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A newly-cleaned headlight on a car

How to Clean Headlights

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Clean Headlights for Under $5
  • Mix a 2:1 ratio of baking soda to water
  • Rub paste on the headlights
  • Buff lightly without allowing paste to dry
  • Rinse with all-purpose vinegar
  • Dry with microfiber cloth + apply wax

Beginning in the 1980’s vehicle manufacturers switched from installing glass headlights which seemed easily broken, to installing polycarbonate plastic headlights. The polycarbonate plastic is lighter than glass, and though it is more resistant to chips or cracks, it tends to get hazy. Replacing them can get expensive depending on the make and model of the vehicle. If the headlight lenses are not cleaned regularly, they can develop pits, and fine cracks called craze which is harder to fix. Therefore, it is important to maintain headlight restoration as often as necessary. Unlike their glass counterparts, polycarbonate plastic can be restored by polishing it to make the surface smooth and clear again. Ultraviolet protectants may also be purchased to help defer the process of cleaning lenses.

Causes of cloudy headlights

Headlights that become cloudy is generally from exposure to ultraviolet light, atmospheric chemicals, and debris.

The ultraviolet rays in sunlight oxidize the outer layer of lenses. Oxidation can occur inside the headlights as well. If you see any small drops of moisture inside the headlight cover, it is important to remove the lens and clean it also. Oxidization naturally occurs over time and is not necessarily due to poor maintenance.

Bright lights coming from clear headlights in a night scene

Cleaning products that can be used to clean headlights

Cleaning products used on headlights vary in price range.  While most cleaning techniques differ in products, they all act as either an abrasive or chemical stain remover.  For example, toothpaste removes stains found on headlights because it contains mild abrasives that buff the surface. Glass cleaners help remove oxidation, preparing the surface for better cleaning and most polishes buff surfaces. Vinegar is usually a safe choice to clean the inside of lenses because it is nonabrasive and all natural. There is a protective coating manufactured on lenses so pay attention to any effects these methods may cause. It is recommended that you use plastic gloves while cleaning, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Headlight cleaning kit/headlight restoration kit

A cleaning or restoration kit can differ in price and quality. These can range in price from $15 - $150. This process can seem more time-consuming. Follow the manufacturing instructions enclosed in the kit. Generally, the kit will include

  • Car wax
  • Sealant
  • Cloths
  • Masking tape
  • Mild detergent or kit included cleanser
  • Polishing compound
  • Sandpaper (usually 600 – 2500 grit)
  • Water

Instructions

  1. First, cover the surfaces that are immediately around the headlights with masking tape to protect surfaces from compound abrasives.
  2. Dampen the included cloth, or one of your own, and wash the headlight lenses using the cleanser found in the kit or a mild detergent/soap.
  3. Rinse using plain water.
  4. If any of the tape comes off during this process, dry the area the tape was located and reapply tape. Ensure all chemicals were removed from taped area to prevent any damage.
  5. Use a different cloth to apply the polishing compound with a small, circular motion. It is recommended to spend at least five minutes or more per headlight to allow the polishing compound to work properly.
  6. Rinse polishing compound off with plain water.
  7. Use cool water to wet the smallest grit number of sandpaper you have. Firmly rub each surface of the headlights in back and forth motions. (Keep the sandpaper wet consistently.) Repeat this technique with the smallest to the largest grits of sandpaper you have.
  8. Apply sealant or car wax for future protection. Use a clean cloth in circular motions to apply the wax.
  9. You may rinse the headlight again if you feel it is necessary.

 

Cleaning with Vinegar

This can seem time-consuming and labor intensive but is usually affordable. Supplies needed are

  • Vinegar
  • Large bucket
  • Paper towel, microfiber cloth or fabric cloths

Instructions

  1. Fill the bucket with vinegar.
  2. Remove headlight cover and immerse cover in vinegar, completely covering it.
  3. Leave the lens cover in the vinegar for an hour or a little longer
  4. Dry the lens cover using a paper towel, microfiber cloth or fabric cloth and install headlight cover back onto the headlight assembly.

 

Sandpaper

Any time you use sandpaper make sure that you use the proper course grit rating. Otherwise, there is a high chance you could damage the headlight lens by scrubbing off the protective film. Only use the grit rating and applied pressure necessary to do the job and no more than that.

  • Sandpaper of differing course grit ratings
  • Plastic or utility gloves
  • Water
  • Cloths to remove anything left from the sanding process

Buffing a cloudy headlight with light sandpaper and an orbital tool

Instructions

  1. Use wet sandpaper of the smallest grit (using cool water) to rub each plastic headlight in back and forth motions. Keep sandpaper cool and wet.
  2. Repeat with other sandpaper from smallest to largest grit.
  3. Rinse with plain water.

 

Polishing headlights

Use either a metal polish or a plastic polish. This method works best when the headlight lenses are cloudy from scratches and not from any grime or debris.

  • Purchased polish
  • Cloths
  • Plastic gloves

Instructions

  1. Polish the headlight per manufacturer’s directions located on the polish bottle.
  2. Rinse the polish off thoroughly with plain water or another method per manufacturer’s directions.

 

Cleaning Headlights with Insect Repellant

Do not spray the repellant directly on lenses as this can damage paint or other surfaces.

  • Masking tape
  • Insect spray containing DEET
  • Cloth or paper towels

Instructions

  1. Use masking tape to protect all surfaces around the headlight from the repellant’s chemicals.
  2. Spray insect repellant onto a paper towel or a clean cloth.
  3. Wipe off any grime or particles that are clouding the lenses.
  4. Wipe the lens until it becomes clear. You may need to use added pressure to for severely clouded lenses.
  5. Continue wiping until all the repellant is gone.

 

Toothpaste

Effectiveness varies depending on the type of toothpaste you use.

  • Toothpaste of any kind
  • Gentle soap
  • Water
  • Car wax
  • Masking tape
  • Plastic gloves
  • Soft cloth

A six-panel schematic showing how to apply toothpaste to a cloudy headlight

Instructions

  1. Use masking tape to cover any areas surrounding the headlights to protect from unintentional scuffing.
  2. Clean each cloudy headlight firmly with soap and water.
  3. Rinse using plain water.
  4. Use plain water to dampen a soft, clean cloth and add only a small bit of toothpaste to the cloth. If a small amount does not work well, you may add more toothpaste to the cloth.
  5. Firmly use the cloth to scrub the headlight surfaces in small circles, adding any toothpaste or water as needed. It is recommended up to five minutes per affected light.
  6. Rinse using water.
  7. Air dry.
  8. If desired, apply a car wax per manufacturer’s instructions and rinse again with water.

 

Glass cleaner and vehicle polish

Supplies needed for this method

  • Vehicle polish
  • Car wax –optional
  • Glass cleaner
  • Masking tape
  • Plastic gloves
  • Rotary buffer –optional
  • Soft cloth
  • Water

Instructions

  1. Use tape to protect all areas around the headlights.
  2. Use a glass cleaner to generously spray each headlight, wiping the surface afterward with the cloth.
  3. Apply an automotive polish using a different cloth; firmly scrubbing each surface in circular motions. You may add more polish if needed. (To apply polish, you may use a rotary buffer, if desired.)
  4. Rinse using water.
  5. Air dry.
  6. Apply car wax if desired to protect against future damage from oxidation or other problems.

Regular cleaning can often prevent headlights from becoming cloudy. If you have tried the tips from above to no avail, get more information on cleaning headlights by asking an Expert online.

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