How to Restore Plastic Headlight Lenses! – Ultimate Guide to Detailing

How to Restore Plastic Headlight Lenses! – Ultimate Guide to Detailing
Learn more about auto headlight restoration and fix up your dull lenses in no time.

Are your car’s headlight lenses dull, cloudy, scratched or yellowed?

No problem!

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Plastic headlights can be restored in less than an hour. Headlight restoration is easy once you know how.

3M Headlight Lens Renewal System is the system I recommend most. It works great!

Routine Plastic Headlight Restoration

Look around any public parking lot and you will see dozens of cars with cloudy, nicked and scratched headlights.

You know why that is?

The industry change from glass headlight lenses to clear plastic (polycarbonate).

How to Restore Plastic Headlight Lenses! – Ultimate Guide to Detailing
You can restore your headlights in less than 1 hour.

Something happens without proper maintenance…

The sun’s UV rays, acid rain, salt and road debris all degrade and discolor clear plastic lenses.

It’s normal.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way guys!

Halogen and other high-intensity headlights operate at very high temperatures. This further contributes to degradation.

I’m here to tell you:

  1. Your car’s headlights don’t have to look crappy, and;
  2. You can easily fix them if it does happen.

Plastic headlight restoration, as it is known, is a repair process that:

  1. removes surface damage and;
  2. restores lens clarity

What’s great is, even in very bad condition, most headlight lenses can be restored in no time.


First, there’s one thing to understand. Your vehicle’s headlights are a sealed unit.

Why is that important?

Because you can’t just replace the clear plastic. For an expensive car (high-performance lights) replacement is darn expensive.

Fact: Headlight restoration, versus replacement, will save you quite a bit per lens.

Take it from me.

It is well worth the effort. Plus, it’s too easy!

What to Expect With a Lens Restoration

This article covers the products, tools and methods for restoring your headlight lenses.

Some steps may not be necessary.

It really depends on the level of damage or oxidation on the headlight lenses.

More work is required if headlights are heavily oxidized or scratched.

Replacement may be your only option.

Thankfully, this is rare!

How to Restore Plastic Headlight Lenses! – Ultimate Guide to Detailing
Even this sad looking lens can be restored to look like-new.

You may think your headlights look absolutely hopeless.

Guess what!

Most likely the damage is superficial. Even completely opaque, they can usually be restored.

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You want a super clear condition.

I know! So, let’s do it!

Full restoration is easy – as long as your headlight lenses haven’t completely yellowed all the way though.

I’m going to say this again…

Plastic headlight restoration is not difficult at all. Isn’t that encouraging?

You can even do it without a kit (w/ the right tools).

We’ll cover all the bases here!

How to Restore Plastic Headlight Lenses! – Ultimate Guide to Detailing

3M To The Rescue… 3M Headlight Lens Restoration System

3M wasn’t the first to recognize this problem. But they do offer the most popular (and most effective) fix-it kit.

Note: The recomended 3M kit includes sanding discs and polishing pad with compound.

And get this!

It’s effective for not only headlights but also for taillights, fog, and directional lights.

How Plastic Headlight Restoration Kits Work

Be sure to watch the 3M video above.

You’ll see how several grades of fine sanding paper were used to remove a very fine layer of the plastic lens.

After sanding, the lens is polished with a plastic polish. This restores full clarity and a nice lens appearance.

Some kits have different methods for cleaning away the layer of damage.

There’s abrasive sanding disks and pads, like 3M’s system. But others rely on the plastic polish itself to do the work.

DIY Headlight Restoration Tools and Supplies

Guys, check your garage.

You may already have everything you need to make a lens repair:

  • Quality polishing towels
  • Bucket of soapy water
  • Latex gloves (if you have sensitive skin)
  • Painter’s masking tape (1” to 1.5” width is best)
  • Plastic polish
  • Wet/dry sand paper (600, 1200, 3000 grit)
  • Sanding block (1” x 2” erasure works great)
  • 2.5” Velcro backing plate for use with 3/8” drill or cordless drill
  • 3” foam or wool polishing pad with Velcro backing

DIY Headlight Restoration Method #1

Determine if the damage to your headlight lenses is on the inside or outside.

How to know?

Condensation from moisture means it’s inside damage.

Are your lenses cloudy from within?

That’s a bummer. You’ll probably need to drain the moisture.

Otherwise, simply use plastic polish for damage on the outside of your headlight lenses.

Thankfully, this is the most common scenario!

Meguiar’s PlastX Clear Plastic Polish is great for this purpose.

But wait…

Do you have oxidation that’s only superficial? Regular plastic polish typically removes it quickly and easily.

Caution: Never use a household glass cleaning product, like Windex, on clear plastic.

Why’s that?

Household glass cleaners contain ammonia. This can cause clear plastic to yellow..

Pro Tip: You can test to see if your headlights will respond to hand polishing. Use a small dab of tartar control toothpaste.

Yeah, I’m serious! Toothpaste is slightly abrasive.

You’ll know polish alone is all you need if a small test area vastly improves.

Of course, hand polishing alone may not restore those headlight lenses. If so, head to Headlight Restoration Method #2.

Headlight Restoration Method #2

In this process you are going to sand your headlight lenses.

Sounds crazy, but hear me out.

It’s done with two or three grades of fine sand paper. Then, re-glaze the plastic with polish to restore a clear finish.

STEP 1: Clean the headlight lenses. A bucket of soapy water works best. Clean the surrounding area, too. Dry thoroughly.

STEP 2: Use painter’s masking tape to mask around the headlight. This will protect your car’s paint finish. Do not skip this important step.

STEP 3: Wet sand each headlight. For scratched or completely opaque headlight lenses, start with 600 grit sandpaper. Sand thoroughly, and then progress to 1200, then 2000 grit.

How to Restore Plastic Headlight Lenses! – Ultimate Guide to Detailing

I’d say, in most cases, you can probably get away with using 2000 grit paper only.

By the way…

The first sanding step is where you will actually remove the scratched and cloudy layer of plastic.

Pro Tip: The finer grades of sandpaper are to remove the scratches left from the previous grit sandpaper.

As you sand, your sanding water will turn milky.

Don’t panic!

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This is the damaged layer being removed. Use plenty of water for lubrication and to keep the sandpaper clean.

Keep sanding until the surface feels perfectly smooth.

Drippings become clearer as the damage is taken away. Dry thoroughly between sanding steps to check progress.

Stay with me here!

The following info is key to understand:

  • Soak your wet/dry sandpaper is water for 15-20 minutes before use. This softens the paper, making it easier to use.
  • Never sand with your bare hand. Use a sanding block or pad to keep the paper flat. A 1” by 2” school erasure is the perfect size for headlights and spot repairs.
  • Sand in straight lines, never in circles. Your final buff out will be much easier.
  • Keep the surface wet as you sand. Soapy water works best.

STEP 4: Re-glaze headlight lenses using plastic polish on a 3” polishing pad (foam or wool). First connect the Velcro backing plate adapter to your drill.

Caution: A wool pad should not be used at high speed. They generate a lot of heat

Solution?

Use a cordless drill or the slow speed on your electric drill.

Apply several dabs of polish to the pad. Begin polishing the lens.

At this point, as the polish begins to dissipate.

Don’t stop just yet! Add a little more and continue polishing.

Stop once the lens is completely clear again. Finish with a final hand polish. Use a dab of polish on a microfiber towel or applicator.

STEP 5: Wax or seal to protect.

Use a good auto wax to reseal the lenses. Protect from the elements!

STEP 6: Maintain monthly with a quality plastic cleaner/polish.

The product I recommend most is Plexus.

Use it regularly, just like a glass cleaner. Your car’s clear plastic lenses will never need restoring again!

The Best Headlight Lens Restoration Kits

Go with a quality kit.

You probably don’t want to chase down all of the parts from my list above.

There are several consumer grade systems that work very well. There’s the 3M option, but the following are also top-rated..

Mothers

The Mothers PowerBall Headlight Restoration Kit is excellent if you already have a drill.

Goodies include:

A couple of fine sanding pads to remove the heavy damage, Mothers proprietary PowerBall foam polishing ball (small), and a bottle of Mothers Plastic Polish.

That’s a lot of stuff. But yet, this is a quick and easy solution.

You can also use the PowerBall to polish small paint scratches.

Remember Turtle Wax?

The Turtle Wax Headlight Lens Restorer Kit is an option, especially if you don’t have a drill.

It includes the same sanding pads as the Mothers kit. Also, a nice plastic polish for hand application to restore the final finish.

The truth is:

This kit takes a little more time and effort (not a lot), but it’s very effective.

Restoring with GlassyLite

The GlassyLite Headlight Restoration Kit is the “high-tech” solution of the bunch.

They offer a polycarbonate (clear plastic) sealant as a final step. It protects the headlights from future yellowing and scratching.

This is an important component. If you don’t seal the lenses they will yellow again.

Meguiar’s 2-Step Restoration

The Meguiar’s Perfect Clarify Two Step Headlight Restoration Kit may be the most expensive of the bunch.

It’s different from their original. Now it includes sanding pads!

This new kit has a ton of stuff:

A 1000 and 3000 unigrit sanding disc, a unigrit hand pad, drill-operated easy-buff pad and a PlastX supreme shine MF towel.

Oh yeah, and a small bottle of headlight and plastic restorer. Pretty awesome.

Be sure to check out our page on Making Your Car Last Longer!

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