Headlights are not all created equal! Some have hard clear coat, some have medium hardness. Some use recycled plastic, some use lenses, some are complete molded units. But at the end of the day they all do something and that is degrade after time from the elements (Yellowing, Cracking, Fogginess, and Micro Fracturing). Headlights are expensive and they are only getting more harder to find for older vehicles and for newer still costing close to $1000. This guide will help you with tool recommendations and the actions to take based on the haze and fogginess on your headlights.
Mikey from Mikey’s Pro Detailing in South Carolina, USA is the king of headlight restorations.
He put together this great headlight restoration guide to share some of his process and tips.
- 600 grit sandpaper wet/dry
- 800 grit sandpaper wet/dry
- 1500 grit sandpaper wet/dry
- 3000 grit sandpaper wet/dry
- 3 inch polisher (link)
- 3 inch hard cutting foam pad (link)
- 3 inch medium cutting foam pad (link)
- blue masking tape – also called painters tape
- 3M Clear Coat Wipes (link)
The process to restore headlights is fairly simple but takes some time. Put on some good music and start sanding! After every sanding step be sure to clean and wipe the headlight dry to see sanding marks and places you missed.
- Clean headlight with degreaser and water.
- 600 grit sandpaper Wet sand vertically until yellowing is gone.
- 800 grit sandpaper Wet sand horizontally until 600 grit marks are gone.
- (optional if damage is bad) 1500 grit sandpaper Wet sand vertically until 800 grit marks are gone.
- 3000 grit sandpaper Wet sand until 1500 or 800 sanding marks are gone.
- Hard cutting foam pad and cutting compound on polisher, do 3-4 passes hatch pattern at 4-5 speed until haze is gone.
- Medium cutting pad and polish, do 3-4 passes hatch pattern at 4 speed until haze is gone.
- 3M Clearcoat wipes waiting 5-15 minutes between 1st coat then wait an hour for cure.
Sometimes the damage is too heavy or inside the lenses of the headlight. Here are some photo examples of headlights that are so damaged they have to be fully replaced or cannot be fully restored.
Cracking Lens: These cracks can be grabbed by your fingernail and have a very rough texture. DO NOT waste your time on these types of headlights with Cracking. No sanding will help because the cracks are too deep to recover. You’d wind up sanding off most of the lenses.
Burned Lens: There is no fixing this damage. DO NOT use the wrong type of bulb for your vehicle. It can melt the lens of the headlight and it’ll be internal only and a new headlight would have to be bought. Sanding too hard with a drill polisher can also burn the layers of plastic from the outside.
Micro Fracturing Lens: Depending on the “Micro Fractures” These can not be felt by your fingernail but look like spider webbing. Depending on the severity they can be taken out by wet sanding (when sanding down with 600 grit if they are still there after yellowing has been removed just continue steps like normal).
Yellowing: Can always be removed use the examples above to see where you need to start. Severity of yellowing can be taken out by 3000 grit sandpaper or even to the worse 800 grit sandpaper
Cloudiness: This is the toughest of the tough when it comes to damage. It looks like legit clouds in the headlights from buildup of the UV protection on the Headlight. This will always be outside the headlight never inside. This type of headlight damage needs to be started at 600 grit sandpaper.
After sanding and polishing a headlight a coating has to be installed there is no exceptions. Your headlights will start yellowing and fogging up in less than 6 months or even 3.
Clear Coating with 3M clear Coat wipes or even 2K clear is a top recommendation. But they both have issues. There are many 2k Clear coat sprays on the market but not all are UV resistant this matters alot. Another downside OVERSPRAY, if you do not cover the whole vehicle in some type of plastic YOU WILL get overspray and now you have smudgy looking paint or shiny plastic that is gonna require some work to get off. 3M clear coat wipes and 2k clear hate High Humid and Cold Environments DO NOT do headlight restorations in that type of environment you’ll get dripping, uneven layering, and the worse your time wasted. Also follow instructions for the wipes only 2 coats max.
Ceramic Coating headlights are a fantastic idea but not by itself. Yes it has great UV protection, water beading, and even gloss, but the one thing it cant do is fill up the sanding marks that are on the headlight. Once you put a clearcoat on the headlight wait 24hrs than ceramic coat now you have two of the best worlds in one.
Waxing: Putting a wax on a cars paint is fantastic, but what about a headlight? I do not recommend this, depending on the wax it might last 3 months to 6 months or even a year but its wax. Its not great for headlights because now you have to check your headlights every month to see if the wax has lasted. Dont stress about your headlight coating do the recommended above.
PPF (Paint Protection Film) can be a great or horrible recommendation. Depending on the headlight or even the installer the PPF can fail at 6 months! Brand, environment, installer, and maintenance still matters for PPF its not bullet proof. If the PPF is from a great brand and installer expect it to last years, you can even put a ceramic coating on top to make it even more uv protected.
Meguiars Headlight Spray: Don’t expect this spray to last a year. Expect to spray the headlight down every 6 months in good recommended weather and overspray can still happen. It isn’t very durable.
Restored Headlight Examples
Mikey’s Pro Detailing shared some before/after photos from actual customers to show how much of a difference restoration can make for your headlights.
This Honda Accord had headlights that were foggy, cloudy, and had slight yellowing on the front. The clearcoat is medium to soft, so this was restored starting with 800 grit sandpaper.
This Cadillac SRX with very hard clearcoat on cloudy headlights required starting with 600 grit sandpaper.
This Saturn Vue had foggy yellow headlights and medium hardness clearcoat, so it was restored by starting with 600 grit sandpaper. They cleared up great!
Not all headlights look like disasters, but even clear-ish headlights can use a little restoration and care. This Nissan 350z had some light yellowing that was restored starting with 3000 grit sandpaper.
Headlight Restoration FAQ
Does sandpaper quality matter?
YES YES IT DOES, cheaper sandpaper can start ripping, flacking the abrasive off, filling up the surface, or just not working at all. Using a HIGH Quality Sandpaper does matter and makes life way easier.
How many times can I restore my headlights?
This is a question that can only be answered by the owner. How long do they expect to keep the car? How bad was your headlights before restored? What environment are you in? Are you always cleaning your car? There is no clear answer how many times you can restore a headlight but expect at least 3-4 times at the most in span of 8-10years. Doing a headlight correctly matters and the longevity gets affected by it.
How do I wet sand?
Wet sanding is very easy stuff. You clean the headlight with a degreaser rinse it off with water. Tape off the surrounding area of the headlight, wet the headlight with water, or even better water mixed with soapy water (like from washing the car) and do the same to the sandpaper and always go in one motion back and fourth never circles when hand sanding.
Can I use a drill kit? I don’t have a polisher!
Yes, but you need to be very careful to keep the drill at a low speed and constantly moving to prevent burning into the plastic. Take it slow and keep a steady hand.