Car Window Tinting: What To Know Before You Buy

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Window tinting helps keep your car cool and protects interior surfaces. We'll help you decide if window tinting is right for you, and which type to go with.

Window tinting has been around almost as long as radial tires. The 1958 Chevrolet Impala was one of the first cars with factory installed tinted windows. 3M introduced window tinting as we know it in 1966, but it wasn’t very good. Instead of reflecting light, it trapped heat in vehicles, bubbled and turned purple.

Second-generation window tinting films, introduced in the early 1990s, absorbed heat better and reflected more harmful UV and IR, making it far superior to the original versions.

Today’s modern window tinting can reduce interior heat up to 60 percent, block up to 99 percent of ultraviolet radiation (UV) rays and filter 90 percent of the sun’s infrared radiation (IR). The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends reducing exposure to UV rays to defend against UV radiation, a leading cause of skin cancer.

What Is Car Window Tinting?

Car window tinting is a process that darkens vehicle glass to reduce Visible Light Transference (VLT) — the amount of visible light that passes through the glass. VLT is measured by the percent of visible light (VL) passing through. The higher the VLT, the more VL it lets in.

What Are the Different Kinds of Car Window Tinting?

There are two kinds: factory and aftermarket.

Factory Window Tinting

With factory window tinting (AKA tinted glass), dyes and coloring pigments are added directly into the raw materials during glass manufacturing. The quantity and type of additives determines glass color and the amount of VLT. Factory window tinting commonly has a VLT of 74 to 85 percent.

Tinted glass is standard on virtually all vehicles sold in the United States. Manufacturers found reducing UV and IR allows the air conditioner to operate more efficiently and keep your vehicle cooler, thus using less energy.

Aftermarket Window Tint

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Aftermarket window tint (AKA window tinting) is a plastic film, usually polyester, typically applied to the inside of the windows. Like factory window tinting, different types and quantities of additives affect the tint’s final color, VLT and the film’s reflective properties.

Aftermarket window tint can have a VLT of five percent (super dark, AKA limo tint), allowing virtually no light in, to a 90 percent (virtually clear) high-tech nanotechnology tint that absorbs more than 60 percent of total solar energy and more than 90 percent of infrared heat.

Both types reduce vehicle interior temperatures while protecting interior surfaces from damaging sunlight.

What Are the Different Types of Window Tints?

There are several types of aftermarket window tints, each with unique features, characteristics and properties. All window tints reduce or block sun glare and have at least three layers:

  • The adhesive.
  • The tint. Depending on the type of film, additional layers can include dyes, polymers and carbon, ceramic or metal particles.
  • A protective top that prevents chips and scratches.

The Most Common Types of Window Tint, From Least To Most Expensive

  • Dyed Window Tint
    • Mostly used for appearance and privacy. Although the darkest option, dyed window tint’s VLT doesn’t impede seeing cars or objects approaching from the rear or side of your vehicle.
    • Pros: Non-reflective, reduces interior heat levels, doesn’t interfere with electronics.
    • Cons: Layers can break down and separate (delamination), will bubble if not installed correctly, and fade over time.
  • Metalized Window Tint
    • Features many layers of film, so it’s thicker than others. Layers are embedded with metallic particles to reflect heat, darken the glass and block UV radiation.
    • Pros: Durable, resists fading and reflects solar energy, which makes your air conditioner operate more efficiently.
    • Cons: Shiny appearance. Metal particles may interfere with vehicle electronics like cell phone signals, radio reception, GPS and tire-pressure monitoring systems.
  • Hybrid Window Tint
    • Combines the best characteristics of dyed and metalized window tints.
    • Pros: Blocks heat and UV rays, doesn’t interfere with electronics, durable, reduces interior upholstery fading.
    • Cons: More expensive than dyed or metalized window tint.
  • Carbon Window Tint
    • Constructed of hundreds of micro layers of polymer and carbon. This film offers a dark, matte-black finish that is fade resistant and reduces the harsh effects of UV and IR.
    • Pros: No reflective “mirror” finish, does not affect electronics, increased privacy, helps decrease interior heat levels.
    • Cons: Expensive.
  • Ceramic Window Tint
    • This is the highest quality, most technologically advanced window tint available. Nonconductive and nonmetallic ceramic particles absorb and reflect sunlight, greatly reducing the solar energy entering your car.
    • Pros: Absorbs twice as much heat as dyed and hybrid window tints, doesn’t interfere with electrical signals, fade resistant, increased optical transparency, reduces interior upholstery fading and makes glass virtually shatter-proof.
    • Cons: Expensive and doesn’t provide privacy.

What Does It Cost to Have Vehicle Windows Tinted?

The cost depends on your vehicle; the type and number of windows you want tinted; and if you’re planning to DIY or let a pro install it. A basic professional installation of dyed window tint on a sedan can cost around $200 to $300. Coupes typically have deeper curved windows, increasing the cost for same type window tint.

If you plan to install window tint yourself, you’ve got options. Most types of window tint is available in pre-cut kits costing between $60 to $350. Window tint also comes in rolls. You can purchase a 100-foot-long by 24-inch-wide roll of 50 percent VLT film for less than $80 You’ll need a hair dryer and a few inexpensive specialty tools if you take this on as a DIY project.

What To Consider When Choosing Window Tint Films

Think about your motivation, safety and especially your state’s laws before making your choice.

  • The main purpose of window tinting is to block UV rays, IR light, and reduce sun glare while adding appeal to your ride. You can accomplish all this with a high or low VLT percentage tint. If you want to make it difficult for people to look inside your vehicle, then low VLT film is right for you.
  • Windows that are too dark can impact your visibility while driving, especially at night. The safety of you and your passengers comes first.
  • Know the window tint percentage laws for your state. Some states grant exemptions for specific medical conditions. Check with your state DMV to learn if you qualify.
  • Most vehicles come straight from the factory with tinted glass. To stay within your state’s legal limits, it’s important you compensate for factory VLT before adding aftermarket window tint.

The Final Word

Reliable vehicle window tint installers will know if your tint of choice exceeds your state’s window tinting laws. Always ask. If your state permits a maximum 25 percent VLT, don’t install 50 percent. If caught, you’ll pay a fine and the cost of removing the tint.

Many installers are not keen on installing tint on the front windshield. It’s difficult to apply and lots can go wrong. The water needed to install the film can drip on and under the dashboard, easily damaging electronics.

Bob Lacivita
Bob Lacivita is an award-winning ASE and General Motors auto technician, educator and freelance writer who has written about DYI car repairs and vehicle maintenance topics. His work has been featured in The Family Handyman, a Reader's Digest book and Classic Bike Rider magazine. He has been a career and technical educator for 25 years teaching automotive technology, as well as writing state, federal and organizational foundation grants. He also helped design a unique curriculum delivery model that integrates rigorous, relevant academic standards seamlessly into career and technical education.