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How to clean headlights and get them beaming again

Foggy headlights which are covered in mud on a blue car
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Every driver should know how to clean headlights. While you can take your vehicle through a car wash, it unfortunately won’t fix the fact that vver time, headlights will naturally grow dull, yellow and scratched — even if you have one of the best electric cars. You only realize the effects when you’re driving in the dark and notice your headlights aren’t as bright as they used to be, or maybe they look ‘foggy’ in the daylight, which is a safety hazard you should deal with it immediately. 

Before you go replacing your headlights, which can be expensive, you can clean and restore your headlights yourself. All it takes is a couple of household products and some elbow grease. Here, we will take you through exactly what to do to get your headlights beaming again. 

How to clean headlights with toothpaste 

What you'll need

Car wash soap and sponge

Masking tape

Microfiber cloths

Car wax

Toothpaste

OR

Baking soda

White distilled vinegar

The following methods are suitable for headlights which are just starting to dim and show signs of yellowing. If these techniques don’t work, you will need to try a more abrasive method, such as one of the ones mentioned further in the guide.

1. Clean your headlights using soap and warm water with a sponge. If you don’t have soap to hand, we recommend Chemical Guys Mr. Pink Foaming Car Wash Soap ($24.99, Amazon (opens in new tab)).

2. Rinse and then immediately move onto the next step. 

3. Cover the edges of your car around the headlights with masking tape, to protect the paint from damage.

A grey car which has masking tape around its headlight

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

4. Squeeze a decent amount of toothpaste into a clean microfiber cloth and apply it directly to the wet headlight. You want to rub in circular motions and cover the entire surface. You can add more water as needed to help with the application and create a lather.

5. Don’t be afraid to be firm as you apply the toothpaste. The idea is its abrasiveness should scrape off the residue which has built up on your headlight. You want to spend about 5-10 minutes per headlight.   

6. Rinse each headlight with warm water. Make sure any residual toothpaste isn’t left to dry on your vehicle as it drains off. 

7. Leave the headlights to dry before buffing with a clean microfiber cloth.

8. Apply car wax to each headlight, such as Shine Armor ($19.95, Amazon (opens in new tab)). This adds a protective layer and will stop them from fogging up again so quickly.

A toothbrush holding toothpaste in front of a car's headlights

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

If you don’t have enough toothpaste to hand, you can also substitute it with white distilled vinegar and baking soda. Simply combine two parts of white vinegar with one part baking soda to make a loose paste (expect some fizzing!). Then apply using a microfiber cloth with the same method as above and rinse.  

How to restore headlights with sandpaper 

What you'll need

Car wash soap and sponge

Masking tape

Sandpaper of varying grit

Car polish

Microfiber cloth

Car wax

If this hasn’t done the trick, then you’re going to have to use something a little stronger. Using sandpaper can seem daunting because you’re pretty much sanding off the top layer of your headlight, but it does work. And you can still seal and protect it afterwards, so it looks like new.  

1. First, clean your headlights using warm soapy water as above and rinse.

2. Leave to dry and use masking tape to protect the surrounding area. 

3. Now you’re going to want to prepare to sand it down. Remember, the higher the number, the finer the grit with sandpaper. So you want to start with about 400.  We recommend Miady Assorted Grit Sandpaper ($7.99, Amazon (opens in new tab)).

4. Start by soaking the sandpaper in water, and then work in a horizontal direction from side-to-side across the headlight. 

5. Then switch to a horizontal motion using a finer grit sandpaper, such as 1,000. Keep rinsing as needed.  

Headlights being sanded down with sandpaper

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

6. Next, move onto a 3,000 grit sandpaper and continue to use the same motions until the headlights feel smooth to the touch. 

7. Rinse the headlights — don’t worry if they appear scratched at this stage; it’s completely normal.

8. Now, you want to rub car polish into the headlights using a microfiber cloth. Apply it in a circular motion with firm pressure until the shine returns. We recommend Carfidant Scratch and Swirl Remover ($19.95, Amazon (opens in new tab))

9. Leave the polish to dry, then buff away any residue using a microfiber cloth. If you notice any spots still appear foggy, reapply the polish and repeat from step eight.

10. Finally, seal and protect your headlights using car wax. 

Headlights being buffed with a microfiber cloth

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Your headlights should now be looking crystal clear again. Remember, if you’re uncomfortable sanding down your headlights, you can always ask a professional. There’s also headlight restoration kits available, although for those you should always follow the given instructions.  

Now your headlights are looking great, you might want to learn how to jump start your car in case of an emergency. And if it's time for an upgrade, check out 9 essential tips for buying an electric car.

Katie looks after everything homes-related, from kitchen appliances to gardening tools. She also covers smart home products too, so is the best point of contact for any household advice! She has tested and reviewed kitchen appliances for over 6 years, so she knows what to look for when finding the best. Her favorite thing to test has to be stand mixers as she loves to bake in her spare time.