How to clean your headlights
Updated 9 Oct 2019
Two of the most important safety items on your vehicle are your headlights. They illuminate your way at night time and show other traffic where you are when it’s raining or foggy.
As your vehicle ages, your headlights may not perform as well as they used to, and it has nothing to do with the bulbs.
Headlight lenses or housings are typically made of materials other than glass. Materials like acrylic or polycarbonate are high-strength and allow light transmission incredibly well, but they can dull or yellow with age.
The good news is that you can restore your headlights to their previous crystal clear state in a few different ways.
Clean Your Headlights Gently
The first step is to remove anything that is simply stuck to your headlight assemblies. All you need is a bucket of warm water, a soft microfibre cloth, gentle carwash detergent and clean water to rinse.
- Mix the warm water with carwash detergent according to the soap instructions;
- Soak the wash cloth in the soapy water, then scrub your headlights with the soapy cloth;
- Continue scrubbing any grit, grime, or dirt from the headlight lens until it feels smooth;
- Rinse your headlights with clean water and assess if the headlights are still dirty or cloudy. If they are, you may need to use a more aggressive method to clean them.
Polish Your Headlight Lenses
If simple soap and water weren’t enough to restore your headlights, a polishing compound might be required.
You’ll need clean rags, masking tape and fine polishing compound for plastic or acrylic. You’ll need to rewash your headlights after polishing also.
- Mask around your headlight lenses. Use masking tape to create a border for your workspace, protecting any surfaces around the headlights;
- Apply a quarter-sized spot of polish to a clean cloth and smear the polish onto the headlight lens;
- Work the polish in small circles with moderate pressure all over the lens until the polish dries;
- Buff away the dried polish with another clean cloth, then assess your job. If the appearance is improved but not perfect, you can try another round of polishing. If the lens is clear, wash it with soapy water, and you’re done;
If polishing doesn’t remove all the yellowing or cloudiness, you could attempt headlight restoration with sanding.
Restore Headlights with Sanding
This procedure is more in-depth and can cause lasting damage to your headlights and surrounding surfaces if not carried out properly.
Take great care when sanding your headlights to avoid damage.
You’ll need fine-grit sandpaper, ranging from 1,000-grit to 3,000-grit, as well as water and clean cloths or rags.
If you purchase a headlight restoration kit, all the supplies you need will be included (other than water, of course).
- Mask your headlights as you would when polishing your headlights. This protects the surrounding surfaces from errant sandpaper swipes;
- Keep your headlight housing wet while you’re sanding. This is known as wet sanding;
- Starting with the roughest sandpaper, lightly scuff the entire surface of your headlight in tiny circles. All you’re aiming to do is remove a microscopic layer from the outside of the lens;
- Rinse your headlights, then repeat with the next grade of finer grit sandpaper;
- Repeat the process until you’ve sanded the headlights with the finest grade of sandpaper, around 3,000 grit;
- The headlights may appear dull when you rinse them. Polish your headlights as per the previous instructions, for a crystal-clear finish.
If your headlights are still cloudy or yellowed, they’re probably too oxidized to repair. If you need to replace or restore your headlights, visit AutoGuru and book in with a qualified, local workshop or mobile mechanic.
Jason is a Canadian automotive content writer with a background in the auto service industry, but he’s been hooked on cars and mechanics since childhood.
One of his first cars was an ’80 Mazda RX-7 that’s sorely missed to this day. A ’68 Ford Torino GT, a ’66 Ford Country Squire Woodie station wagon, and a ’96 Suzuki GSX-R 750 have spent time in his fleet of cars, bikes, and trucks over the past two decades.
Jason’s pride and joy is under construction – a turbocharged ’88 Mazda RX-7 convertible. Also on his resume is CASCAR official certification.