Cleaning car headlights

How To Clean Headlights At Home

Nidhi Nangia
By Nidhi Nangia. Updated: July 3, 2019
How To Clean Headlights At Home

It doesn't matter how old your car is, making it look shiny and new can be done to even the oldest jalopies. If your car was bought new, then you should remember the original crystal clear shine of the headlights. If you have a classic or restored car, you can see just how much effort has been exerted by looking at the quality of the headlights. With time, however, headlights can get dirty and blurred, looking almost like they are covered in wax paper. It is not mere aesthetics that tell you it's time to clean your headlights as dirty ones can obscure your view when driving in the dark. oneHOWTO shows just how cheap and easy it can be if you want to know how to clean headlights at home.

You may also be interested in: How to Polish Headlights
  1. Inspecting the headlights
  2. General washing of the headlights
  3. Identifying the issue
  4. Sanding the headlights
  5. Polishing the Headlights

Inspecting the headlights

Start by inspecting your headlights, so that you can determine the extent of any damage and how you are going to resolve it. If they have become hazy and not crisp, it is better to examine them under sunlight, doing so when both on and off. By doing this, you will be able to determine what cleaning method you will need to use to make them new again.

In case of extensive and irreparable damage, you will need professional help to get them examined. However, if the headlights are severely damaged, you may need to replace them instead. Look for scratches and abrasions that might indicate more serious issues. Of course, if the headlight doesn't turn on at all it is likely a problem with the bulb or connecting wire.

General washing of the headlights

Use regular car soap to wash the headlights. Your headlights may be covered with regular dirt and grime from roads, that can be easily washed off with a simple detergent. This is often enough to make your lights shine. If not, washing will be helpful in making the diagnosis easier and quicker. Some sources say not to use household soaps as this can wear the paint on your car, but unless you car is made of papier mache, the paint should be robust enough to withstand a large range of cleaners. Just make sure there are no specific abrasives in it designed for breaking down paint.

You can also use some bicarbonate of soda to help remove some of the built on Dirt. Bicarbonate of soda is a great home cleaner as it reacts with the dirt and breaks it down to wash off more easily.

Before you start examining your car’s headlights for specific issues, wash them with car wash soap and warm water. Wipe the headlights with a dry cloth and allow them to dry naturally. When they are clean, you will be able to specifically pinpoint any problems. Especially if your car has been made since the mid-1980s, the headlights will most likely be made from polycarbonate plastic. While these are durable, they also suffer from some specific wear issues. We'll take a look at them below and show you how to clean your car headlights properly.

How To Clean Headlights At Home - General washing of the headlights

Identifying the issue

After you have washed the headlights of general grime, you can check to see any other issue concerned with cleaning. If you wash them and they look shiny and new, then you're good to go. If not, you can look at these possible headlight problems:

  • Hazing: Headlights become hazy when the hard coat on them wears off and the coating of soft polycarbonate gets exposed. After this, their surface starts absorbing scratches and becomes hazy. Their lens soon gets covered with dark yellow, rough crusted surface. If you feel your headlights have become hazy over time, then doing a quick cleaning will slow down the degeneration process of your headlights.
  • Yellowing: Headlights start losing their shine and becoming yellowish in color when their hard coats thin out and loses adhesion to polycarbonate lenses. Spectrum of the UV wavelength creates another repeating unit among the carbonic chain. This absorbs the blue light from the lens and gives a yellowish appearance to the headlights. If you see a yellowish tint on your headlights, then you will need to clean them up with a polishing compound to revert the damage. Applying some transmission fluid will also clear the yellowing, but temporarily.
  • Cracks and peels: As the hard coat starts deteriorating, spotting in some areas will start appearing, especially in the corners and in the upper parts of the headlights. You may also notice the hard coat flaking off. Eventually, cracks will develop deep in the lenses, after which you will need to get your headlights resurfaced or replaced by professionals. So, by cleaning them on a regular basis, you can avoid replacement for as long as possible.

If you have glass headlights, you will have to get them examined by professionals only. Most cars have plastic headlights these days and will eventually exhibit any of the symptoms above. But older and classic car models have glass headlights that are more complicated and delicate. They are best examined and repaired by professional auto technicians only. Glass headlights are expensive too, which means that you can’t risk damaging them in the process.

Sanding the headlights

Now it comes to start the deep cleaning process. You need to sand your headlights in order to remove dirt and grime from your headlights which have been affixed to the headlights thanks to the road. Follow these instructions:

  • First of all, grab some different grades of dry/wet sandpaper which you will be using to buff out your headlights. Make sure that the sandpaper you are using is extremely fine. You need a coarser grade of around 1500 to start the job, and then a finer grade of 2000 to finish the abrading. You may even choose to start your process with a coarser grade of sandpaper, depending on the amount of dirt on your headlights, and how hard you want to abrade them.
  • While using the sandpaper, make sure that you don’t rub too vigorously and scratch off the paint around the headlight. The same happens if you have waxed the car well. So, before you start rubbing, affix some masking or vinyl tape around the light's edges, the place where the car’s paint meets the headlights. This will avoid any paint getting scratched up while rubbing the sandpaper. This may not be a necessary step, but it will do a great job to keep your car paint protected.
  • Before starting the sanding process, it is advised to wipe down the lights using a clean paper towel and a few drops of rubbing alcohol. This will help the lights to dry quickly too, so that you can start your cleaning process quickly.
  • Splash some water from a bucket or spray some water on the headlights using a spray bottle. Wet sand your headlights properly using sandpaper with a coarser grit. Keep applying even pressure while scrubbing until you achieve a dull, even finish. If you notice a foggy line appearing on the surface and changing shape as you sand it off, it indicates that you have scrubbed enough and the light's factory coating has started coming off. Make sure that you sand off the coating completely in order to get an even finish.
  • Once you have rubbed your headlights with coarser sandpaper, switch to a finer grade and repeat the process. Keep rubbing with finer sandpaper until the dull finish changes into a satiny feel. If your headlights have a texture in the interior, then you may not be able to see the bulb clearly. In that case, you can stop at the coarser sandpaper and won't need to rub with the finer one. But make sure that the headlights look hazy and even, not yellow.
How To Clean Headlights At Home - Sanding the headlights

Polishing the Headlights

After completing the sanding process, it’s time to polish your headlights with a buffing compound. Find out how to polish headlights here for a more comprehensive guide or follow these instructions:

  • You can visit an auto parts shop to find the variety of available options. An aluminum polishing compound will be the best choice to give good shape to your headlights. Non-abrasive sink and bathroom acrylic tub cleaner is best for plastics. Plain blue toothpaste can do the job fine too, but make sure that it does not contain any whitening agent, peroxide or any other additives.
  • Once you have selected the right buffing compound for your headlights, squeeze some out on a clean microfiber piece of cloth. Start working on the headlight in a circular motion. Keep repeating the process evenly on your headlight until it starts looking clearer. Concentrate on a small area at a time and then move on to the next part.
  • You may also use a hand drill that you will receive with a buffing kit. You have to apply the buffing compound on a foam pad, then attach it to the drill which will spin on the headlights to buff them up. Start with a low RPM and then slowly increase it while applying gentle pressure uniformly on the headlight surface. Using this method makes the process easier and faster than buffing by hand.

If you want to read similar articles to How To Clean Headlights At Home, we recommend you visit our Car Maintenance and Repair category.

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How To Clean Headlights At Home