How to Clean Headlights. From Cloudy to Clear.

Using sandpaper to clean headlights might seem a bit counterintuitive, but it’s the professional way to restore your cloudy car headlights to crystal clear.  And since a lot of us are at the brink of mind numbing boredom, now is the perfect time to take on this freakishly satisfying project.

Old headlight that's been rejuvenated to being crystal clear.

Skip right to the tutorial.

“Hey!  Guess what guys??!!  You can clean your car headlights with toothpaste!”  Says everyone, everywhere, all the time.  I’m calling bullshit.  Toothpaste might gets some dead bugs off, the same way it’ll get dead bugs out of your teeth.  But to really whiten and brighten either of them, you need to do a little work.

Cloudy car headlight so opaque that light can barely get through.

Herein lies the problem with social media.  If an idea sounds plausible, practical and stupid-easy people are willing to share it, like it and pass on this super-secret bit of information with a knowing wink. They’ve done this with “the toothpaste trick.”

Even though they’ve never tried it themselves.  

So of course I had to try the toothpaste trick.

Toothpaste Doesn’t Work

Just take some toothpaste and rub it on your cloudy headlight, then buff it off after it dries a tiny bit.

When I did this, all I got was a minty fresh headlight that looked like it was on the waiting list for cataracts surgery.


So I did my thing, dove into the research, compared the most difficult with the easiest methods and came up with a solution that’s in between (but admittedly leaning towards the more difficult because those are generally the methods that actually work)

Why Headlights Get Cloudy

It’s because headlights are made of plastic now, not made of glass the way they used to be.  They’re coated with a UV protectant to keep the plastic from getting ruined and drying out.

That UV protection is what becomes a disaster over time, clouding up, getting brittle, oxidizing and making your headlights opaque.

To make them shine again you need to scrape off that yellow, cloudy, flaking UV protectant.

It’s a bit of work and will probably take you around an hour.  Not convinced?  Here’s my before and after.

Side by side view of a car headlight before and after car cleaning it with sandpaper.

Good.  I’m glad you’ve decided to go ahead with restoring your headlights.  You’re a champ.

How to Clean Cloudy Headlights

To clean your headlights you have to sand off the portion of them that’s actually cloudy. That’s the old UV coating.  The best way to do that is with sandpaper.

Materials

320 – 800 grit sandpaper
1000 – 1500 grit sandpaper
2500 – 3000 grit sandpaper
Padded sanding block or dish sponge
Isopropyl Alcohol
Headlight polish/levelling compound
Headlight Clear Coat/UV Protectant
Orbital Sander
Water
Soft Cloth
Painter tape

**Or – you can go the easier and probably cheaper route and buy an entire kit on Amazon.**

Entire Headlight Restoration Kit (hand powered with drill attachment for polishing)

Entire Headlight Restoration Kit (drill powered)


I didn’t even THINK of checking Amazon for headlight restoring kits so  I bought everything separately at my local automotive store.

Automotive stores are where you can get sandpapers with this sort of grit along with the polish and clear coat.

Instructions

 320 – 800 Grit (dry sand)
  1. Tape around your headlights to protect your car paint. You can use masking tape. I used painters tape.
  2. Sand, yes SAND, your headlights in a left to right motion.  The worse your headlights are the lower the grit number you should use.  I started with 800, but probably should have used 400 to make the job easier.  Keep your sanding pressure even and fluid.  Your headlights will get even cloudier at this point.
  3. Rinse the headlight with water and wipe with a cloth to clear away any debris.

Sanding car headlight in a horizontal motion with 800 grit sandpaper.

1000 – 1500 Grit (damp sand)

4. With a little water on the sandpaper sand the headlight again with this finer grit sandpaper in an up and down motion.  The reason you change directions is because you’re sanding down the ridges you’ve caused by the rougher grit sandpaper earlier.

5. Rinse with water and wipe with a soft cloth to get rid of plastic debris.

Sanding car headlight in a vertical motion using wet 1,500 grit sandpaper.

2500 – 3000 Grit (damp sand)

6. The final sanding step is to use the finest grit with a little water and sand in a left to right motion again.

7. Rinse with water, wipe with soft cloth.

Sanding car headlight horizontally with wet 3000 grit sandpaper.

Buff/Polish With Wool or Microfibre Pad

8. Attach a microfibre of sheepskin pad to an orbital palm sander.

9. Add compound to the pad and rub the polish into the pad so it’s evenly saturated.

Polishing compound on lambswool attached to palm sander for cleaning headlights.

10. Polish headlights.  The headlights will start to look clearer now.

Polishing headlight with hand sander fitted with a wool buffing disk.

Wipe with Isopropyl Alcohol

11. Wipe the headlights clean with Isopropyl Alcohol.

A bottle of isopropyl alcohol held up in front of a black car and headlight.

Spray with Headlight Clear Coat

12.  Apply the clear coat / UV protectant according to directions.  Mine was a spray, yours may be a liquid you wipe on.

Meguiar's headlight coating can held up in front of cloudy headlight.

You’re done.

Sparkling clean car headlight after rejuvenating with sand paper method.

Take a look at the before and after again.

Side by side view of a car headlight before and after car cleaning it with sandpaper.

Cleaning your cloudy headlights doesn’t just make your car look better it increases the output of your headlights by 400X.  I made up the 400X but it makes a huge difference.

You’ll be able to see in front of your car better at night and other people will better be able to see you.

Fully rejuvenated car headlight after cleaning using sandpaper, buffing and headlight coating.

All for about an hours worth of work and around $25 (if you buy one of the kits).  Here are the links to the kits again:

  1.  Headlight restoring kit with drill attachment for polishing.

2.  Headlight restoring kit with drill attachment for all steps.

I’d personally buy the first kit because it has a separate polish and UV coating.  The second kit seems to just have the polish.

How to clean headlights

How to clean headlights like the professionals do. Go from cloudy to clear.
4.64 from 11 votes
Print Pin Rate
Prep Time: 2 hours
Author: Karen Bertelsen

Instructions

320 – 800 Grit (dry sand)

  • Tape around your headlights to protect your car paint. You can use masking tape. I used painters tape. Sand, yes SAND, your headlights in a left to right motion.  The worse your headlights are the lower the grit number you should use.  I started with 800, but probably should have used 400 to make the job easier.  Keep your sanding pressure even and fluid.  Your headlights will get even cloudier at this point.Rinse the headlight with water and wipe with a cloth to clear away any debris.

1000 – 1500 Grit (damp sand)

  • With a little water on the sandpaper sand the headlight again with this finer grit sandpaper in an up and down motion.  The reason you change directions is because you’re sanding down the ridges you’ve caused by the rougher grit sandpaper earlier.Rinse with water and wipe with a soft cloth to get rid of plastic debris.

2500 – 3000 Grit (damp sand)

  • The final sanding step is to use the finest grit with a little water and sand in a left to right motion again.Rinse with water, wipe with soft cloth.

Buff/Polish With Wool or Microfibre Pad

  • Attach a microfibre of sheepskin pad to an orbital palm sander.Add compound to the pad and rub the polish into the pad so it’s evenly saturated.Polish headlights.  The headlights will start to look clearer now.

Clean

  • Wipe the headlights clean with Isopropyl Alcohol.

Clear Coat

  • Spray with Headlight Clear CoatApply the clear coat / UV protectant according to directions.  Mine was a spray, yours may be a liquid you wipe on.You're done!

If your headlights are a  disaster, ditch the toothpaste. Do the job right.
 

→Follow me on Instagram where I often make a fool of myself←

 

How to Clean Headlights. From Cloudy to Clear.

61 Comments

  1. Paul says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I think I’ll buy a kit. My brother bought a kit for me, but that was a year ago. We haven’t had time to work on it together.

  2. Annette says:

    Yep, did the toothpaste thing and nope, didnt work. I like that you explained everything along with photos. Some of us lean visually. Will try this on my car soon. Thanks

  3. dirk says:

    Great “recipe” haha!
    Actually very good job there
    — and thanks for supporting your local auto store and NOT supporting amazon
    <3
    -dirk

  4. Guess Again says:

    Polishing compound isn’t the same as rubbing compound. You could just as easy start with rubbing compound on your drill powered buffing pad, then switch to polishing compound for a final finish. Spray it with the UV spray or clear coat it.

  5. Tom says:

    I have tried it all and this looks like it might just work. WD40 and deep woods off? Ha ha ha forget it. Use ZEP gritty hand cleaner. Works like a charm and half the price. What do you have to lose? You certainly won’t be spending $$$ at Amazon. Yes ZEP Hand Cleaner. Takes a little elbow grease but heck yea.

  6. Kathy Smith says:

    I tried multiple remedies. Guess what worked for me. Armor all. Sprayed some on headlights & buffed with a soft cloth. Easy. Removed about 90% of cloudiness.

  7. Julie Johnson says:

    Have any of you tried insect repellent I have used it and the Deet in it with a soft rag will clean them right up without a bunch of work. Know it sounds nuts but it worked when I used it.

  8. Capt Ron says:

    Great Job Karen! You nailed the process!
    The important part of this process is the stepping through the coarse grades to the fine grades of sandpaper. Start at the lower grit removes the “dead” or damaged material, but scratches the surface (obviously needed) as you progress through the grits the scratches become finer and finer until they are no longer visible. I make fancy wooden and acrylic pens that are turned on a lathe and then sanded from 400 – 12,000 (in about 15 different steps) grit and then apply an even finer liquid polishing compound. (https://www.facebook.com/captronsspecialtywoodworking) When you apply 12-20 coats of superglue the wood looks like your headlights. After polishing out they look amazing.
    After I did my headlights about a month ago I bought the Nano Ceramic Coating and applied it. It is expensive but the latest protection in new cars is this process and it lasts for years and protects the clear coat. (my truck is so old it can’t help it!) We did this to the aluminum on our offshore fishing boat and when the water hits it it doesn’t stain or splotch when it dries. Used the stuff on my chrome wheels on the truck and no more brake dust making the wheels look like they have rust on them. I bought the Armor Shield IX but there are other brands out there.

  9. Christine Hilton says:

    I asked my husband,Mr.Car Restoration how he fixes cloudy headlights.His answer was, “Same way she does.” I had no idea he was a follower.Married 35 years and he has been getting together with you before l am even out of bed.:)

    • Karen says:

      LOLOL! Well look at you two, still learning things about each other after 35 years. ~ karen!

    • Grammy says:

      Cool. If my husband was going to be getting together with another woman, Karen’s the one I’d hope he was with. My work would be so much easier if he learned how to do a lot of things around the house and yard. Even better if it was while I’m still asleep. 😊

  10. Kathy says:

    99%
    ALCOHOL!?!?!
    Please, Mr. Peabody, take me back.
    Take me way back.
    Sob.

  11. Jenneke says:

    Wondering if the same procedure and products will revitalize cloudy solar garden lantern panels??

    • margaret says:

      Might depend on what kind of plastic they are…? I’d be tempted to try the Deep Woods Off technique first!

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