How To Clean Car Headlights & Restore Them Permanently

I recently bought a new car. I knew it was going to be a project. My wife wasn’t keen on me buying it, especially when she found out that the last owner was a pet lover and a smoker. The thought of both of those things had just dissuaded her from the beginning.

Nonetheless I went ahead and bought the car because I had faith in my ability to get the car cleaned. When I first bought it, I think I had let my wife control the situation a bit too much at first.

Don’t laugh – you’ve been there too…

Best Way To Clean Yellow Headlights

  1. Apply blue tape to surround the headlights and protect the paintwork
  2. Sand headlights down with 400 grit sandpaper in circular motions
  3. Constantly apply water to headlights and sandpaper and sand using 600 grit sandpaper
  4.  Repeat above step using horizontal scrubbing motion (not circular)
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 using a 2,000 grit sandpaper
  6. Dry headlights and wipe with alcohol
  7. Apply Clear Coat, let it dry. Repeat this step 2 more times

Things You Need For Cleaning Car Headlights

  1. Blue tape. I used this one
  2. 400, 600 & 2,000 grit sandpapers like these
  3. Rubbing alcohol
  4. Water supply
  5. Lint free towel like this
  6. Clear Coat spray. I used this one

So at first, my priority was eliminating the smoke odor from the car and getting rid of all the pet hair on the inside of the car. Both of those things are really involved and took a while.

But after that had been done, I began noticing that whilst I was driving, my headlights weren’t doing a good enough job. Considering it was a good car, which had the ability to do anything (yes, even fly), I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘what is going on?

How to Clean Yellow Headlights

Clean Yellow Headlights

Upon close inspection, I could see the headlights were peeling, yellow and just disgusting. It looked as if the plastic had gotten heavily oxidized and had misted up on the outside of the headlights. Even when I touched it, it seemed rough and not smooth.

I didn’t even know where to start.

My initial thinking was to actually remove the headlights altogether so that I could gain access to the lights and really give them a good clean, without having to be restricted by all of the issues of it being in the car. It all seemed like a good idea at the time, however, as I wasn’t sure, I had a quick glance online.

Unfortunately for me, there was a total mixed bag of guidance. No one agreed with the same way going forward and there were just some weird and wonderful ways to get the job done.

However, before I even started to do anything and risk accidentally damaging my lights, I wanted to ensure that what I was intending on doing was correct. This new information had only served to confuse me further.

As always and whenever I was in this position, I contacted my trusted group of valeters that I had either met in Miami in person or through Instagram. They were always happy to help me and I just needed to get the best advice on how to clean the headlights.

A few messages later – I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

A quick trip to the shop and back and I was ready to get to work. By the time, I had actually gotten everything and was ready, it was the middle of the day and simply too hot. I needed to wait till the sun was setting before getting to work.

How To Clean Car Headlights With Sandpaper

The first thing I did was tape around both of my headlights. I bought this blue tape, which wouldn’t affect the light and would serve as a barrier to protect the car paint and the rest of the car.

Once I was happy with all that, I whipped out my 400grit sandpaper.

You know how sandpaper works but you may not know exactly how the numbers work. Well, in short, the lower the number the grittier the sandpaper. So a 300 grit sandpaper would be far far rougher than a 200 grit sandpaper.

400 grit sandpaper in hand, I began to get the first layer of all that crap off the light. I did a dry sand, and without applying heaps of pressure, began to do Round 1 with a medium pressure. I decided to do this on both the lights all the way up to the edges. I made sure to cover the entirety of the light.

One of the things I had been advised was to only circular motions.


Next, it was time for a wet sand. I pulled out the water spray and began spraying the headlight as well as the new sandpaper I had intended on using. This time, I was going to use the 600 grit sandpaper. I found that this works best, and once this was wet as was the headlight, it was time to start sanding once again. Again, I used circular motions and made sure to go all the way to the edges. As I had used the tape, there weren’t any exposed edges and so I didn’t have to be that delicate. I applied a bit more pressure, whilst spraying water during the sanding process.

Once this was complete, I did a resand with the 600 grit sandpaper but in a horizontal motion. I covered the whole light including all the grooves, all the while spraying water on the light and the sandpaper.

The harder I pressed with the 600 grit sandpaper, the more I could see the dirt and oxidized bits coming off.

Now it was time for the final sanding. For this step it was all about the super fine 2000 grit sandpaper. Again, I simply repeated the above steps. I kept the headlight and the sandpaper wet, went round in circular motions and then repeated in horizontal motions.

With the 2000 grit sandpaper, I didn’t apply heaps of pressure. I just applied a light skim.

Once you’ve done all this, wash it down and dry with a towel. Next spray on some rubbing alcohol and wipe all over the light. Alcohol dries quicker than water, which means that in no time your light will be completely dry and ready for the next steps.

How to Clean Car Headlights Permanently

At this point I had 2 options; either apply a wax (see our guide on the best car wax) and buff it out, OR apply the trusted Clear Coat.

For the final step of the headlight restoration process, I knew I wanted to use the Clear Coat. Having used it in the past, I’ve seen some truly remarkable results. And it lasts for years. It’s not something you are going to have to repeat every month.

All I did was apply the spray and wipe it into the headlight with a lint free towel. Whatever you do, do not use a microfiber towel.

Wait a few moments and allow the headlight to dry, then it’s time for coat 2. Spray again lightly, but cover all of the headlight. Do not accidentally spray the paintwork. You will regret this forever.

Once it’s dried, it’s time for the final coat. I like doing a 3rd coat. It’s the magic number. It’s this coat that really restores your headlight to give it that clarity, gloss and protection.

Use the lint free towel and really rub it into the lights.

For an exceptional finish, it takes about 4-6 hours to dry and cure properly. Luckily I had done this in the late afternoon / evening.

And I couldn’t wait for the morning.

Clean Oxidized Headlights

The following morning, and as expected, I was looking at 2 shiny, new looking headlights. I couldn’t have been happier with the result. And I was relieved that this was the type of restoration that didn’t need to be done more than once a year – if that!!!!

Shine on…

And if you want to buy all of your products in one go, check out our reviews on the best headlight restoration kits on the market.