Car Advice

How to clean hazy headlights

If your headlights are dirty or yellowing then your visibility at night will be reduced. Here’s how to clean hazy headlights.

DIRTY OR DISCOLOURED headlights can ruin the look of your car, as well as make driving at night or in reduced visibility conditions dangerous. Headlight covers can become dirty through driving, via mud or bugs splattering onto them, or through age and general wear and tear. keeping your car headlights clean and clear is the way to go.

Unless your headlight covers have yellowed right through, keeping them clean and clear is pretty simple. And by following a few of our simple DIY hacks you’ll be able to keep your headlight covers bright and shiny, without breaking the bank.

So, why do you need to clean your headlights?

This is just common sense. A dirty or cloudy headlight will reduce and diffuse the amount of light that shines out, no matter how good your headlights are. This means, you won’t be able to see as far down the road at night and, if you spend a lot of time driving on country roads you’ll know how important good headlights are. Headlights not working at their best will also make it harder for you to be seen on the road.

Cleaning mud, dirt and bugs from your headlights

This is pretty simple. If you’ve spent any time driving on a dirt road, or a long a muddy track or out in the country at night, especially in warmer months then there’s a good chance your headlights will become dirty. Luckily, cleaning them is as easy as wetting them down with a hose and then sponging 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.

How to clean headlights

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

Yes, that’s right, 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 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 toothpaste (preferably one you won’t be using again that night) or a new/clean microfibre cloth and 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.

How to clean headlights

Now, you need to know that because headlights are covered in a UV protectant to keep the headlights form yellowing 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 quite 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 headline. 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 you’re 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.

Using sandpaper to clean your headlights

Using sandpaper will undoubtedly give a much better finish, but it’s more involved than using either toothpaste or a basic commercial restoration kit. That said, using a commercial kit that contains sandpaper, like the Invision Headlight Restoration Kit is better than wandering the aisles of your local Bunnings and grabbing sandpaper off the shelf.

How to clean headlights

Now, if you can remove the headlight cover then do so, as this will reduce the risk of damaging the paintwork surrounding your headlight. If you don’t remove the headlight, then simply apply some painters masking tape to the metalwork around the headlight, and make sure you use the right type of masking tape… the cheaper ones can often be more trouble than they’re worth.

We’ll assume you’ve already washed and dried the headlight. Starting out with, say, 400-grit sandpaper, wet it and the headlight and then sand gently in a circular motion, making sure you keep the paper and the headlight wet. A spray bottle will come in handy here. Before moving to the next paper, sand across the headlight horizontally.

Once you’ve done that move on to a finer grit sandpaper, like 600 and then keeping the paper and the headlight wet, continue sanding. Then, move onto something like a 2000-grit sandpaper and continue sanding, all the while keeping the paper and the headlight wet.

After working through the paper grades you should end up with a crystal clear headlight. To finish the job, you’ll need to apply a UV protectant to keep your handiwork from yellowing too quickly. You could also use an automotive wax applied to the manufacturers specifications, but this is likely to be very sacrificial and will require monthly maintenance, or more frequently during wetter months.

 

  • Andrew

    The problem is that all headlights have an factory applied UV resistant coating, some have an extremely hard outer coating that is hard to sand off and without re-coating the headlight, the plastic will degrade even quicker than previously. Usually being an acrylic plastic, headlights are solvent sensitive and you should avoid using any sort of lacquer based clear (acrylic clear), particularly if you have visible micro fractures visible within the lense area, the solvent in acrylic lacquer can react quite severly with these micro fractures. There are some new wipe-on products, but their longevity and durability are questionable. The most effective remedy if a simple polish will not restore your lenses is to have a mobile spray painter or panel shop re-clear the sanded headlight lenses with a quality 2-Pack Clearcoat just like the remainder of your car, then they won’t need monthly polishing.

    • Thanks Andrew, and you make a great point. I’ve also heard of some car restorers in the US using clear wraps cut to the shape of the headlight and then applied over it once its been cut back. This then acts as the sacrificial barrier and it should keep the headlights clear for a couple of years. – Isaac

  • kejovi

    In my manual for my Skoda Octavia it says that after washing the headlights don’t wipe them dry or else you degrade the film.

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober was born in the shadow of Mount Panorama in Bathurst and, so, it was inevitable he’d fall into work as a motoring writer. He began his motoring career in 2000 reviewing commercial vehicles, before becoming editor of Caravan & Motorhome magazine. He then moved to MOTOR Magazine before going freelance and contributing to Overlander 4WD, 4×4 Australia, TopGear Australia, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Australian, CARSguide, and many more.