Introduction: Fixing Frosted Chalked and Faded Headlights

In this video, I show how to restore your headlights on the cheap. No matter how bad your headlights are, you can polish them to like new condition for under $30 and in under 30 minutes. If you've paid upwards of $100 for a professional to do the job, only to have the headlights fade again, I'll explain why and show you how to prevent it. And if you've paid $20 for one of those kits that didn't work, this will tell you what went wrong. (Hint: it wasn't you.)

(I'm also going to gush a little about my car, which I've neglected lately.) Click next to read the steps, or click the video above to watch.

Step 1: Materials You Need

At a bare minimum, you'll need the following:

  • A Handheld Buffer - These are $18 at Harbor freight normally. However, they occasionally go on sale for $12.85. Alternately, you can keep an eye out for one of Harbor Freight's 40% off coupons, and it'll be (guess, just guess...) $12.85.
  • Masking Tape - A roll can be had at your local dollar store for... $1.
  • Ultra-Fine Grit Sandpaper - You actually can get away without this, but it takes a lot longer to get the job done. A pack of 800 to 1200 grit costs $2 at an automotive parts store.
  • Polishing Compound - The best polishing compound I've found is the glass cook top cleaner. They sell this everywhere, but the cheapest price tends to usually be a big box store, where it's $7.
  • Lens Sealant - This is the secret to keeping your headlight clear and bright looking. It's $8.
  • A Microfiber Polishing Cloth - These show up at dollar stores all the time for $1.
  • Paper Towels - $0.50
  • A firm sponge - $0.50
  • An old all-cotton t-shirt - $0.00
  • And old spray bottle - $0.00

Let's proceed...

Step 2: Mask Off the Headlight

You need to carefully tape off the area around the headlight with about a 3" border of tape. This will make cleanup easier, but more importantly, it will protect the surrounding painted surfaces from the polishing compound.

Next, we wet-sand. Make a soap solution in your spray bottle consisting of just the tiniest drop of dish soap. This solution will help the water wash away the particles of plastic you're sanding off. Spritz the surface of the lens and get it good and wet with your soap solution. Wrap your sponge with your sandpaper, and start sanding. Technique is important here - don't apply a lot of pressure. You should just feel the sand paper dragging. The reason we use the sponge is to try to even out the pressure from your finger tips. You also want to use a tight circular pattern of sanding, and don't focus on one area too long. Work over the entire lens until it is evenly frosted, and any yellowed areas are gone. Then wipe the lens down with a paper towel.

Step 3: Buff It Out

Put the terry cloth buffing pad on your buffer. Spritz the top of the pad with your soap-water solution so that it's damp, then squeeze out some of the polishing compound onto the buffer. It doesn't take a lot - maybe 2 tablespoons worth.

The reason we spritzed the pad is so that it doesn't try to suck all the water out of your polishing compound. Dry polishing compound isn't as effective.

Now blot the pad over the headlight to get polishing compound all over it, and when you've done that, fire it up.

Work the buffer around in even circles. Keep the pad flat against the surface of the lens for the most part, but you can roll it on to the edge of the pad to get into tight areas. Just make sure you lighten up on the pressure when you do.

This step only takes a few minutes. You won't see much actual improvement in the lens as you do this, because the buffing compound leaves a light haze. After a few minutes, if you're sure you've gone over every part of the lens, and it looks relatively even, then stop buffing, and wipe the lens clean with a paper towel. This is when the magic happens, and your lens starts to look like new. Give them a complete wipe down, and look for any spots that seem to still be a little hazy. If you find them, you can go back to wet sanding and polishing with a focus on just those areas.

Step 4: Seal It Up

Here is where most DIY kits and more than a few professional detailers fail: you have to seal the headlamp after you polish it.

First, a little background - the plastic that headlamps are made out of (typically poly carbonate) is amazing stuff, but it is quickly degraded by ultra-violet radiation. Yes, basically, it gets a sunburn. To prevent that, headlamp makers typically coat it with a protective UV resistant film. That film doesn't last forever, and eventually wears off with exposure to chemicals and the environment. When that happens, the poly-carbonate starts to deteriorate. If all you do is polish the headlight to remove the deteriorated layer, the next layer will be chalked up in a few months To stop this process, you need to seal the headlamp with a sealing solution.

I'm not going to mince words here. There is only one sealant I trust, and no they didn't pay me to endorse them. It's Blue Magic Headlight Lens Sealer, and it's under $8 on Amazon. All it is is a substance called polydimethylsiloxane (PMDS) dissolve in a light petroleum distillate in a 20% solution. The PMDS bonds to polycarbonate, fills in any microscopic divots, repels water and absorbs UV light. The petroleum distallate evaporates very slowly, giving the PMDS time to do its job. If you find another sealer that is 20/80 PMDS and distillate, you can use that instead.

Before you apply the sealer, use a micro-fiber polishing cloth to buff the dickens out of the lens. We don't want any residue of grit or polishing compound on the lens when we apply the sealer, or it will get sealed in. Cut a generous square section of t-shirt material and fold it up into an applicator pad. Apply a generous amount of the sealer to the pad, and wipe onto the lens. You'll leave a thin film on there when you're done that will naturally evaporate very slowly over the course of several hours, leaving a thin layer of the sealer.

The sealer will protect the headlights for several weeks before it wears off itself. It doesn't hurt to try several applications of sealer, but it's also just as easy to re-apply it once a month. Prior to the first photo in this series, I hadn't applied the sealer in over a year, so it didn't got too extremely chalked up. Since this video was made, I have applied sealer exactly once, and it's still as clear as this video.

And now you're done. Oh, and you can remove the tape now.

Comments

author
static (author)2017-01-27

A stupid deer that jit my pickup made it easy for me to get clear headlights. Again it made sense to purchase new ones, even for the side not damaged by the deer. Even though the majority of my drivingis after sundown my headlight should bee good to go for several thousands more miles. Considering they included new bulbs the cost was reasonable. Depending one what they own another's MMV.

author
splanderson made it! (author)2016-11-21

Did it this weekend! So incredibly helpful. Saved a ton of money!

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author
John T MacF Mood (author)2016-09-11

Thank you for the informative 'Iblle... GOING to do this, I have the polishing tool already!

I am also concerned about the sandblasting effect of the VERY sandy environment on the roads where I live in SC (USA). Is there a hard coat (say polyurethane or some other harder sandblast resistant coat to put OVER what you used?).
Much of SC was formed from sediment from the mountains (over many millennia) way north of us and it's pure silica and granite residue, and can literally be sifted and used for professional sandblasting prior to painting a car. It's like driving in a desert...

author
OmarM63 (author)John T MacF Mood2016-09-16

I would recommend a clear vinyl (or lightly tinted if that's your thing and legal where you live). You can pick up 12" rolls online pretty cheap and when it gets scratched up you can remove and reapply.

author
Ramiras (author)2016-09-13

Isn't better to open hood instead of masking it?

author
OmarM63 (author)Ramiras2016-09-16

Depends. If you are going to open the hood you'll have to be careful not to get any dirt, grease or grit on your polisher or towels that would cause additional scratches. Masking it is easy enough for most.

author
F7 (author)2016-09-11

Can I use a lambs wool polishing pad on my random orbital sander?

author
Drake88 (author)F72016-09-13

Not if you plan on using it for polishing other items. Sometimes you get odd reactions when using an old polishing pad with a different chemical/ polisher. Also, some compounds(usually something that promises to remove minor scratches - like a lot of the 'snake-oil' TV promo stuff) have a small amount of chemical that can weaken the car paint - they do this to help 'blend' any scratches so they do not show up as bad.

author
stopmoeric (author)2016-09-13

What about the inside of the light cover, doesn't it get somewhat foggy from that side too? Seems like you'd want to take them out to be thorough.

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Man Up (author)stopmoeric2016-09-13

The UV radiation doesn't penetrate beyond the first millimeter of the outside plastic. If you have fogging on the inside, it's because water has penetrated inside the headlight causing corrosion of the mirrored finish in the headlight assembly. At that point, you're just going to have to plan on replacing it - headlights are sealed assemblies that don't tolerate being taken apart well.

author
HelgiJ (author)2016-09-13

Good post. For preventative effect would, I would assume that using e.g. Rain-X would prevent the UV wear and tear. Is this correct?

author
Man Up (author)HelgiJ2016-09-13

It would only provide a preventative effect once the factory applied coating has already begun to break down. Often your first clue that that has happened is the chalking. Rain-X contains siloxanes, but instead of using a petroleum distillate as a carrier, they use a glycol carrier. In other words... it won't hurt to rain-x your headlights. And there are other advantages to doing that.

author
SusanH75 (author)2016-09-13

Dude, love your instruction videos. My husband uses the headlight stuff but I didn't see him mask or sand. Thanks for the info.

author
kcisis (author)2016-09-12

Really needed this--garage felt sorry for me & passed my "new" 14 y/o car, but wasn't looking forward to driving in winter with a foggy lens (my eyes are bad enuf)! Been wanting to add that buffer to my stash of goodies so this gives me a good excuse & will come in handy on my furniture flips after the fact. Many Thanks!!!

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Mark 42 (author)2016-09-12

MMG...

(guess, just guess...)

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mtoddh made it! (author)2016-09-12

Man Up is right. All of those kits do fix your headlights temporarily, but in a few months you'll be shaking your head and looking for a different product. Don't waste your time and money on those. The only permanent solutions is to sand and seal the headlights. I did this to (2) cars almost several years ago and they are still nice and clear. The only thing I did different was after sanding, I applied Rust-Oleum clear coat.

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ronjohnstone (author)2016-09-11

RAIN-X is another sealer that contains Siloxanes. I use it on all my car windows, eyeglasses, plastics, etc. Absolutely amazing stuff. It makes water just fly off windshields when you drive and your glasses stay cleaner and easier to clean when they do get smudged.

author
Poppy Ann (author)ronjohnstone2016-09-12

Same as me I have used Rain-X on all my windows even on my house and sail boat I just re apply it if I wash them with any strong soap but if they have just had a rince with water then they are still ok

author
RobDeVoer (author)2016-09-11

Great instructable. Like the way you cover the entire process. Well done!

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TwinCams (author)2016-09-08

This is awesome!

This has always been my concern/question, what to seal the headlight with AFTER it's been buffed out and polished. Up until I have not had a clear answer to that question.

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jeff96 (author)TwinCams2016-09-11

I'm with tigerbomb8 on the clear coat. It's good for a year or two in Ontario conditions

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Man Up (author)jeff962016-09-11

Pretty much any clear coat spray is UV resistant, and if you're comfortable doing spray on finishes, that is definitely the way to go. The only downside - if you don't do meticulous prep work, your clearcoat job can look just as bad as chalked/faded headlights. But anyone who feels they have the chops to tackle clear-coating should absolutely do it.

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tigerbomb8 (author)TwinCams2016-09-09

Use a uv resistant clear coat

author
herojig (author)2016-09-11

great tut, works!

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askjerry (author)2016-09-11

Perfect timing... I need to get my car inspected this week... so tomorow... off to the auromotive store.

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imperiusPT (author)2016-09-09

why haven't i seen this before :( just payed my mechanic to do it buuuu ... :)

great tutorial

author
themanwoaname (author)2016-09-08

i've never seen a harbor freight coupon for higher than 25%, and they havent issued anything higher than 20% in months.

author
Man Up (author)themanwoaname2016-09-08

I get one in email every few months. I didn't really think about this, but I only ever see them by email, and our stores here are new, so it might be a regional thing. I'll check into that and update the tutorial with what I find.

Epic avatar, by the way.

author
3366carlos (author)2016-09-03

awesome. As I suspected, it happens again after some time, so we gotta keep on cleaning every few months/years.

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bacardiman04 (author)2016-09-01

EXCELLENT POST! I work in automotive and this is by far the best ible I have seen on this process. Well executed sir! I found that during the curing phase the sealant can tend to get blown dirt or debri in it. Strongly suggest doing this part in a closed garage. Well written instructble.

author
Man Up (author)bacardiman042016-09-03

It does indeed. One reason I didn't keep up with it is that we have such horrible pollen in the south. From about late april to mid june, you really can't do anything outdoors at all, and even indoors you need to run an air purifier. I have an air filtration system in my garage, but some other projects are taking up space in there, so...

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dchall8 (author)2016-09-02

I used clear Rustoleum after the fine sanding. That truly is the secret. Well done.

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Man Up (author)dchall82016-09-03

The clear coat spray is actually not too far from what is applied at the factory, and will provide excellent long term protection. Getting a good quality application of finish is a lot more involved. I'm planning a video to go over getting high quality finishes from spray cans, and if it makes sense I'll throw your tip in and give you credit.

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a12548 (author)2016-09-02

Great video..little confused tho..you have 2000 grit in photo yet 1200 in video. Which do u recommend?

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Man Up (author)a125482016-09-03

Honestly, anything from 800 to 2000 grit counts as "ultra-fine" and will work. If you are using 2000 grit, it will take a little longer on the hand sanding portion of the process. The coarser 800 grit will make quick work of the lens, but then you'll spend a little longer in the buffing stage. Since I'm a bit averse to actual hard work, I'd go with a 1200 grit and let the power tool do the work.

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morganhillchris (author)2016-09-01

This is terrific, thanks for making & posting this!

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THEFIRSTBDC (author)2016-09-01

Excellent! Thanks for sharing!

author
seamster (author)2016-09-01

Very nice. I'm going to have to give that sealant a shot. Thank you for sharing your steps!

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Bio: Man Up is my attempt to share some of my varied skills (what the kids call "adulting" these days). I try to add a touch ... More »
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