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How to clean car headlights — even with toothpaste and sandpaper

October 08, 2021 by

Headlights are one of the most important bits on your car – after all, without them, you won’t be able to see anything while driving in the dark.

Therefore, it’s important that you regularly clean them, as even a thin layer of grime can have a big impact on your headlights’ brightness.

Thankfully, cleaning your car’s headlights is a pretty straightforward job, and there are a number of solutions out there – even toothpaste can be used to remove any built-up layers of muck and dirt. Read on for everything you need to know about keeping your car’s headlights squeaky clean.

  • Why keep them clean
  • I have headlight washers
  • Cheapest way to clean headlights
  • Using toothpaste
  • Dedicated kits
  • Using sandpaper
  • If cleaning doesn’t work

Why do headlights need to be clean?

Keeping your car’s headlights as clean as possible is imperative from a safety perspective. The more dirt obscuring the light coming from your car’s headlights, the less effective they’ll be at illuminating the road ahead. Depending on how much grime is covering the lenses of your car’s headlights, it may also make it harder for oncoming traffic and other road users to see you.
If your car headlights are especially dirty, the police can even pull you over and hand you an on the spot fine if they deem your lights are filthy enough to be a major safety hazard.

Will car headlight washers keep my headlights clean?

Many cars on sale today have built-in car headlight washers – usually in the form of a retractable nozzle that pops out from the front bumper and squirts water onto the headlight. However, while these can help remove any loose dirt on your car’s headlights, they’re not quite as effective at removing tougher layers of muck and grime that have built up on the lens.

Do also bear in mind that you’ll also need to make sure your headlight washes are also in tip-top working order for them to be most effective – for instance, the nozzle jets themselves can get clogged up with dirt. As a result, it’s best to regularly check your headlight washers are in working order.

What can I use to keep my car’s headlights clean?

There are a number of ways you can keep your car’s headlights clean, ranging from a dedicated car headlight cleaner, to homemade headlight cleaning solutions using items you can find around the house. Below are guides on how to use many of the cleaning options out there.

How to clean car headlights using a headlight cleaner kit

A number of car cleaning product companies sell kits that have been specifically designed for keeping car headlights spick and span. Generally, these will come with cleaning compounds and sanding discs that need to be used with a high-speed drill.

Because many brands make their own specific car headlight cleaner kits, prices can vary quite a bit, so it’s worth shopping around if you’d prefer to go down this route.

How to clean car headlights on a budget

If you can’t quite stretch to a purpose-built cleaning kit and all the other equipment you’ll need for it, there are thankfully much more affordable ways to clear surface dirt of your car headlight lenses. For instance, if you already manually wash your car with car shampoo, you can use that along with a cloth and some warm water to wipe away any muck.

If you don’t have any car shampoo on hand, any water-based cleaning product should do the trick – just make sure that you make sure you buff or wipe off any excess residue, as you’ll need to break out the cloth and cleaning equipment again to remove the mark it’ll leave when it dries.

It’s important that you don’t use washing-up liquid or acidic cleaning products, as these can cause damage to the car’s headlights and any other part of the car they come into contact with.

How to clean car headlights with toothpaste

While we’d always advise using a purpose-built cleaning product when washing your car’s headlights, toothpaste is a decent alternative if you don’t have any car headlight cleaner kits at hand. The same properties that help it keep your teeth clean also lend themselves very well when removing tough grime from your car’s headlights.

To clean your car’s headlights this way, rub the toothpaste onto the headlight with a brush or rotary buffer, until the dirt starts coming off. After this, use warm water and a cloth to wash away the dirt and excess toothpaste, and don’t forget to buff afterwards.

Because it’s the baking soda in the toothpaste that allows it to remove the dirt, a paste made up of water and baking soda will also do the same job.

How to clean car headlights with sandpaper

It’s possible to put together a homemade headlight cleaning kit, using sheets of sandpaper. As when using a shop-bought car headlight cleaner kit, it’s helpful to remove the headlight if possible. If not, thoroughly mask the surrounding bodywork and trim.

Using sandpaper on a headlight, with or without a machine, is a high-risk strategy, as it’s all too easy to do irreparable damage. It’s best to begin using as little pressure as possible, then build up from there until you’re confident in the amount of pressure you’re using.

If you are at all unsure about your ability to do the job without damaging the headlight, don’t do it. The headlights in most current cars are sealed units, so you can’t just replace a damaged cover. A whole unit can cost many hundreds of pounds.

If you want to carry on, here’s how to do it:

  • Wet headlight and 400-grit sandpaper with warm water
  • Sand in a circular motion, using light pressure, keeping the sandpaper and headlight wet
  • Once you’ve sanded the whole headlight, sand in horizontal lines to finish.
  • Go over the headlight again with wet 600-grit sandpaper, using a circular motion
  • Once you’ve sanded the whole headlight, wash it off with clean water
  • Go over the headlight again with wet 2000-grit sandpaper, using a circular motion
  • Once you’ve sanded the whole headlight, make sure all dirt has been removed. Re-sand if necessary
  • Clean and dry the headlight, then apply a protective wax.

Other useful cleaning products
It’s not just dirt that can build up on headlights. Dead insects, tar, rubber and all sorts of other heavy-duty gunk can be beyond the capability of even the best shampoos and polishes. But there are plenty of stronger cleaning chemicals available, formulated specifically to deal with insects, tar and so on.

If cleaning the headlights didn’t work

If your car’s headlights still don’t shine brightly after you’ve cleaned them, there could be something else causing them to be dimmer than usual. For example, exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun over a period of time can cause a car headlight lens to become cloudy, or there could be condensation on the inside of the headlight. There are restoration kits out there that can fix these for you – though, if the problem is severe or persistent, you may need to replace the headlight itself.

What else can I do to keep my headlights shining brightly?

A good way to ensure your car’s headlights are in tip-top working order is to regularly give your car a once over. You don’t need to be handy with a set of tools to have a go at this, either – even if you aren’t able to fix any problems you may spot, making sure your headlights and other aspects of your car are working as intended is one small step you can take in keeping your car in roadworthy condition.

It also goes without saying that, since car shampoos are great at cleaning headlights, it’s definitely worth giving them a scrub down whenever you’re washing your car. After all, since you’re already cleaning the rest of the car, why not make sure your headlights are also devoid of muck and grime?

While you’re cleaning your car, make sure there’s no dirt obscuring other safety-critical parts, such as your car’s number plates, door mirrors, wiper blades and windows. As with headlights, if they’re too dirty, they can pose a safety hazard and the police even have the power to fine you on the grounds that your car is in an unsafe condition.

If your car has any cameras or sensors for driver aids like cruise control or parking assists, make sure these are also kept clean. This is because any dirt obscuring them could prevent them from working as intended, which isn’t exactly ideal from a safety standpoint.

Watch: How to keep your car clean during the Coronavirus outbreak