Clean Headlights and Headlight Restoration Kits
Let’s talk about faded, dull, and yellowed headlights. Not only are they ugly, they also make it harder to see at night. How do you clean headlights? What does the phrase “headlight restoration kit” mean? Why does a headlight fade in the first place? And what in the world are toothpaste headlights?
By reading this guide about the best headlight restoration kits, you’ll learn everything there is to know about headlight restoration.
To understand this process 100%, let’s start from the very beginning.
What Happened to my Clean Headlights?
Imagine looking through a pair of sunglasses after rubbing sandpaper on them. Your vision would be hazy at best, because the light coming through the lenses would be scattered by the rough surface. The same principle applies with faded headlights – hence the need for headlight restoration kits. But what’s really happening when a headlight fades?
Vehicles first began to use plastic and polycarbonate headlight lenses in the 1980s, with the advent of modern headlight regulations and materials manufacturing capabilities. Prior to this change, glass headlights were the norm – those are largely immune to any sort of wear caused by sunlight.
Modern headlights wear a clearcoat to protect against ultraviolet radiation. Relentless sun rays, bugs, road salts, and even the brushes on automatic car washes break this coating down, and over time headlights begin to fade and turn colors. And once that coating is gone, it’s gone for good.
Prolonged exposure to the elements results in a breakdown of the headlight’s top layer of plastic, through a process called “etching” or “oxidation.” As the top layer of headlight material is worn away, an irregular and rough surface develops. This increases the rate of fading and discoloration, which eventually causes less light to shine through.
Why are Foggy Headlights Unsafe?
Think back to the “sanded sunglasses” example from earlier. The uneven surface of the lens would disrupt not only the incoming light, but the outgoing light as well. That’s why damaged headlights aren’t performing as well as if they were clear – the light is being scattered, so less light is making it through.
Driving with heavily fogged headlights presents a legitimate safety issue. It compromises your ability to see the road at night; it can reduce light output by as much as 80 percent. No matter how powerful your bulbs may be, the best thing you can do at this point is buy a headlight restoration kit.
I say “the best thing” because there are other options – just not good ones. For starters, you could buy new headlights. That’s crazy.
What Are My Options for Headlight Restoration?
You could pay a professional to restore your headlights, but you don’t need to – as we’ll see in a minute, there isn’t much difference between a headlight restoration kit you can buy for cheap on Amazon and a kit a professional would charge you up to $150 for a single use of.
The business of fixing faded headlights is all about convenience – you can clean headlights at home, cheaply, quickly, easily, and with great results.
The process of fixing faded headlights involves removing the top layer of material to restore a clear, smooth, and like-new finish to the exterior of the headlight lens. A headlight restoration kit achieves this by using various abrasive rubs, chemicals, or sandpapers to remove the damaged material. A good kit also coats the headlight in a UV-protectant layer to combat future weathering.
Or you could use toothpaste.
What are Toothpaste Headlights?
According to some, the most frugal headlight restoration option is sold at your local Walgreens.
Because toothpaste contains abrasive chemicals made to brighten your teeth, some say you can use it to clear headlights. Sometimes it even works, but the problem is how long it lasts. If you don’t repeat it regularly the color starts to return – just like brushing your teeth. Not to mention, you’re going to need a lot of elbow grease to make Aim cut plastic the same way as a specialized chemical or a sheet of sandpaper.
Toothpaste can’t protect against UV radiation, so if you use a rag and a tube of Crest as a headlight restoration kit, you better enjoy doing it – once every month or so, you’ll have to do it again.
It’s worth doing it right the first time.
What’s in a Headlight Restoration Kit?
A headlight restoration kit combines all the chemicals, materials, and items you need to clean headlights at home. Some are a quick fix, which is fine for less serious damage, while others are designed to fix your foggy headlights once and for all.
Here are some things to know about these kits:
- Use on headlights, tail lights, blinkers, fog lights, anything with a plastic lens
- Some are designed for use with a power drill; others are applied manually
- The effects last for over a year – longer if your car lives in the shade
Most importantly… take your time! Headlight restoration is a multi-step process, and the quality of your results will be directly affected by how long you spend on them. In my experience, even the fastest restoration is 30 to 45 minutes long. A few more things you should know:
- Sandpaper and chemicals can damage other surfaces on your car
- Use painter’s tape to mask off your foggy headlights before starting
- Your headlights may look bad until the very last step
- Cleaning will take longer the worse your headlights are
It wouldn’t hurt to have some extra sandpaper and have water and towels on-hand throughout the process.
Okay, I Need Clean Headlights!
Great, you’re all caught up – we’ll learn more about headlight restoration as we dive into the list of kits. Each of these kits include free two-day shipping for Amazon Prime members – no driving necessary.
Without further ado, here is a tour of headlight restoration kits you can buy on Amazon today – including a few that you shouldn’t buy.
Real quick, I want to mention this aerosol spray – it contains a powerful UV protectant, and it’s designed to follow up after these other headlight restoration products to maintain your work far into the future.
It’s eight bucks shipped, so why not use it on your clean headlights once every few months? Better yet, use it on brand new headlights so you never have to worry about fading and yellowing. Now that’s thinking with your dipstick!
- Protects against future damage
- Can be used on new headlights
- Won’t fix existing damage
This Turtle Wax product is representative of several brands of headlight restoration chemical, and they’re pretty much all the same in terms of overall effectiveness.
First, this route to clean headlights costs just $7.19 when you buy it as an add-on item with qualifying orders of over $25. That makes it very cheap. The 2-in-1 formula advertises that it will “restore clarity and prevent yellowing in one easy step,” which is industry talk for “it’s not very in-depth, but it’ll do the job.”
The Amazon description states this product is “formulated with acrylic resins to help prevent oxidation and cloudiness from reoccurring,” but the very next line advises customers to “use regularly to maintain clarity,” so it must not prevent it very well. In the reviews, people say they had foggy headlights again after only a month or so. That’s not good.
Reviews also state that use of a power drill and sandpaper is required to get clean headlights using this solution. That explains why it’s cheap: they left out the rest of the kit. And in the review pictures, people’s headlights aren’t 100% clear even with that.
As far as headlight restoration goes this is only one step above toothpaste headlights, and it’s more expensive, too. At least if you had toothpaste headlights you’d have something to talk about.
Put these ten bucks toward a more effective repair.
- Easy to use
- Probably works
- Won’t work for long
- Will need to keep using it
- Costs more in the long term
- Won’t protect against UV in the long term
This is the next step up from simply buying the abrasive chemical to clean headlights. One may notice that buying this kit, which includes sandpaper, two different chemical compounds, and a special wipe, is cheaper than buying the last chemical we talked about.
That’s because it’s not very powerful.
This multi-stage process is sufficient to restore foggy headlights so long as they’re not too bad. Wanna roll the dice on what “too bad” means in the real world? Spoiler alert: you don’t.
If your headlights are anything more than “slightly yellow,” skip this one.
If you have a slight haze developing on your lens this is probably sufficient to clean it up, but according to reviewers you must use up the entire kit to achieve clean headlights, which is not what the instructions indicate.
It claims to “restore dull, yellowed headlights to like new condition in less than five minutes per lens,” but in my personal experience it takes more like 30 minutes to 1) figure out the order of operations for what’s in the box, 2) tape off the headlights, and 3) get clear headlights.
Another ten bucks better spent on something you can reuse.
- Fast, cheap, easy to use
- Works fine on less serious jobs
- Probably won’t last long
- Costs more in the long term
- UV protection isn’t great
This is the most effective manual headlight restoration system you’re going to find without using power tools.
What makes this kit better is what comes with it – a free glove, some free rags, and a lifetime warranty for as long as you own the car. Sylvania, a company one would expect to be knowledgeable about headlights, guarantees the longevity of your clean headlights. Of course, they will only follow through if you follow the product instructions to a T.
A highly regarded Amazon reviewer explained that he set aside over an hour and a half to perform his headlight restoration using this product. He advised to read the directions thoroughly before starting the process, and while that’s true of any of these kits, it’s apparently of utmost importance for this one. Following the directions precisely, his clean headlights shined like new. Another reviewer said his have stayed clean for over 3 years.
Since you’re not using a drill, be sure to hand-buff the surface in short, tight, uniform circle patterns.
This might not be the easiest option, but by all accounts, it’s one of the best.
- Best manual protection
- An all-inclusive kit
- Great UV protection
- Lasts for years if done correctly
- Lifetime warranty
- Complicated to use
- Instructions are very detailed
- Not designed for power tools
The following kits contain a bit more than just a bottle and a rag – from here out you’re going to need a power drill to achieve clean headlights. Drills cut better than your hands do. Got it? Good.
3M makes the most popular headlight restoration kit available. I’ve personally used this kit on several cars, and it always works as advertised – that is, if you do it right.
In my experience, this multi-stage kit takes about three hours to use – it took other reviewers even longer. It comes with the following:
- 1 ounce of headlight polish
- Cutting compound
- Orbital drill attachment
- 800-grit sanding discs x 4, white
- 500-grit sanding discs x 6, yellow
- 3000-grit foam disc
- Foam compounding pad, orange
First install the included orbital attachment onto your drill of choice. Dry sand using 500 and 800-grit sanding discs, the wet sand (yes, use water) with 3000-grit. Finally, follow up with polishing compound.
Most of that isn’t reusable, and you’ll need a UV coating which this kit does not include (like the Meguiar’s spray above).
It’s a lot of work, but if you do it right, it will last a long time.
- #1 Best Seller in Amazon headlight restoration
- Comprehensive kit
- More capable than a manual system
- Lasts for years if done correctly
- More complex than a manual system
- Takes a long time to achieve results
- Won’t last through many uses
- No UV protectant included
At just 11 bucks, this off-brand kit promises clear headlights in record time. It includes an orbital drill attachment, lots of sandpaper pads, lots of foam pads, lots of rubbing compound, and lots of UV protectant.
You know what they say about prices that are too good to be true – they usually are.
At the time of this writing there are no less than four typos visible in the first screen of this Amazon product page. Then we have the classic “two random English words put together” name. Together with how much material they’re giving you, this all implies their product has been produced in haste. Why pay $11 for something that has no quality behind it?
Will it work? Sure, probably. If toothpaste headlights are a thing, I’m sure whatever cheap abrasive comes in this kit can make clean headlights too. But their own product page warns “this product does not work for deeper scratches,” so don’t expect too much from it.
What really scares me is they advertise that you can use it on “helmet visors” – you know, the thing that if you can’t see through it, you could die? A part which could break if weakened in any way, possibly resulting in your face hitting the ground? I’ll pass.
Beware of products like this. For the extra few bucks, stick to brand names.
- Probably works
- Uses power tools
- Includes UV protectant
- Might not work
- Hasty production
- Lack of quality materials
This is the exact opposite of the kit we just saw, and here’s why.
The kit only includes what you need to create clean headlights on multiple cars, including enough UV protectant. Just add a little more sandpaper and this kit will take you a long way.
They’re offering 15% off when you buy three TriNova products, and 20% off when you buy four. That’s nice of them. Not to mention, look at those bottles. That looks like designer shampoo and conditioner, but it’s made to clean headlights. That’s classy. Everyone likes feeling classy.
When it comes to an off-brand, the biggest thing for me is integrity. Their description is thoughtfully written, and you can see them getting active in the comments sections, dealing with complaints head-on and offering money-back guarantees on their products.
That’s the kind of company I’m willing to take a chance on.
As far as I can tell, all the customer complaints concern the dinky little applicator they give you. Apparently, it’s the cheapest part of this kit, and judging by its apparent size in the product picture, it’s not hard to see that it won’t give you the kind of results you’d get from using a larger applicator. And being a manual system, it won’t achieve what a power drill could.
But for 12 bucks, this is the one you should get if your faded headlights aren’t all that bad.
- Quality materials
- In-brand discount offered
- Includes UV protectant
- Support a deserving startup
- Won’t cut it for rough headlights
- Applicator is flimsy
- Manual application
I Should Clean Headlights Professionally
What’s that, you say? “Pssssh. I’ve restored headlights on dozens of cars. My cars, my family’s cars, my friends’ cars – I do a professional-quality job every time. I should be the one getting paid the big bucks, not them.”
Say no more.
This is an extremely popular headlight restoration kit used by professional automotive detailers to clean headlights. It includes purpose-built sanding and polishing tools powered by an air compressor (not included), as well as enough abrasives, compounds, and sanding and polishing discs to clean headlights on about 25 cars.
If maintained correctly, results can last for decades.
Besides the price, drawbacks are few. A small portable air compressor won’t cut it – according to reviewers, you’re going to need at least a 3 horsepower portable air compressor ($250) to run the air tools as intended. You’ll need to buy UV protectant too, and you might as well get the good stuff: Opti-Lens Permanent Headlight Coating, at $69.99 per bottle. You’ll need about $500 of it to cover 25 cars.
For just the kit, cost per car averages out to about $16.80. That’s around what those other kits cost, and you have air tools and a leather carrying bag to show for it.
Factor in the air compressor and UV coating, and it’s about $50 per car. If you’re skilled enough to sell your work at the industry standard rate of $150 per car, you could buy that stuff and still make over $2500 off this kit.
That’s free enterprise in action, folks.
- Professional-quality results
- Clean headlights on about 25 cars
- Air tools included
- Carrying case included
- Can make you money!
- Professional-level skills required
- Cost is high for private use
- Air compressor required
- No UV protectant included
Which Headlight Restoration Kit Should I Buy?
Congratulations! You’ve learned everything there is to know about some of the best headlight restoration kits. You know the ins and outs of the process, and you know what to look out for when buying a headlight restoration kit for yourself or someone else. Now get out there and clean your headlights!
If you want to protect your new or restored headlights from UV, buy some Meguiar’s.
If you want to permanently protect your headlights from UV, buy some Opti-Lens.
If your headlights aren’t all that bad, try the TriNova kit first.
If your headlights are rough and you don’t mind working, buy the Sylvania.
If your headlights are rough but you don’t want to sweat, buy the 3M 39008.
If you believe in capitalism, buy the 3M 02516.