headlights are a car’s eyes – without them, you can’t see at night. so it’s vital to keep them clean as even a thin layer of grime can reduce how effective headlights are.
it’s not hard to do, though there are several methods you can use. here’s carwow’s guide to keeping your car’s headlights in pristine order.
You're reading: How to clean car headlights
- 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?
put simply, dirty headlights don’t cast as much light, so you won’t be able to see as far at night. they appear dimmer from a distance, as well, so you won’t be as visible to oncoming traffic, either.
it’s also worth remembering that, since headlights are ‘safety critical’, the police can stop and fine you if they think your car’s headlights are so dirty as to be dangerous.
no worries, my car has headlight washers
many modern cars do have built-in headlight washers that spray at the same time as the windscreen washers. but don’t get complacent. most headlight washers don’t have wipers, so only the loosest surface dirt gets sluiced off. tougher dirt will stay on.
exposed washer jets can become blocked and stop working. the washer fluid lines, which can run quite a long way from the reservoir, can also become damaged. as you can’t generally see if they work when you pull the stalk, it’s good practice to periodically check that headlight washers are still functioning properly.
the cheapest way to clean car headlights
a quick wipe over using a cloth and warm water
writings just fine. in fact, any water-based liquid will do so long as you buff away any residue the liquid itself leaves behind. there’s no sense in replacing one type of dirt with another.
for a more thorough version of the quick wipe, use car shampoo. if you don’t have any in the cupboard, any non-abrasive household cleaner will do the trick. don’t use washing-up liquid or similar substances, though, as they contain salts and other coarse abrasives that can scratch the headlights.
likewise, don’t use any acidic cleaners as they can eat away at any part of the car they come into contact with. the quick wipe is limited in its effectiveness, only clearing loose surface dirt. but even clearing more stubborn grime needn’t break the bank.
how to clean car headlights with toothpaste
yep, you can use ordinary toothpaste to clean tougher dirt off your headlights. most toothpastes contain baking soda or other soft abrasives designed to clean the worst gunk off your teeth and will do the same on pretty much any surface.
here’s how to do it:
- tub the toothpaste onto the headlight with a small brush
- keep rubbing until you see and feel the grime coming off
- use water warm and a cloth to wipe away the residue
- buff to a sheen
for a more thorough clean, you can use a rotary buffer to apply the toothpaste.
and if you don’t want to use your toothpaste, a paste made from water and baking soda will do.
how to clean car headlights using a dedicated kit
many makers of car cleaning products – autoglym, for example – produce kits specifically designed to machine-clean headlights as thoroughly as possible. these generally include a cleaning compound and various sanding discs, to be used with a high-speed drill.
autoglym’s kit comes with all of the above and the all-important instructions for £28. other manufacturers produce less expensive kits, some produce more expensive ones. you may also find kits in larger cleaning product multipacks, but the cost of those can get pretty steep.
how to clean car headlights using sandpaper
it’s possible to put together a diy cleaning kit, using sheets of sandpaper. as when using a shop-bought 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 headlights still aren’t shining brightly after a thorough clean, there could be another problem. the cover could’ve gone cloudy, have condensation, or the ‘silvering’ on the headlight bowl could be deteriorating. there are restoration kits available to sort these problems, but in severe cases replacement might be the best solution.
other headlight maintenance tasks
while cleaning the headlight itself, clean the bodywork around it as well. in particular, try to get into any panel gaps above the headlight. if the bonnet butts up to the headlight, lift the bonnet and clean the area where they meet, including the underside of the bonnet. this will stop trapped dirt running down when it gets wet.
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whilst you’re at it, make sure the bulbs work. most cars have an on-board computer that will flag up any bulbs that don’t work, but it’s worth doing a manual check. whether or not replacement is a diy task depends on the car – the manual will tell you.
other things to keep clean
all other lights should be kept clean, as should the number plates, door mirror glass, wiper blades and, of course, the windows, both inside and out.
remember that all these things are safety-critical, too. if the police think they’re too dirty, they can stop and fine you for driving a car in an unsafe condition.
most modern cars have cameras and sensors, as well. they are usually found at the top of the windscreen, in the bumpers, grille, boot lid and door mirrors. these should also be kept clean, otherwise they might not function properly, compromising the drivability of the car.
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just wash your car regularly
if you went round your car cleaning all the lights, windows, number plates, cameras and sensors, it would only serve to highlight how dirty the rest of the car is and probably wouldn’t save much time anyway!
better, then, to regularly wash the whole car as thoroughly as possible. that way, you avoid layers of tough grime building up in safety-critical places that then need a lengthy and potentially expensive cleaning process to sort out.
it’s the age-old adage of prevention is better than the cure.