Hazy headlights: how to make them clear again

Ever notice how a lot of older cars—that are in otherwise good condition—have dull, fogged-looking headlights? It can be the one thing that brings the whole car down, making it look neglected and old beyond its years. In addition to the cosmetic hit, this sort of headlight damage can be a safety issue: it often reduces your headlights’ reach, making them less effective and reducing your visibility at night.

The striking difference before and after restoration. (image: autoguide.com)

So if your car is afflicted by hazed headlights, you should definitely remedy it. You may have hesitated because you thought you needed to replace the whole headlight assembly. The good news is, you don’t—in fact, it’s a pretty easy (and inexpensive) fix! 

Here’s what you need: 

  • Sandpaper (1 sheet 1000 grit, 1 sheet 2000 grit, 1 sheet 3000 grit)
  • UV sealant
  • Painter’s tape
  • Mildly abrasive polishing compound (toothpaste will also work!)
  • Paste wax
  • Soft cloth or microfiber towel

If you want to make it a little simpler, you can buy one of several pre-assembled kits. There are some great options, like the Sylvania Headlight Restoration Kit, Rain-X Headlight Restoration Kit, and the Turtle Wax Speed Headlight Lens Restorer Kit.

Kits like Sylvania’s are an easy way to get all the supplies you need.

Once you have the supplies, you’ll want to wash your headlights and tape off the painted area around each headlight. (Unless the paint in those areas is peeling or at risk of peeling—then please do not apply tape!) Then, there are just a few simple steps to getting your headlight lenses clear and bright.

1. Sanding

Similar to painting, you’ll want to prepare your surface. That’s why you’ll actually sand each headlight lens. To do it, get the sandpaper (start with the 1000) and the lens wet, and keep them wet through the sanding process (that provides important lubrication that keeps you from scratching the headlight lens. Use a hose or spray bottle). Then, sand in horizontal strokes, all in the same direction. Then, wash the lens and get the 2000 grit sandpaper, sanding in straight, diagonal lines this time. Then wash one more time and finish with the 3000 grit, with diagonal lines in the opposite direction of the one you sanded in during the previous (2000 grit) step.

2. Polish the lens

Rinse and dry off your headlights, and then put a little of your polishing compound (or toothpaste) on a soft cloth or towel. Polish the lens using small circles, like you’re waxing a car. This should take a few minutes. Polish until your lens looks clear, and then it’s time to add the protection of a good coat of wax.

3. Wax on!

Now you can wax the lens—simply get some of the paste wax on your cloth (a different cloth, or at least a different part of the cloth from the polishing compound). Add it in small circles and then buff it off, to a shine.

4. Seal the Deal

Your headlights should look basically like new, probably making your whole car look years newer. (The difference can be really striking when you’ve gotten used to looking at hazy headlights.) Now you’ll want to make sure you keep them looking new. And that’s where your UV sealant comes in.

Follow the instructions on the UV sealant that you have, but it will typically be a single application, with parking your car someplace dry for a few hours so the sealant can cure.

This process should get you some great results that last for a long time. (To make your whole car look new again, check out our tips for detailing at home.) If your headlights don’t look much better after this, your lenses may may be too damaged and beyond restoration. In that case, you may need to replace your lenses or entire headlight assembly.

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