How to Clean Your Car’s Foggy Headlights

Enjoy the instant gratification of turning your hazy headlamps clear again.

Cleaning headlights on a carShutterstock

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The condition of your headlights is likely not top of mind, but cloudy lenses greatly diminish the effective reach and brightness of your lamps, with the light bouncing around inside the assembly instead of radiating from it. Fortunately, cleaning foggy headlights is relatively simple and inexpensive. We’ll cover the basics of why lamps cloud up, how to restore them, and whether homemade solutions are worth your time.

Why Do Headlights Get Cloudy?

Over time, plastic headlight lenses begin to break down and oxidize due to exposure to UV rays as well as stones and other road debris chipping away at the smooth surface. You’ll notice a haze, usually brownish or yellowish in hue, on the lens. If you can’t see your headlights’ guts, they can’t see you.

Note that this issue is different from a headlight with condensation buildup on the inside of the housing. Solving that problem requires draining and resealing the unit to keep water out.

How to Choose a Headlight Cleaner

Most foggy headlight cleaning kits boil down to a few basic steps: sanding, polishing, and sealing. Sanding gets rid of that layer of discolored plastic, revealing clean material underneath. Polishing removes any scratches or swirl marks left by the sanding process. Then sealing locks in your work, creating a layer of protection from future oxidation.

Plenty of commercial products exist to fill this need, and you should be able to find a selection at your local auto parts store. Prices range from about $15 to $30 and include materials to refresh one pair of headlights, with the main differences between products being the chemicals used and how long the fix is likely to last. The process takes an hour or two of hands-on work, and you’ll need to allow time for the coating to dry before it can weather the elements.

Any of these kits will produce immediate results, but we recommend springing for one of the slightly pricier, well-reviewed offerings, such as Griot’s Garage Ceramic Headlight Restoration Kit for severe oxidation. At $30, it’s at the top of the spend ladder, but the ceramic coating should last a long time, making the extra outlay worth it in future time savings.

There are also one-step processes in the form of wipes that remove oxidation without sanding. These are good for eliminating light haziness but won’t provide a full overhaul like the kits.

Professionals and practiced ‘do-it-yourself’ types can use power detailing equipment with a combination cleaner/polish liquid (around $10 to $20) to speed up the process. But you have to be careful using any power tools on headlight lenses, as the polisher can melt the plastic if held in one place for too long.

Can You Make Your Own Foggy Headlight Cleaner?

Some people tout homemade cleaners, like toothpaste or a mixture of baking soda and water or vinegar, as alternatives to the commercial restoration kits. While you likely have these items around the house, they’re not as effective or long-lasting as formulated products and offer only mild abrasiveness and polishing at best, with no sealing step. This can be fine for a touch-up here and there, but it’s better to do things the right way and do them less often, especially given the relatively low cost of a kit.

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David Gluckman
David Gluckman has over a decade of experience as a writer and editor for print and digital automotive publications. He can parallel park a school bus, has a spreadsheet listing every vehicle he’s ever tested, and once drove a Lincoln Town Car 63 mph in reverse. When David’s not searching for the perfect used car, you can find him sampling the latest gimmicky foodstuffs that America has to offer.