How to Clean Headlights: A Simple Guide to Lift the Fog | The Manual

How to Clean Headlights: A Simple Guide to Lift the Fog | The Manual
Miles Branman/The Manual

Even if you washed your car every week, using only the best car soaps and products to wipe it down, chances are that the headlights would still get foggy over time. It’s not your fault, and you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself if your car has a pair of foggy headlights. Unless you park your car in a garage or keep it under a cover 24/7, your headlights will turn foggy eventually.

If the headlights on your car are foggy, there’s some good news. Cleaning the gunk off your headlights is an incredibly simple job that you can complete with things that you probably already have at home. It may sound surprising, but everyday household items like toothpaste can work wonders on foggy headlights. Of course, there are all-in-one kits you can buy that can get the job done, but all this task really requires is some elbow grease.


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

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What You Need

Here are the essentials 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 with Toothpaste

Wash Headlights

Miles Branman/The Manual

As a first step, wash your headlights and the 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.

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Tape Around Light

Miles Branman/The Manual

Next, it’s time to bust out that painter’s tape. Avoid using 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.

Rub Toothpaste with Towel

Miles Branman/The Manual

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 Toothpaste

Miles Branman/The Manual

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 slightly 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.

How to Clean Headlights with Sandpaper

Rub Sandpaper with Water

Miles Branman/The Manual

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. Follow the same steps above by cleaning your headlights with soap and water, drying thoroughly, and taping around the lights.

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.

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Wipe with Alcohol

Miles Branman/The Manual

Now, grab finer sandpaper (1,600 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.

What to Buy to Clean Headlights

Miles Branman/The Manual

If using toothpaste seems strange and trying sandpaper is a fearful endeavor, you can always pay for a kit . 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.

Why Do Car Lights Turn Foggy?

Headlights become foggy because of the chemical reaction that takes place between exposed plastic and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Accumulated dirt within the housing can also play a role in turning your headlights from crystal clear to a yellowish hue.

Obviously, foggy headlights can transform the look of your car. It can go from looking like a show vehicle to something in need of desperate attention. More concerningly, foggy headlights can drastically impair the effectiveness of your car’s actual bulbs. As more fog builds up, it becomes more difficult to see, especially at night. In other words, foggy headlights should be addressed as soon as possible.

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