Restoring Plastic Headlight Lenses

plastic headlight restorationAre your car’s headlight lenses dull, cloudy, scratched or yellowed? No problem! You can restore plastic headlights in less than an hour. Headlight restoration is easy once you know how. The headlight restoration system I recommend most (and use myself!) is the 3M Lens Renewal Kit. It works great!

Plastic Headlight Restoration

Look around any public parking lot and you will see dozens of cars with cloudy, nicked and scratched headlights. The change from glass headlight lenses to clear plastic (polycarbonate) made it inevitable.

Before and after headlight restoration with plastic polish.

You can restore your headlights in less than 1 hour.

Without proper maintenance, the sun’s UV rays and contaminates such as acid rain, salt and road debris degrade and discolor your car’s clear plastic lenses. Halogen and other high-intensity headlights operate at very high temperatures, further contributing to degradation. However, your car’s headlights don’t have to get that way, and if they are, you can easily fix them.

Plastic headlight restoration, as it is known, is a repair process that removes surface damage and restores lens clarity. Even in very bad condition, most headlight lenses can be restored in less than 30 minutes.

Your headlights are a sealed unit, so you can’t just replace the clear plastic. If you have an expensive car with high-performance lights, replacement is very expensive. Headlight restoration, versus headlight replacement, will save you $150 to $600 per lens, so it’s well worth the effort. Plus, it’s easy!

This article explains the products, tools and methods you can use to restore your headlight lenses. Some of the steps explained may not be necessary. It all depends on the level of damage or oxidation on your headlight lenses. If your headlights are heavily oxidized or scratched, they will require more work. If the damage is severe enough, replacement may be your only option.

Headlight before restoration with 3M kit

Click to see full-size

Headlight after restoration with 3M

Click to see full-size.

What kind of results can you expect? Click on the before (left) and after (right) photos to see.

Your headlights make look hopeless, but most likely the damage is superficial. Even if your headlights are completely opaque, they can be restored.

As long as your headlight lenses have not completely yellowed all the way though, you have a very good chance of full restoration. Plastic headlight restoration is not difficult if you use the right kit.

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

3M wasn’t the first company to recognize all of the dull, yellowed and scratched headlights on the road, but they do offer the most popular (and most effective) fix-it kit.

NOTE: This 3M renewal kit is slightly different than the one shown in the video. It adds a fourth step to protect the lenses with a sealant. Compare with the original three step 3M Headlight Lens Renewal Kit.

How Plastic Headlight Restoration Kits Work

If you watched the 3M video above, you saw how several grades of fine sanding paper were used to remove a very fine layer of the plastic lens. After the sanding step the lens is polished with a plastic polish to restore full clarity and a nice appearance to the lens.

This is the same basic step used by all headlight restoration systems. Where the kits vary is the method of cleaning away the layer of damage. Some kits use abrasive sanding disks and pads, like 3M’s system, while others rely on the plastic polish itself to do all of the work.

DIY Headlight Restoration Tools and Supplies

Check your garage, because you might already have everything you need to make a repair:

  1. Polishing towels
  2. Bucket of soapy water
  3. Latex gloves (if you have sensitive skin)
  4. Painter’s masking tape (1” to 1.5” width is best)
  5. Plastic polish
  6. Wet/dry sand paper (600, 1200, 3000 grit)
  7. Sanding block (1” x 2” erasure works great)
  8. 2.5” Velcro backing plate for use with 3/8” drill or cordless drill
  9. 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 the outside. If the damage is on the inside, you will see condensation from moisture. If your lenses are cloudy on the inside, you will need to drain the moisture.

If the damage is on outside of the headlight lenses (most often the case), first try polishing it off with a plastic polish, such as Meguiar’s PlastX Clear Plastic Polish. If the oxidation is superficial, the plastic polish will remove it quickly and easily.

CAUTION: Never use a household glass cleaning product like Windex on clear plastic. Household glass cleaners contain ammonia, which causes clear plastic to yellow.
TIP: You can test to see if your headlights will respond to hand polishing with a small dab of tartar control toothpaste. Toothpaste is slightly abrasive. If the small test area vastly improves, then you know polish alone may be all you need.

If hand polishing alone does not restore your headlight lenses, you will need to progress to Headlight Restoration Method #2.

Headlight Restoration Method #2

In this process you are going to sand your headlight lenses 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 help protect your car’s paint finish. This only takes a couple minutes, so don’t skip this important step.

STEP 3: Wet sand each headlight. First determine the amount of damage to each lens. If your headlight lenses are scratched or if they are completely opaque, you will need to start with 600 grit sandpaper. Sand thoroughly, and then progress to 1200, then 2000 grit.

Yellowed plastic headlight lens diagram.

If your lenses have no scratches and are only slightly opaque, you can probably get away with using 2000 grit paper only. The first sanding step is where you will actually remove the scratched and cloudy layer of plastic. 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. 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. The drippings will become clearer as the damage is taken away. Dry thoroughly between sanding steps to check progress.

TIP: Soak your wet/dry sandpaper is water for 15-20 minutes before use. This softens the paper, making it easier to use.

TIP: Never sand with your bare hand. For best results, 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.

TIP: Sand in straight lines, never in circles, and your final buff out will be much easier.

TIP: Be sure to 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: If you’re using a wool pad, it should not be used at high speed. Wool pads generate a lot of heat, so use a cordless drill or the slow speed on your electric drill.

Apply several dabs of polish to the pad and begin polishing the lens. As the polish begins to dissipate, add a little more and continue polishing. Stop polishing once the lens is completely clear again. Finish with a final hand polish using a small amount of polish on a microfiber towel or applicator.

STEP 5: Wax or seal to protect. Use a good auto wax to reseal the lenses and 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, and your car’s clear plastic lenses will never need restoring again!

Consumer DIY Headlight Restoration Kits

If you don’t want to chase down all of the bits and bobs from my list above, I have good news for you. There are several consumer grade kits available that work very well. Here are the top rated kits. Let me tell you a little about each one.

MOTHERS

If you have a cordless drill, the Mothers PowerBall Headlight Restoration Kit is excellent. It includes 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. This is a quick and easy solution, and you can use the PowerBall to polish small paint scratches, as well. The kit also includes a nice discount coupon for Xpel protective film.

Turtle Wax

If you don’t have a drill, the Turtle Wax Headlight Lens Restorer Kit is the way to go. It includes the same sanding pads as the Mothers kit and a nice plastic polish for hand application to restore the final finish. This kit takes a little more time and effort (not a lot), but it’s very effective.

GlassyLite

The GlassyLite Headlight Restoration system is the “high-tech” solution of the bunch. They offer a polycarbonate (clear plastic) sealant as a final step to protect the headlights from future yellowing and scratching. This is an important component, because if you don’t seal the lenses they will simply yellow again.

Meguiar’s Two Step Headlight Restoration Kit

The Meguiar’s Two Step Headlight Restoration Kit is the least popular and most expensive kit of the bunch. This is a new kit that’s different from their original. The original did not include the sanding pads and results were mixed, at best. This new kit has a 1000 unigrit sanding disc, 3000 unigrit sanding disc, a unigrit hand pad, drill-operated easy-buff pad, PlastX supreme shine MF towel and a small bottle of headlight and plastic restorer.

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