How to Fix Cloudy Headlights

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Posted in WorkshopCars

Introduction: How to Fix Cloudy Headlights

This instructable will walk you through refinishing your plastic headlight covers without learning how to buff plastics. Here we will use only sand paper and clear paint and achieve a renewed look to the plastic lenses on your car.

You will need:

1. a can of gloss clear paint

2. 400 grit sandpaper

3. 1200 grit sandpaper (800-2000 grit is ok)

4. painters tape or masking tape

5. about 20 minutes.

Step 1: Cloudy Headlight Fix

The reason your headlight lenses are cloudy is the surface of the plastic is crazed, damaged by weather, and has tiny road dings.

We will smooth the surface and provide something for the paint to hold onto.

Tape off the area immediately around your headlight lenses. This protects the painted and surrounding surfaces from sanding and later from overspray.

Step 2: Sanding With 400 Grit

Using lots of water and the 400 grit sandpaper, lightly sand the clear plastic lenses. I usually spend only about 2 minutes sanding each side with this grit. You should see white plastic "dust" coming off in the water. This takes the surface down to a relatively smooth face with 400 grit scratches in it. Do this as much as you feel necessary depending on the starting point of your lenses.

Step 3: Sanding With 1200 Grit

Using more water and the 1200 grit sandpaper, sand the clear plastic lenses again. This should take another 2-3 minutes per side. The point here is to take those 400 grit scratches down to even smaller 1200 grit scratches.

Step 4: Dry the Lenses

Wipe the lenses dry. If you have compressed air or a leaf blower/shop vac, blow the area dry to make sure to get all the water out from the underneath the headlights. As they dry you will see they are even more cloudy than before you started. That is ok because now we have tiny little scratches that are consistent and easily filled by the paint.

Step 5: Painting the Lenses

With everything taped off, go ahead and apply light coats of clear spray paint.

Paint runs are your enemy here, so concentrate on smooth consistent strokes with a slight overlap, leaving just enough paint in each coat to make a wet look (where the small droplets of paint flow together to become one thin film).

Use two coats applied within about 10 minutes of each other. The lenses should appear clear and shiny.

Let the paint dry and remove the tape and you are done.

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    162 Comments

    Skip all the work and just use pledge on them when needed, it works just fine.

    Thank you so much! I did what you said and it worked great! No more dull yellow lenses. I went and bought UV clear coat that bonds with plastic from the auto parts store $7.99 and 220, 600, 2000 grit sand paper from hardware store $13. I did 2 cars and it took me a lot longer than 20 min. The only thing I would add to this is if your lenses are severely damaged use your phone to zoom in and see if you sanded away all the micro cracks. This will give you a better end result.

    1 reply

    Sounds like you have perfected this and I like the selection of a UV clear. Thanks for the excellent improvements.

    Did you know that you can get your lenses clean with a can of Deep Woods Off? It absolutely works. Spray it on an old sock, wipe in one direction and BOOM clear lenses.

    I wish I saw this 6 months ago. I bought a kit that worked awesome. It used a power drill and mad short work of it. Came out awesome.

    toothpaste and a cloth works also

    i would try giving them a good waxing first. I have used a real good marine wax on my lights and was amazed at how clear they were. the wax I used will bring back dead paint . if the wax isn't marine grade it won't last a month. now I try to remember to just wax them a couple times a year. if you have to sand them water water water and more water I'm out of wax and I'm not driving to the marina till spring sorry can't remember the name

    I used this technique on my 2005 Nissan Altima and it worked well, but the clear coat just wasn't clear enough, will try another type of spray clear coat this spring.

    2 replies

    Thanks for replying to my comment!

    In the right light take a look at the surface and if you see scratches, then you probably needed to sand it more with the 1200/super fine paper. Make sure the clear is high gloss clear. I noticed scratches in the one pictured, so it could have been more clear, but the improvement was more than enough for the time I put in.

    Years ago, there used to be the round glass vacuum-sealed headlight units. They were reasonably inexpensive and somewhat resistable to even desert climates. The double-headlight looks were not so ugly. Legislaturs should step in for the return of the inexspensive and durable headlights rather than for whether lights should be turned on or off poor issue of when cars are driven on tarmac.

    5 replies

    Someone can correct me if I am wrong but no one made the old sealed-beam lights illegal and nothing prevents a manufacturer from using them. I am not for any legislation beyond that needed for safety. To force manufactures to return to old style lights has costs too. For example, many cars would not have the low drag coefficients (thus reduced mileage) they currently exhibit. Weight would certainly increase and many car models would be required to make a complete front end redesign.

    My own opinion is that we are less than 10 years from the whole industry switching to LEDs which could result in monolithic headlights disappearing. LEDs are improving at Moore's Law rate. Once LEDs can achieve illumination on parity with today's HIDs without requiring extensive heat sinking the industry will change rapidly.

    Those old "sealed beam" headlights had one major disadvantage. They were DIM. You could not build the kind of bulb, in a sealed beam that would give off as much light as a modern halogen bulb. Now, it is possible to make a glass housing, and put a halogen bulb inside it, but that would cost more, and have more shape and size restrictions than the plastic lensed housings we love to hate.

    Why is that important?

    For the same reason cars don't have proper bumpers anymore. Because someone in Detroit (or thereabouts, I don't think anyone lives IN Detroit anymore) decided that every part of every car needs to look like it's been half melted. No straight lines, no flat surfaces, no constant-radius curves, just lumps and bumps all over the place.

    ?? I could buy bright sealed halogens decades ago, my 81 Prelude came with them. I went different on my older car, out in my shed I still have a set of 4 round Cibie headlights I had in a 70 Belair. I bought the lights about 1982. Leaded glass, precision cut with replaceable halogen bulbs. I bought them at an import car shop. In the outside dims I used 60/90 watt halogen bulbs, 10 watts above good stock lights on dim at the time. In the inside brights I used 100 watt halogen bulbs. I rewired the lights so my switch and floor dimmer switch only handled the current of a couple relays. The lights were ultimately run directly off the internal regulated alternator through the contacts of two relays (redundent). That gave me max voltage, 13.6 V under load. On dim the two 60 watts were activated, when on bright the outer lights switched to the 90 watt filaments and the two inner lights fired up the 100 watt bulbs. On bright the the outside lights had a very wide beam (the 90 watt filament position caused a much wider beam) and the inner brights were basically a tighter straight beam and I could see forever.

    Yes, and all of those lamps were the same shape. That meant that all cars had to have a relatively flat front, to mount the headlights on. Also, those precision glass reflectors were expensive and time-consuming to make. Most people don't want that kind of quality and are not willing to wait for it, if they "cheap" and "now". The metal reflectors, and molded plastic lenses of modern "aero" headlights (an ironic term, since all airplanes of which I'm aware still use sealed beams for their landing lights) can be made quickly and cheaply, while the kind of units you refer to cannot.

    I agree but IMO, we should have the option of sealed beam or the so-called modern headlamps. It would not be all THAT much trouble to design the headlight doors to accept either format.

    Flitz polish works better than anything I've ever used.

    I won't endorse this method

    The sanding is alright but an aerosol clear is 80% solvent and the amount you actually apply to the surface is minimal. Check with a reputable body shop to see if the could apply a production clear over your prepared lights. There is a built in UV protection plus a thicker build of a catylized clear coat that will be more durable. I am a collision tech in the business and we have sanded and coated lights for customers for a few years now. Our paint rep has informed us that the company is working on a " special" clear but won't tell us NOT to do what we're doing. We have tracked some of the customers for whom we've do this and overall people are pleased

    2 replies

    I agree your suggestion is better, but this site is about DIY repairs, so taking the problem to a body shop kind of defeats the purpose and costs more than a few bucks for sand paper and a rattle can of clear. If done properly a rattle can can easily fill 1200 grit scratches.

    I agree this is DIY, but it's a weak band-aid at best.
    This is almost as bad as using a bug repellent which actually damages the plastic. Aerosol products are 80% solvents and are really not an all weather product.
    Performing the prep work yourself and having it professionally coated is cost efficient and and far better result