How to fix cloudy headlights

From cloudy to clear in under one hour! (Video)

Headlights can be very expensive to replace, and the harsh Aussie sun plays havoc with the plastic lenses. They go cloudy within just a few years, and less light gets where you need it to be - on the road ahead.

Thankfully, there is a much better option than spending hundreds (or, sometimes, thousands) on replacement headlight assemblies. 

Plastic headlights can be restored – easily and cheaply. They also look terrible when they get cloudy, too. So, whether you’re motivated by safety or cosmetic considerations, this story’s for you.

Even the most weather-beaten headlight lenses are receptive to an extreme makover. You’ll need an hour’s worth of spare elbow grease, and you’ll get change out of $50 bucks. That’s the good news. I went out and found the most badly oxidised headlamp lens I could find, just to prove this point.

The ‘Glassylite’ headlight restoration kit featured in the video cost me just under $30 on special from Auto1. (It’s normally $40.) The kit is sufficient for two headlights – and the instructions are dead simple.

There are more expensive kits on the market – in fact this was the cheapest over-the-counter kit I could find. Some of the pricier kits use a sanding pad you can power up with your battery drill – the downside of which in my view is that if you slip you can hack a nice chunk out of the car’s paintwork…

Degree of difficulty with using this basic headlight restoration kit is about three out of 10. So, basically, your grandmother could do it. You also need to realize it works only on plastic headlight lenses – not the glass ones. (Most headlights these days are plastic.) It probably also does a great job on taillight lenses, but we didn’t test that.

If you’re working on your own car, either remove the headlights or protect the surrounding bodywork with masking tape. It’s no good fixing the lights and damaging the paint in the process, just because you slipped.

In the video, we only polished half the light, for comparison. So we could see if it’s a waste of time and money - or not.

After a short time sanding it’s abundantly clear the severe effects of UV radiation and chemical contamination are at least only skin deep with headlights – all the yellowing is fairly quickly removed, and the combination of the right grades of abrasive and polish mean we even look like getting a reasonable shine back.

The wet & dry paper grades are 1500- and 3000-grade. (The smaller the number the coarser the abrasive. To put this in perspective, 40- to 240- grade papers are commonly used in wood and metal work.

This means the two grades of abrasive paper supplied in the headlight restoration kit translate to ‘really fine’ and ‘just this side of a baby’s bum’ – you use them in that order. The 3000-grade paper just removes the scuff marks from the 1500. Keep the surface lubricated with a wet sponge the whole time, and follow the written instructions in detail. Use only moderate pressure.

After sanding you use a polishing compound, which feels smoother than a ‘number2’ cutting compound, followed by a wash and a quick smear with the supplied sealant.

Polishing is where you’ll need most of your elbow grease in this job. You need to press firmly so the polish can do its thing.

This headlight, from a geriatric Holden Commodore, started out basically unroadworthy, but after about 20 minutes it was … maybe not new, but much better looking and back to being safe to use at night.

Verdict: This job is a winner: 11 out of 10 for return on investment – especially compared with the cost of replacing two complete headlight assemblies. Not a bad result for an hour’s work.

Special thanks to Pick ‘n’ Payless auto spares in Blacktown, Sydney, for being such nice blokes and allowing me to raid their 15-acre lot for the worst-looking headlight unit I could find. Pick ‘n’ Payless are at or on the telephone on (02) 9676 5355.