How to restore headlights?



Wait a minute! This is a website dedicated to Ceramic Coatings and Paint Protection in general. Why am I reading about headlight restoration here? Well, that one is simple. There are two reasons. The first is that headlight restoration is a very common service that is offered in almost any shop that does any type of car detailing or even car washing. The second reason is, that once you restore those headlights, you will need to protect them. And of course, one way to protect them from getting yellow again is by using Ceramic Coating.


 
Contents:
  1. Why do headlights yellow?

  2. How to restore the headlights of your car?

  3. How to prevent headlights from oxidizing?

 

We were all at least once in a place where we were staring at the headlights of our car and they looked all yellow, hazy, dull, foggy, and perhaps even cracked. In other words, they looked bad. Beyond the aesthetics, they also performed worse. So, not only did we have bad-looking headlights on our car that were ruining the overall image of the vehicle, but we also had a safety hazard on our hands.


 

Headlight restoration is a common service that almost all car detailing or car cleaning shops offer. It is also a favorite among DIYers because it is pretty easy to do. And even if you do make a mistake, it is extremely forgiving. You, even as a beginner, have a huge amount of room for mistakes.

 

The question that comes to mind is - when should we do it? When should we restore our headlights? Well, when they look something like this:



Why do headlights yellow?


Due to a process called oxidation. In older cars, headlights were made of glass. And those won't oxidize, no matter how old they get. They could get dirty, but once you give them a good cleaning, they would sparkle and look like new. On most cars today, headlights are plastic, or more specifically, they are made from acrylic. Acrylic is also more commonly known as plexiglass. And if you ever had anything made of transparent plastic, once it got old, it tended to haze up, get cloudy. It would also start getting yellow as time would pass. The reason plastic gets yellow is UV radiation. In other words - the longer transparent plastic is exposed to the sun, the faster it will yellow.


How to restore the headlights of your car?


Here we will go through a few steps to ensure you go from this:

foggy headlight

To this:

polished headlight

We can polish headlights using several techniques and methods and many different variations of those methods. We will share the one we use to get great results.


To restore your headlights you will need:


Clean the headlights, or the whole car if you want to remove any dirt or bugs, or sap that might be on them. You do not want to contaminate the sandpaper with mud and dirt because it will then perform poorly.


VIDEO: If you are a person that likes these things in a video, you can check out Chris on the ChrisFix Youtube channel. He does the process slightly differently and uses UV-resistant 2K Clearcoat to protect the headlights. But you will get a general idea of what the headlight restoration process entails.


Masking tape


You want to mask off the area you'll be working on. So, you want to tape around the whole edge of the headlight. This way you are creating a protective barrier so we don't scratch the paint.



Sandpaper


Sandpaper comes in grades. The lower the number the more aggressive the sandpaper is. Contrary, the higher the number is, the finer it is.


Once you've masked off around the headlight and have no car paint exposed you are ready to begin. Take your 400 grit sandpaper and take your spray bottle that has been filled with water. Spray water onto the headlight and onto the sandpaper.


Using water and sandpaper is also called 'wet sanding'. Water is added to lubricate the surface that you are working on, to collect the fine sanding dust that would otherwise make a mess. Water also helps reduce friction - this way you have way more control over the sanding process and prevent accidental damage from heat buildup.


Use circular movement. Make sure to sand the whole surface of the headlight and use light to medium pressure. Do not press too hard. And keep the surface wet at all times.


If you are using low-quality masking tape or masked the headlight poorly, you might find the masking tape falling off because of the water. In that case, use a paper towel to dry the area and reapply the masking tape before continuing.


It takes less time to dry and reapply a bit of masking tape than it takes to repair damage on the paintwork.


You will notice a white milky liquid running down the headlight. That is the oxidation being removed from the plastic surface of the headlight.


Make sure you have no remaining yellowing, old plastic, old film, or clearcoat before you go for the finer grit sandpaper. The reason you want to make sure you get all the nasty stuff now is because it will take you much more time and effort to do this with 600 grit. And it is questionable if you'll manage to do a good job even then. So stick to 400 grit until your headlight looks nice and hazy on the whole surface.


Now, before you finish with the 400 grit you want to do one final sand using horizontal movement.


Now repeat the same process using 600 grit. You can use more pressure now. Circular movements first, then vertical after. 1000 grit sandpaper comes next. Circular movement, and horizontal movement. Make sure to keep the surface nice and wet the whole time. Once you are done with 1000, go for the 2000 grit. Go for circular movement first and finish with vertical sanding.


Now take off the masking tape, because it is very wet. Dry the whole area around the headlight. Make sure to get all the droplets that are stuck around the edges of the headlight. Your headlight should look very hazy. You can barely see through it. But it should have a uniform look to it. Now you are ready for the next step.


Alternative: Your hand hurts a lot by now from all the sanding. Probably even after only one headlight. Luckily there are alternative methods. You can get a headlight restoration kit that is used with a drill such as the 3M Headlight Restoration Kit. Just follow the instructions on the kit, and attach the disc pad holder to the drill. Now stick the sanding paper to the pad and you are ready to go. You won't be wet sanding with this method. But will instead dry sand.


The idea is the same, except you have to look out for heat buildup. You will speed up the sanding process by a lot and your hand will not fall off. The only downside is that it cost a bit more, you need a drill, and it is going to be messy because you will be dry sanding.



Compound and Polish


If you have the option, then use a polishing machine for this step, because it will speed up the process a lot. We would recommend Chemical Guys BUF 503X TORQX Random Polisher Kit. The reason we recommend this product is not only the polishing machine but what you buy is actually a full kit with polishing pads and different grade polishing liquids. And for beginners, this is a blessing. We know a lot of people that used this kit as a gateway into some more serious car detailing.


If you do not have a polishing machine or do not wish to invest in one, then you can also do it by hand. It will take much longer and you'll also get an amazing workout as well.


First, apply from compound liquid onto the headlight and use the applicator to spread it onto the whole surface of the headlight. Now use circular motions to work the compound into the headlight. Do the whole headlight until the compound looks like it is used up.


Polishing compound and polishing liquid both work like sandpaper and both have their respective grit ratings. The compound liquid is coarser and should always be used first. The polishing liquid is much finer and is used for the final polishing step to bring out the shine in the paintwork.


After the compound apply a few beads of polish onto a new microfiber applicator and repeat the same step as with the compound.


Once you are finished, use a clean and dry microfiber towel to buff out the remaining liquid from the surface.



Isopropyl Alcohol


Now all that is left to do is to degrease the surface. And Isopropyl Alcohol does an amazing job. You can also use Rubbing alcohol. Apply the IPA onto the headlight with a microfiber towel or a paper towel and clean the whole surface. This will remove all the oils that remained on the headlights after the compound and polishing step.


Unlike car paint where you only want to use a microfiber towel to avoid scratching, headlights are pure plastic and they are much tougher than the clearcoat layer of the car's paint. You won't damage the headlight by using a paper towel. But if you want to be super sure you can always use a microfiber towel for them as well as it is not costly and you will have peace of mind - and that is sometimes priceless.



You now have a beautiful and new-looking headlight in front of you. Great job!



 

If you like the way your headlights look now and you want to keep them looking this way then you will need to protect them from UV radiation. If you don't, they will go back to looking nasty in a few months' time.

 

So...



How to prevent headlights from oxidizing?


Well, that one is easy - you need to protect the headlights!


That's great and all, but... how to protect headlights?


Great question! Let's see what we can do about that.


If you do not protect your headlights after you restore them, then it is only a matter of time before they start to yellow again due to oxidation.


If it is summer or you live in a warmer climate, then the first signs of headlight yellowing can start showing even after a few weeks. This would be a shame after all the hard work you've put into making the shiny.

Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to keep them looking new.


Of course - using a ceramic coating is one of the better methods that we will cover, and this is why this article is on a ceramic coating website; if any of you were wondering.


So all that is left to do is to pick a Ceramic Coating to your liking. We suggest you use a true ceramic coating and not a ceramic coating spray. Ceramic Spray Coatings act more like Sealants than true ceramic coatings and will give you about 4-6 months only. And that is if you get a good quality product!


Check out our list of ceramic coatings that we recommend. Get one and apply it to the polished, degreased, and clean headlight. This will give the headlight an even deeper shine and a clearer look. But most importantly it will slow the oxidation process because ceramic coatings have amazing UV-resistant qualities.


Once the ceramic coating has cured, your headlights will be looking almost brand new and will stay that way for the next 1-2 years.



There are however multiple ways how to protect headlights - and we will cover them all in the following article, so stay tuned.



Cheers!



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