Refurbishing headlights

Restoring Headlights

An easy way to make dull, yellowed headlights look and work like new

by Barry Berhoff, president, Shurhold Industries

There was a time when automakers used glass for headlights because it was a sturdy material.  

As cars and pickups got more complex in shape and design, glass wasn’t an appealing material because it couldn’t be shaped to match the lines of the vehicle.

This brought about a transition to plastic or polycarbonate headlights, both of which are more malleable and shaped easier to fit modern car designs. Not to mention, these materials are also cheaper and lighter than glass.

However, the drawback to using plastic headlights is that over time, they oxidize and turn yellow and cloudy from salt, UV rays and other debris encountered while driving.

This does not look good aesthetically, but it also hinders the beam of light coming from the bulb making it less effective.

Many people mistakenly think the problem is on the inside of the lens, so they spend money replacing the headlights altogether. What they don’t know, is that most of the time, the cloudiness is on the outside of the headlight, as in the picture below, which makes it easy to fix.

Before you take measures to correct the headlights, evaluate them for any moisture or cracked parts.

If there’s any moisture trapped inside the lens, there may be a leak in the headlight assembly, so cleaning the outside of the lens will do very little to improve the clarity and light output.

To remedy this situation, the inside of the headlight lens needs to be cleaned, dried and sealed to prevent further moisture from entering. To remove excess moisture, drill a pin hole in the lens to let the moisture out and then reseal it.

If you find that the problem is on the outer surface of the headlights, save your money and restore the headlights yourself in about 30 minutes.

For this process, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Dual Action Polisher
  • Wool polishing pad
  • 1-inch paint brush
  • Variable grit compound P600
  • Microfiber towel
  • Painter’s tape
  • Car wash soap
  • Sponge
  • Extension cord

Follow this restoration process, and it should leave you with clear, shiny headlights. This process works by grinding away a very thin layer of plastic at a time. Use caution when restoring headlights this way because taking off too much of the plastic can be detrimental.

Make sure to use a buffing compound that is the correct grit, as something too coarse can remove too much of the plastic and can leave scratches.

  1. Park the vehicle in the shade because direct sunlight can cause water and other materials to dry too fast, which can have adverse effects.
  2. It’s always important to start with clean headlights, as any dirt or debris remaining on the headlights when using the polisher may cause additional scratches. You don’t have to wash the entire vehicle, but at least wet the headlights and clean them using car wash soap and a sponge. Dry them using a microfiber towel, and your surface is now prepped for restoration.  
  3. Tape off all edges of the headlights with painter’s tape. It’s important to do this as a precaution against unnecessary polishing of the paint on the hood or the bumper. (The tape provides a protective buffer.)
  4. Plug in the dual-action polisher, using the extension cord if needed, and attach the wool pad to the face of the polisher.
  5. Take the 1-inch paint brush and apply a thin layer of the variable grit compound P600 to the entire headlight, but be prepared for the next step, as you should NOT leave the compound on the headlight long enough for it to dry.
  6. Turn the polisher on to a medium speed, and buff the compound into the headlight for two to three minutes. Use an up and down motion along the length of the headlight, and then switch to a left to right motion to go back. It’s important to alternate motions so the compound gets as much of the undesired surface off as possible. Also rememberto always keep the polisher moving. Leaving it in one place for too long can causeburns since it is a plastic surface.
  7. Wipe off any residue that is left from the compound using the microfiber towel, and inspect the headlight. If there is still a haze to the surface, repeat steps 5 and 6. It may necessary to be repeat these steps  three or four times before the cloudiness is completely removed.
  8. Once you are satisfied with the result, remove the painter’s tape. Wash the headlights again to ensure that all debris has been removed.

Now, your headlights should be back to crystal clear, and should allow optimum light through the lens for better performance at night. Keep in mind, replacing headlights can cost up to $500. So  spending a few minutes in the shop cleaning your pickup’s headlights is worth the time. -Pro

(Barry Berhoff is president of Shurhold Industries, an Automotive and Marine Detail Products Company.  Shurhold’s main offerings include:   The Dual Action Polisher, the perfect Boat PolisherCar Polisher or RV Polisher. Plus a full line of Car Care ProductsBoat Cleaning and Detailing Accessories and Marine Fuel Filters.)