Automotive Maintenance

How to clean & restore your car headlights

Over time, plastic car headlights can become foggy and discolored due to oxidation from UV light exposure. Fortunately, there are many do-it-yourself headlight restoration kits that can help brighten and clean your headlights.

Headlight restoration is important because it affects both how well you can see the road at night and how clearly other drivers and pedestrians can see you. A 2018 study by AAA showed that cloudy headlights only generate 20% of the amount of light that new ones do.

If your car headlights are beginning to yellow or look hazy, replacing them with a new set or going to a body shop with professional headlight restoration products and tools would give you the best results, but the costs could range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Alternatively, DIY headlight restoration at home is a cost-effective and simple way to improve clarity and illumination.

How to choose a headlight restoration kit

Most DIY kits will include everything you need to restore your headlights, but some will come with sanding or polishing pads that must be attached to a power drill. Using a kit with drill attachments will speed up the process, but if you don’t have a power drill readily available, it’s important that you buy a headlight restoration kit that doesn't require any special tools.

For our purposes, we used a hand-sanding restoration kit, which will give you similar results if you’re willing to put in the time and elbow grease. 

What you’ll need to restore your headlights

  • A headlight restoration kit
  • Painter’s tape
  • Microfiber towels
  • Car soap

How to restore your headlights at home: step by step

Step 1: Clean your headlights

Thoroughly clean your car headlights and the surrounding areas with car soap and warm water.

Step 2: Tape the painted areas around your headlights

After the area is dry, use at least 2 layers of painter’s tape to block off your headlights. Make sure to cover both the edges and painted surfaces surrounding the headlights. This will help protect your car’s finish and prevent scratches while you work.

Step 3: Apply the lens clarifying compound

Using a microfiber towel, apply the lens clarifying compound to your headlights. Buff your lenses with a different cloth until they’re clean. If your headlights are clear after using the lens clarifying compound, skip to step 6.

Step 4: Use the included restoration pads

If your headlights are still yellow and dull, use your kit’s restoration pads to sand them. Headlight restoration kits typically include multiple pads with various grits. For cloudier and more oxidized headlights, choose a pad with a coarse grit. The lower the grit number, the coarser the pad is. For example, a 2400-grit pad is coarser than an 8000-grit pad.

Use a spray lubricant to wet the headlights and your pad before you start sanding. Make sure your lens and pad stay wet throughout the sanding process to avoid damaging your headlights. Sand the headlights in straight, horizontal strokes. Depending on the level of oxidation, you should spend 5-10 minutes sanding each headlight.

Step 5: Apply a second coat of lens clarifying compound

Apply another coat of lens clarifying compound using the instructions from step 3.

Step 6: Apply the lens sealant

To extend the life of the headlight restoration, apply a lens UV sealant.

Car headlight before (left) and after using a headlight restoration kit.

How long does a headlight restoration last?

Generally, manufacturers claim headlight restorations can last 4 months to a year. This depends on several factors including environmental conditions, the type of sealant used, the type of car lens, and the frequency of other car care and maintenance. For example, if your car is often parked in the sun, you may need to repeat the headlight restoration process more often to maintain the like-new condition.

You can also help make your headlight restoration last longer and slow oxidation by waxing your headlights whenever you wash your car. 

AAA members save on headlight restoration kits with NAPA Auto Parts

Save 10% off the retail price of thousands of quality auto parts and accessories when shopping online and at participating NAPA Auto Parts stores.

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