How to clean car headlights
Bright, clean car headlights are good for safety and essential for a roadworthy certificate. Here’s how to do it yourself.
Updated April 21 2020 by Editorial Staff
MY NEW project car is a second-hand 2010 Suzuki Grand Vitara and, like any seven-year-old car, there are a few things that need sorting out. The car was purchased interstate; I’m in Victoria, and the retailer was a car dealership in South Australia. That complicated the sale a bit, but it didn’t change the basic need to pass a Victorian roadworthy.
A roadworthy check is all about safety – it’s not an assessment of car value, and it’s possible for a terrible car to be roadworthy. For example, the interior could be tatty, non-essentials like cruise control not work, or the engine could be up for a major repair. That’s where you need a pre-purchase inspection to make sure all’s well before you buy. An inspection is very important when you buy privately, but less so when you buy from a dealer as there are laws in place to ensure your vehicle is safe, roadworthy and warranted for a short period of time after you complete the deal.
Still, there’s quite a number of things a roadworthy inspection will pick up; brakes, seatbelts, fluid leaks, state of the tyres and headlight condition. In the case of our Grand Vitara, the headlights were foggy, so we had them professionally cleaned by our go-to expert on car body care, Darren Hosking of The Detailing Pros.
We asked Darren to do just half a headlight so we could compare. Below is the result, and that was even before the final touches at the end:
As you can see, quite a difference. The car would have failed its roadworthy because of the state of the headlights – so, yes, that begs the question, why was it sold in that condition?
You can, of course, do the job yourself if you have the skills and tools, but you’ll need to be careful not to scratch the lens covers and you have to replace the clearcoat. Our job cost $25 per headlight but the car only had a polish – more damaged or dirty headlights may require a sanding followed by a polish and recoating of the lenses which would be around $150. There’s a lot that goes into a professional cleaning job, and it can turn into more of a restoration than a cleaning.
Many people like to upgrade headlight globes or add driving lights. Both make a significant difference to lighting, but a good cleaning is cheap and easy… it might be all you need.
If you’re not afraid of a little elbow grease and have the time to devote to giving your car’s headlights a good clean, then it can be very satisfying. Below are some handy hints and different methods to bring your car’s headlights back to new. Well, close to new.
Cleaning mud, dirt and bugs from your headlights
If you’ve spent any time driving on a dirt road, or along a muddy track or out in the country at night – especially in warmer months – was them down with a hose and then sponge them clean with a good quality car wash. You might need to do this a couple of times, especially if you’ve got bugs splattered on the headlights, or if they’re heavily caked with mud.
You want to avoid scratching the headlights, something that’s very easy to do if they’re covered in mud. So, try and hose off as much mud as you can and then light sponge them down going in one direction only. This will minimise the risk of swirling the mud around on the lens cover and creating circular scratches.
Cleaning your headlights with toothpaste
Toothpaste is a very fine cutting compound (it cleans plaque off your teeth, remember) and most aviation maintenance crews use toothpaste to clean/restore the cockpit windscreen on passenger aircraft.
When using toothpaste, it’s good to use one that contains baking soda, or you can simply add a little baking soda to a glob of toothpaste in a container and mix it through. Then, with a spray bottle, mist some water onto the headlight lens and either using a toothbrush (preferably one you won’t be using again that night) or a new/clean microfibre cloth apply it to the headlight in circular motions. You don’t need to push too hard; let the toothpaste mix do the work. If the headlights aren’t yellowed right through, you should be able to see and feel the transformation. Once the headlights are clear, simply wash off the excess toothpaste mixture and then wipe dry.
Now, you need to know that headlights are covered in a UV protectant to keep the headlights from yellowing and your toothpaste restoration mix will have totally removed that film. Unless you re-apply a UV protectant, you’ll need to keep cleaning your headlights with this cutting compound mixture or else they’ll yellow very quickly. UV protectant is available from auto shops, like Repco, Supercheap Auto, Autobarn, etc.
Using a commercial headlight restoration kit
If you think it’s a little too DIY to use toothpaste to clean your headlights, then the good news is that most auto stores sell both headlight restoration kits (usually less than $35). My old man has used toothpaste to clean the headlights on his old Range Rover (he’s also used it to polish steel), as well as store bought kits. The kit he used was the Meguiars Perfect Clarity Headlight Restoration Kit which retails for around $70.
Using it is pretty simple, and it’s the same process as other commercially available restoration kits. You apply a small amount of the cutting compound, sometimes it’s called a cleaning compound, to the provided pad and wipe it across the headlight. With the Meguiars kit you’ll be done when the headlight looks like it’s covered in wax. Then, get a damp new/clean microfibre cloth and wipe it across the headlight until its clean. Then get another, dry/clean microfibre cloth and wipe the headlight until it’s dry.
After that, you’ll need to apply two coats of the Meguiars Perfect Clarity Headlight Coating. This is the UV protectant and it takes about five minutes to dry. Apply a second coat once the first coat is dry. Meguiars backs its UV protectant for up to a year.
Some commercial kits contain graded wet and dry sandpaper, but using sandpaper on your headlights is only something you should do if you’re handy and confident. If your headlights are at the stage where you need to use sandpaper on them, then it might be worth talking with your local mechanic who will be able to provide the service.