain blue toothpaste, not toothpaste containing hydrogen peroxide, bleach, or any other additives

Step 2. Apply polish to a microfiber cloth

Take a clean cloth, put on a dab of polish and choose a part of the lighthouse of about 10 x 10 cm to start. Rub in a circle, polish your little square repeatedly and evenly. It should take you less than five minutes to start getting a cleaner headlight. When you have finished your square, move on to the next one.

If you want to use a drill with polishing accessories, you can put the polish directly on the foam disc that you will place on the drill. Then polish your headlights at the lowest speed. Pressing lightly, slowly increase RPM, while moving the foam disc on the headlight. Take it slow, about an inch per second. You will get results faster than by hand

Step 3. Continue polishing until you get clean headlights

It will take some elbow grease, because you will need to apply at least three coats of product to get a satisfactory result. Continue polishing until you are satisfied with the clarity of your headlights. Then test your headlights by turning them on after placing your car in front of a wall.

Step 4. Put on a plastic liner

If you want to make your headlights waterproof once and for all and keep them in top condition, you can go to a garage and have a plastic coating, for example from the Bulldog brand. Such a coating in addition to a few coats of varnish would extend the life of your headlights considerably. Plus, it would cost you less than $ 50, depending on the garage. Acrylic-based floor varnish is an inexpensive solution. Put on a diaper and let dry. You can use multiple coats for a more durable finish. You can reapply as soon as necessary.


  • There are also special kits for polishing paints, in which you can find medium to very fine grit sandpaper (grits of 300, 600, 900, 2000 and 4000). This sandpaper will quickly and easily remove all residue and give an incredibly smooth finish that will delay future soiling. These kits are also sold with a special polishing paste. The kits cost around 20 euros. You can choose from 3M, Meguiar's, Turtle Wax, Sylvania, Headlight Wizard, Mothers and many more.
  • If the UV coating is damaged, you will need to restore the headlight optics by completely removing the oxidized plastic layer by a mechanical process such as wet sandblasting, then sealant your optics with a high temperature and UV resistant product. This will protect the headlight glass from future damage.
  • Many kits for airplane windshields (which are plastic, not glass) are commercially available. These work great for restoring a lighthouse that has gone out of focus. Check with an aviation specialist supplier. It will cost you around 5 euros.
  • Wear rubber gloves to avoid getting varnish under your fingernails.

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