How to Polish and Restore Headlights (In 5 Easy Steps)

Headlight housings get cloudy over time due to yellowing from ultraviolet (UV) light. They can also pick up scratches from road debris and improper washing techniques.

A headlight restoration will bring back the original clarity of your headlights and substantially improve visibility down the road.

Steps to Restore Headlights

The following steps have been used on several different cars with amazing results, and they do not require purchasing a headlight restoration kit. All you need is sandpaper from 800 to 3,000 grit and something to protect the headlight housings from the sun.

1) Wash the Car

how often to wash a car

Before you start your headlight restoration, it’s important to get your headlights as clean as possible. You want to be polishing the headlight material, not rubbing debris into the housing.

2) Mask Off the Headlight

It is very easy to miss with the sandpaper and accidentally scratch your paint. Tape around the headlight using masking tape to protect your paint. Although it might be tempting, do not skip this step; you would likely regret it later.

It is particularly important to mask if you are using any power tools. Buffers and orbitals are not precise instruments, and it is pretty much a guarantee that you are going to brush them against the paint if you do not mask around the headlight.

3) Wet Sand the Headlight

wet sanding headlight

If your headlights are very scratched and cloudy, start around 800 grit. If you just need a bit of touch up work, you can start at 1,000 or 1,500 grit. Wet sand the headlights until they are uniformly cloudy. Once finished, use a microfiber towel to wipe them clean.

4) Polish the Headlight

Before you finish sanding, wet sand the entire headlight again using 3,000 grit sandpaper. You’ll know you’re finished with this step once the headlight stops looking cloudy and comes out clearer than before you started.

If you sand for a while at 3,000 grit and the headlights are still cloudy, step back down to 1,200 or 1,500 grit sandpaper. Wet sand for a while, then step back up to 3,000 grit.

5) Coat the Headlight

If you followed the steps above, your headlights should look amazing at this point. However, we want to keep them that way.

If you don’t coat the headlight with some sort of UV protection, the headlights will yellow and become cloudy again in a very short timeframe. This can actually happen in mere months, particularly if you park the vehicle outdoors.

To protect your headlight from the sun, use a clear coat wipe or clear coat spray to protect the plastic in the headlight housing. Wipes are easier to work with. Clear coat sprays require a bit of additional masking and care so you don’t accidentally spray the paint around the headlight.

In a pinch, car wax and ceramic coatings offer UV protection, but neither product will last as long as an actual clear coat. Ceramic coating is probably your second best pick, as a good ceramic coating can last 5 years or more.

Should I Use Power Tools?

restoring headlight

You do not need any power tools to restore your headlights. However, power tools will make the job go much quicker. Polishing headlights properly can take hours by hand, but can be done in 15 minutes per light if you have an orbital, drill, or buffing tool.

Be very careful not to press too hard with your power tool and remove too much material. It’s important to wet sand when you use power tools. You also want to mask really well. A power tool can polish straight through the paint and into the primer if you’re not paying attention.

Do Headlight Restoration Kits Work?

Meguiars headlight restoration kit
Meguiar’s headlight restoration kit

Headlight restoration kits vary in quality and price. They also come with different instructions than what this article presents (although there is significant overlap between the steps involved).

It’s hard to give a blanket statement on whether headlight restoration kits work because the answer will depend on the specific kit and how it is used. Ironically, a little sandpaper and water work just about as well as most kits on the market.

If you buy only the products you need, you stand to save a ton of money over buying a pre-packaged headlight restoration kit. All you really need is sandpaper and clear coat wipes.

If you’d like to purchase a kit to make things easier, Meguiar’s Headlight Restoration Kit is very effective and also very affordable. The PlastX headlight polish works very well when paired with the included wool pad. This kit also includes a headlight coating spray that gives you one year of UV protection.


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