How to Clean Your Car’s Foggy Headlights

Is there anything more disturbing than a pair of foggy headlights? Yes — but that doesn’t mean your dirty lights aren’t eyesores.

It’s not your fault. You can wash your car every week of the year, but without proper maintenance, those beams will still be obscured. The fogginess results from both accumulated filth within the housing crevasses and the chemical reaction of exposed plastic to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Unless you park your car inside or under a cover at all times, your headlights will begin to look like a heavy smoker’s fingernails (sorry for the visual).

how to clean foggy headlights car before 1
Miles Branman/The Manual

Beyond the aesthetic downsides, a pair of shrouded headlights impairs the effectiveness of the bulbs. In other words, over time, you’ll see less and less of the road ahead. The good news is that cleaning these bad boys is one of the easiest and most affordable automotive DIY jobs out there. You can use everyday household items to do a quick restore of your lights or buy a commercial kit to fully freshen those suckers.

Below, we’ll outline the three most common methods for cleaning your headlights, including a before-and-after look at our own ride.

What You Need

At a minimum, here are the products you’ll need to do the job:

  • Soap and water
  • A soft cloth and a rag
  • Painter’s tape (3/4-inch or thicker)
  • Toothpaste (a type without crystals or particles)

How to Clean Headlights

As a first step, wash your headlights and surrounding surfaces with soap and water. Cleaning any exterior grime from the housings will avoid scratching the lenses and shows off your hard work when the project is complete. Be sure to thoroughly dry the cleaned portion so moisture doesn’t make its way onto the headlights during your restoration.

Next, it’s time to bust out that painter’s tape. Avoid using a more adhesive tape so you don’t damage your car’s paint. Make a perimeter of tape around each headlight, leaving all of the actual housing exposed (aka the part that needs to be restored). You can choose whether to tape off your turn signals or leave them exposed for cleaning as well, but these typically don’t fog as much.

With Toothpaste

Of the three cleaning methods, the ol’ toothpaste fix is the easiest and least expensive. As is often the case with quick fixes, this may not be as effective as the other methods, but how many opportunities are there to use toothpaste for anything other than cleaning your own teeth? Live a little.

The process is simple. Apply some toothpaste to a rag or towel, then spread it in circular motions over the entire headlight. Rinse the housing with water, dry it with a towel, and crack open a beer (cuz you’re done). No seriously, it’s that easy. Toothpaste is lightly abrasive, so applying it to your headlights scrapes away the crud while filling in any scratches. Why do you think 5/5 dentists recommend using the stuff to fight plaque? One important caution: Use plain toothpaste like Tom’s or Arm and Hammer. Anything with flavor crystals or other particles can scratch your headlights.

With Sandpaper

Too good for hygiene products? The sandpaper method requires only a bit more effort (mainly finding sandpaper), but can shave away more grime from your headlights. If you haven’t already, clean your headlights with soap and water, then dry thoroughly. Apply a bit of water to the sandpaper (800 grit to start), then work it in circular motions around the headlight, followed by a horizontal path. Do this lightly — pressing too hard can scratch the housing.

Now, grab finer sandpaper (1600 grit or more) and do the same process from the other direction. Once finished, wipe off the headlight with rubbing alcohol (this helps the headlight dry). Everything should look pretty clear at this point, but as a finishing touch, polish the plastic with toothpaste (like above) or a specialized headlight polish.

The Outsourced Method

If using toothpaste seems strange and trying sandpaper is a fearful endeavor, you can always pay for a kit like this one from 3M. You’ll still need to get your hands dirty (or clean?) with an all-in-one setup, and the results will be about the same as the sandpaper method, but at least the kits aren’t expensive and are widely available.

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