The Toothpaste Cure: Two Paths to Better Headlights

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 11, 2017

Looked at your headlights recently? I don’t make a regular practice of it, either, but if you’re noticing that you’re getting less illumination at night, you need either a visit to the ophthalmologist or those shamefully ignored lights are crying out for attention.

Ed's Jetta and Don's Miata get the headlight restoration treatment. (Ed Martin photo)

The incredibly common culprit is oxidation, and it’s caused by UV light (emitted especially during the summer), road salt and just plain air pollution. The average car on American roads is 11 years old, and chances are the headlights get a quick wipe when you wash the car, but that’s about it. The reason to worry about this is that it’s not only a cosmetic issue, but a safety one as well.

Ed's Jetta fared the best with the treatment. On some cars, the effect is less noticeable. (Ed Martin photo)

What this problem needs is…would you believe toothpaste? Yes, shade-tree mechanics all around America have discovered they can get the headlight sparkle back with nothing more than a good brush and some toothpaste (brands with baking soda are good, and you can add a bit more soda).

Squirt some paste on the brush, and apply it evenly with wide strokes. Use a wet paper towel to get most of it off, then a dry one for finishing. If you want the fix to last longer, use some auto wax as a sealer.

I’ve used this approach successfully several times, but then I wondered if I could do more with a commercial headlight restoration product. You’ve probably noticed those multiplying like mushrooms at auto parts stores, usually for about $15 (heavy-duty kits are more). Who could benefit from the treatment? Just about everybody. The photos in the rest of this post are of headlights I captured randomly in parking lots near me. Maybe yours are as bad as these.

This poor Honda minivan! (Jim Motavalli photo)

I acquired a Meguiar’s two-step kit, in the middle of the company’s range, then invited two friends who’ve experienced the “fog” to come over for a headlight party. Don is a business school dean, and Ed a TV writer. The former has a 2000 Miata, the latter a 2003 VW Jetta. The Miata was bad, but the Jetta (which "lives" near an oceanside condo) was far worse. I added in my own ’99 Miata, even though it doesn’t really have the problem.

This one looks like it has the measles. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The kit was straightforward. You’re supposed to mask around the headlights, so I found some blue tape left over from a home painting event. It’s important to use tape that doesn’t leave a residue, or shred at the slightest provocation.

Working together, Don, Ed and I spread the paste using the included abrasive pad, then wiped it off with a wet towel. It looked OK on the Miata, and spectacular on the Jetta. We then sprayed on Meguiar’s “revolutionary coating” and let it dry three to five minutes before a second coat. The spray made the headlights look even better.

Almost as opaque as a Ph.D. dissertation. (Jim Motavalli photo)

If there was a downside to this, I noticed a few light scratches on my Miata’s headlights after the process. It might be useful to have some 2000 grit sandpaper on hand to polish those out if that occurs.

There's light in there somewhere. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There’s also the fact that the treatment—like a car wax job—is only guaranteed for about a year. The environment will take its toll again. Ed, in fact, had his car professionally done about two  years ago, and they were back to looking pretty bad.

Of course, this gives kit merchants like 3M and Meguiar’s return customers. I noticed, though, that after treating three cars, we still had product and a pad for a couple more. When my kit is no more, though, I think I’ll try toothpaste again and see how that works.

Ugh. There was more illumination in the black hole of Calcutta. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Oh, you can also get better illumination by switching from halogen to the newest high-intensity-discharge (HID) LED bulbs in your headlights. There’s a bulb finder here. The National Headlamp Council says you get 20 percent better visibility if you take that simple step. Actually, I made that up—the NHC doesn’t even exist.

These conversion kits cost around $100, and it might be money well spent.

It’s not a straightforward bulb swap; LEDs require ballasts and wiring that need to be installed. But most people can handle it themselves. Another bonus is that they use a third or less of the power required by a typical halogen. Conversion kits for both headlights are around $100, and prices are dropping.

If you really want to see where you’re going at night, I’d advise doing both things—the headlight restoration and the LED swap. If you want to see where you’re going in your life, well, that’s a bigger question…Here's a step-by-step on the toothpaste method:

And here's a test of a restoration kit, with five useful tips:

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One