How to Clean Tail Lights in Your Car: 8 Steps

Even when the roads are clear of snow, salt and visible dirt, your car travels in a constant state of debris and exhaust. Even if your car looks clean enough from a distance, up close you can see an accumulation of pollution and dirt. That’s why, every now and then, it is so rewarding to give your car a good cleaning. While your tail lights or break lights don’t suffer the same abuse as headlights, they can easily be coated in dirt, with debris trapped in small cracks.

If you love to look after your car and keep it looking clean, polished and new, you will want to have proper tools and a good understanding of how to clean individual car parts. Whether you’ve had an impact to the rear of your car or simply want to keep the whole thing looking polished, you may have been wondering how to clean tail lights properly.

Below are the eight best ways on how to clean tail lights in your car. We hope this list gives you a few ideas of the supplies and techniques you’ll need to get started.

1. Gather cleaning supplies

The first step to clean tail lights in your car is to gather the necessary supplies Cleaning your car’s tail lights can be a simple job or something more in-depth. Before you get going, have a good look at your lights to determine if they need a basic or deep cleaning. If their condition is beyond salvaging, it might be a better idea to use new tail lights instead.

To save yourself time and trips back and forth to the store, gather your supplies ahead of time—a soft, clean cloth and a bucket of warm, soapy water at a minimum. For more detailed work, you may need fine sandpaper, small tools, a plastic polish and more.

2. Do a quick cleaning

Before you dive into a deep clean, first give your tail lights a good wash with warm water and soap. Use a soft cloth or microfiber towel and go around the edges carefully. To fully clean dirt out of cracks, carefully use a fine-tipped tool, covered by cloth, to coax large dirt and debris out. Rinse thoroughly before you assess your next steps.

3. Check for car scuffs and scratches

Once the bulk of the dirt and debris is removed, you can have a good look for scratches and scuffs. While tail lights are normally spared the direct impact of headlights, they can be scratched by road debris from passing vehicles or damaged by day-to-day bumps as we load and unload our trunks. Have a good look at your tail lights—chances are, the scuffs and scratches are relatively small.

4. Try a pro-grade compound

Using a microfiber cloth, wipe a pro-grade compound over your tail lights, stopping every now and then to use a new part of the cloth before polishing again. Use a rapid movement to rub the compound into the plastic, wiping away excess product when you are done. A high-quality compound allows for the quick removal of finer sanding or scuff marks.

5. Up your game with a handheld drill

If you’re ready to take things to the next level, or you find your compound application by hand didn’t quite do the job, consider using a small polishing pad with a handheld drill. This technique will ensure your polishing is done evenly and it is likely to rid your tail lights of scuffs and scratches.

Simply apply a small amount of compound to the pad itself and run over the plastic. Every now and then, stop to run the pad against a cloth, cleaning it for even application.

6. Get serious for deeper damage

Tail lights are built to be impact resistant. Given their rear-facing position on a car, is unlikely you will need to remove deep scratches. But, if you find yourself with a deeper mark, you only need the right tools to get the job done.

Cut a hand-sized piece of 2000-grit sandpaper, dip it in clean water and use a hose to thoroughly wet your tail light. Gently run the sandpaper over the scratched area for approximately one minute. Be careful not to apply too much pressure, as this can scratch the plastic further.

7. Apply plastic polish

Once you’ve sanded your lights and cleared off any excess residue, you will need to apply a plastic polish. While just about any plastic polish will do, there are several made specifically for automobile plastic. Remember to buff your lights afterwards, for a clear, professional-looking shine.

8. Go with home remedies

If you prefer to go with cleaning supplies you might already have on hand, first clear your lights of bugs and dirt, then use either toothpaste or baking soda to gently rub over your lights. Again, use a soft cloth and be careful not to put too much pressure on the plastic. Clean with soap and water or a multi-purpose auto cleaner, if you have one on hand.