How to Clean Oxidized Headlights

How to Clean Cloudy or Oxidized Headlights

In the past, carmakers used glass headlights, which were very expensive to manufacture. Today, most manufacturers have switched to polycarbonate or plastic-made headlights, which are lighter, cheap to manufacture, and above all, they’re less prone to damage. While that’s a major milestone, one huge drawback with plastic headlights is that the lenses are susceptible to oxidation that comes in the form of a cloudy or tarnished hue. So, to prevent this yellowing that can cause a reduced nighttime vision, this guide will discuss how to clean oxidized headlights to restore them back to their former glory.

Now, the best way of dealing with oxidized headlights is by switching them with a brand new pair. However, the cost of buying a new polycarbonate pair of headlights can be very expensive. Due to this reason, most people look for alternatives one of which is cleaning the headlights to remove the oxidation.


But First, What Causes Oxidized Headlights?

From the 1980s, most car manufacturers stopped using glass as the primary material for making headlights. Instead, they began using polycarbonate due to its immense benefits such as its lightweight, durability, and flexibility since it was easier to design into different headlight shapes. Now, despite its immense versatility, polycarbonate or plastic is highly susceptible to oxidation, which can cause visibility issues. In this section, we will highlight different factors that cause oxidation or yellowing of the headlights.

  • Oxidation:

Car headlights come with a clear protective coat at the top that helps to prevent oxidation. However, following extreme exposure to UV rays, this clear coat eventually begins to crack and wear off hastening the yellowing or oxidation on the headlights.

  • Flying Road Debris:

Other than being damaged by the UV rays, your car’s headlights can suffer a heavy beating from minute particles of tiny dust, gravel, road salt, and other debris. These types of road debris can easily tarnish the top coat of your car and still cause serious harm to your car’s headlights such as pits, scratches, and oxidation.

  • Dirt and Chemical Buildup:

After spending a couple of years on the road, the headlight lenses of your aging car can start to form a thin layer of dirt and chemical buildup caused by dirt, magnesium chloride, and other salts. This thin opaque layer can cause the headlights to dim making it hard for you to view the road clearly.

  • Damages Caused by the Atmosphere:

Due to the increase in fossil fuel emissions, there has been an increase in cases of acid rain. What happens is that chemical pollutants in the atmosphere react with water vapor causing sulfuric and nitric acid rains. Now, when this acid rain or snow falls on the surface of your car, it causes serious harm and degradation on your car’s finish and headlights in the form of distinctive wear patterns and cloudiness.

  • Water Vapor:

Car headlights are manufactured with a watertight seal that prevents condensation from forming in the inside. As your car ages, this seal can break due to wear and tear causing condensation to form in the inside. Since it’s impossible to clean the inside of the headlights, water droplets begin to form in the lenses thus impairing the beam of light being produced by the bulbs.


Tips for Cleaning Oxidized Headlights


Now that we’ve discussed a couple of reasons that cause car headlights to oxidize, our next part is to discuss various methods you can use to clean your tarnished headlights. Now, we’re aware that some people might consider replacing their headlight kits instead of going through the hassle of cleaning them. However, replacing your headlights is advisable if you own an affordable car.

If your car is a high-end luxury auto, the cost of replacing the headlights can be really expensive. Since you’re not ready to incur such hefty costs, the best option is to fold your sleeves and clean the headlights yourself. With that said, here are a few methods you can consider.


Part One: How to Clean Oxidized Headlights Using Toothpaste


Yes, you heard me well. By the way, cleaning your headlights using toothpaste is one of the most popular methods used by most car owners today. Just like how toothpaste removes plaque from your teeth without harming them, its mild abrasive characteristics allow it to get rid of dirt and grime buildup from your car’s headlights without hurting them.

What Will You Need?

  • Automotive paint masking tape
  • Water for cleaning
  • Dish soap
  • Old toothbrush
  • Toothpaste (one with baking soda works best)
  • Clean microfiber cloths
  • Automotive detail wax
  • Spray bottle
  • UV sealant


Step One: Wash

Now that you’ve gathered all your essentials, let’s start cleaning those filthy nasty headlights. Shall we? Great!  As a rule of thumb, always start by washing the affected headlights thoroughly using clean water and dish soap. Scrub the surface of the headlights vigorously using a sponge or a cloth to get rid of large patches of dirt and grime.

Once you’re confident the headlights are clean, rinse them thoroughly using clean plain water. Wipe the headlights perfectly then allow them to dry up naturally. As the headlights dry up, you can spend this time inspecting the surface of the headlights to ensure they’re clean and not scratched.

Step Two: Taping

Once you’re done cleaning the headlights, use a recommended automotive-grade masking tape or painter’s tape to cover the area around the headlights. This is a crucial step you shouldn’t bypass as failure to do this can damage the paintwork nearest to the headlights. Remember, damages to your paintwork will be caused by the abrasive nature of toothpaste combined with the pressure of scrubbing and polishing.

Note: The reason why automotive-grade masking tape is recommended is due to its gentle nature as it doesn’t peel off your paintwork once you remove it.

Step Three: Scrubbing

Now that everything is set, it’s time to start scrubbing the headlights to remove grime, dirt, and road debris. If you need to wear a pair of gloves, this is where you’ll be putting them on. If you’re okay working with bare hands, then grab your toothpaste and start applying it on the surface of the headlights in a circular motion.

Since there are many ways of killing a rat, some people will opt to apply the toothpaste on a clean cloth then start scrubbing immediately. Although this method is perfectly okay, using a toothbrush to scrub the surface of your headlights is the best method as this will give you more scrubbing power. Nonetheless, expect to spend around five minutes cleaning the headlights.

Step Four: Rinsing

After giving your headlights a vigorous scrubbing, it’s time to rinse them with clean water. Use clean water to rinse them several times until all the toothpaste leftovers are removed entirely. You can also rinse the paintwork next to the masking tape to ensure that you don’t leave any toothpaste residue behind. When you’re done, wipe the excess water with a dry microfiber cloth then allow the headlights to dry up naturally.

Step Five: Apply Car Wax

Although this method will not permanently prevent your headlights from future oxidation, you can successfully decrease the rate of wear caused by UV rays by applying a protective coat of car wax. So, start by applying the wax (automotive detailed wax) on the surface of your headlights then use a dry cloth to apply it in a circular motion. When you’re done, rinse the headlights thoroughly then leave them to dry.

Step Six: Apply UV Sealant

To finalize this method, you need to apply a UV sealant on your headlights to shield them from the sun’s rays. Follow the instructions on the sealant on how to apply it. However, as a rule of thumb, the application involves wiping the headlights in long sweeping strokes.

Step Seven: Allow it to Cure

After application, you need to park your car somewhere on the outside to take advantage of direct sunlight to cure the sealant. This usually takes around 10 – 45 minutes.


Part Two: Cleaning Oxidized Headlights Using Vinegar Solution


What if toothpaste is not your thing? Well, you can consider the slightly abrasive characteristics of vinegar especially when it’s mixed with baking soda. When vinegar is mixed with baking soda, what you’ll have is a reaction between a base and an acid which is more responsive in cleaning car headlights as compared to toothpaste.

What You’ll Need

  • White vinegar
  • Spray bottle
  • Clean microfiber cloths
  • Water
  • Baking soda


Step One: Start by Washing the Headlights

Before you start getting rid of oxidation from your headlights, you’ll first need to clean them thoroughly to remove any grime, dirt, and road debris from the surface. To do this, simply mix three cups of water with one cup of white distilled vinegar. Put the solution in a clean spray bottle and start praying it on the surface of the headlights. Before you can start wiping it off, it’s good to let it soak for several seconds to loosen any hard dirt.

Step Two: Wipe Away Dirt

So, once you’re done washing the headlights, the next step is to wipe away the dirt, and the vinegar solution from the surface. In case there are some visible debris, dirt, and surface grime, then you can try scrubbing using a cloth to remove them. Now, when you’re done, you’ll notice that all the dirt has been removed but your headlights are still yellowed and foggy. If that’s the case, don’t panic as the next step will handle that.

Step Three: Cleaning Car Headlights Using Vinegar and Baking Soda

Now that you’ve wiped off all the grime, dirt, and road debris from your headlights, the next step is to clean the oxidation or rather the foggy yellow tint from your headlights. To do this, you’ll need to mix about four tablespoons of vinegar with two tablespoons of baking soda. The combination of the two will start to foam making it the best solution for cleaning foggy headlights.

So, once you’ve mixed the solution, simply dip a clean microfiber cloth into the container (containing the solution) and start applying it on the headlights. Use a firm circular motion when applying and don’t forget to pay attention to the edges of the headlights.

Step Four: Rinse

Once you’re through applying the vinegar/baking soda solution, the next step is to rinse the solution using clean water. This is a very crucial step you can’t afford to bypass as failure to rinse the solution can leave a white haze of baking soda on your headlights.

When you’re rising, you can opt to use a wet clean cloth to scrub the surface of the headlights or simply use a spray bottle to spray clean water on the headlights. Whichever method you prefer to use, always ensure that the headlights are sparkling clean before proceeding to the next step.

Step Five: Apply Protective Wax

Now that you’ve washed off all the oxidation from your headlights, the final step is to seal the lights to prevent any possible re-oxidation.  There are two ways you can accomplish this. One is by using an automotive wax to seal the lambs while the second one is by using a DIY vinegar wax. While we’ve already discussed how to apply automotive wax, we will discuss the DIY vinegar wax process in this part.

So, start off by mixing one cup of linseed oil, ½ cup of apple cider vinegar, two tablespoons of beeswax, and four tablespoons of carnauba wax. Once you’ve mixed the ingredients, use a double boiler to heat them until the wax melts. In case you don’t have a double boiler, you can put the mixture in tin then place the tin inside a pot containing boiling water.

Once the wax has melted, remove it from the pot and immediately pour it into a different container. Allow it to cool down until it solidifies. After that, start rubbing the solid wax onto your car’s headlights using a clean cloth. Always make sure that you apply the wax in a circular motion throughout the headlights to enhance uniformity.

Step Six: Remove the Wax

So, to finalize this method, you will need to use a clean cloth to buff off the wax from the surface of your headlights. Scoop the wax gently in a circular motion and don’t leave any residue behind. Remember, if any residue is left behind, it might become a hotspot for dust and debris leaving patches on your headlights.


Part Three: Cleaning Oxidized Headlights Using Sandpaper


In case you’ve tried all the above methods and nothing seems to work, then you can try our last method which is sanding the headlights to restore them back to their former glory. So, if you’re set, then let’s get rolling.

Things You’ll Need

  • Shop towels
  • Sandpapers with different values of 1000, 2000 and 3000
  • Microfiber cloths
  • Automotive masking tape
  • Spray bottle and soapy water
  • A drill
  • Finishing polish


Step One: Cleaning and Masking the Headlights

Now that you’ve gathered your essentials, you will start off by washing the headlights thoroughly with clean water and some soap. But before doing that, there are several things you’ll have to do. First, you need to soak your sandpapers in the water while you proceed to wash the headlights. Secondly, you have to tape the area surrounding the headlights to avoid compromising with the paintwork near the headlights.

So, once you’re done taping the areas close to the headlights, you can start washing the headlights with water and car soap. You can use a cloth or a soft-bristled brush to scrub the headlights depending on how tough the grime is.

Step Two: Sand the Headlights

Earlier on, we had mentioned soaking the sandpapers in water. Since they’ve already dampened, it’s now time to commence the scrubbing process. Here, you need to start with 1,000 grit sandpaper which you have to scrub against the plastic headlights evenly.

Now, to avoid damaging the headlights, you have to keep spraying the sandpaper with water to keep it wet at all times. Make sure that you scrub for about 5 – 10 minutes before rinsing with clean water and a microfiber cloth. When you’re done, repeat the process with 2,000 grit sandpaper then a 3,000 grit sandpaper.

Step Three: Polish the Headlights

After you’re done sanding the headlights, the next step is to apply automotive polish. To do this, simply apply two dabs of regular polish on a 4-inch polishing or microfiber buffer pad. Attach the buffer pad on a drill then polish the headlights using a speed of about 1500 – 1800 RPM.

Step Four: Apply Polishing and Waxing

Before you polish the headlights for the second time, first wipe the surface of the headlights with a dry cloth to remove any residue. Next, apply the finishing polish again to ensure the headlights are clean and crystal clear. When you’re done, apply wax on a new buffer pad and reapply it on the headlights by attaching the pad to a drill. When you’re done, clean the headlights to remove the wax and give them a crystal clear appearance.



So, there you have it all. In case you’ve been struggling to see the road in front of you due to oxidized headlights, then this guide has offered you everything that’s needed to restore them back to their former glory. As you can see, each of these methods we’ve discussed has its own ups and downs. For instance, a vinegar solution is a smart strategy you can consider since the acid contained in vinegar can help to remove grime and tough stains on your headlights. However, vinegar is not resilient enough to remove deep rusts from your headlights.

On the other hand, sanding is a surefire strategy for removing oxidation from your headlights. That’s because wet sanding removes the top layers of your plastic headlights to make it look new. The problem with this method, however, is that when it’s done repeatedly, it can cause the headlights to crack.

Last but not least, in case you’re not getting the desired results even after attempting all the above methods, maybe you can try switching your headlights with a pair of new ones. Always make sure that you contact a professional detailer for professional advice.

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