How to Make Cloudy Car Headlight Lenses Clear Again

Got vehicle headlights with foggy, yellowing plastic lenses? Learn why this happens and how to make your headlight lenses clear again.

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Introduction

One of the nice things about driving a new car is bright, shiny headlights with lenses that give a perfectly clear view of the bulbs and reflectors inside. Trouble is, like everything else on vehicles, these lenses don't stay shiny and new forever. When the clear plastic lens material spends enough time in the elements, it begins to oxidize and become cloudy. Ignore this long enough, and your headlights will develop a surface that significantly reduces their brightness during nighttime driving. That's why restoring your headlights to full clarity isn't just about looks, but also safety.

Learn the simple approach I use for removing "automotive cataracts," making my headlights and taillights look and work like new again in just a few minutes.

Tools Required

  • Bucket
  • Car wash brush
  • Garden hose
  • Large car sponge
  • Random orbit sander with buffing pad or automotive buffer

Materials Required

  • Automotive rubbing compound
  • Car soap or heavy-duty dish soap
  • Water

 

Project step-by-step (4)

Step 1

Wash the Headlights

  • Start by filling a bucket with car soap and water. Then use a car washing sponge to thoroughly scrub both headlights and tail lights.
    • Sometimes headlights can look cloudier than they really are due to road dust. That's one reason washing is important. A clean car surface is also necessary for best buffing results.
  • Rinse the soap off the lights when you figure you've scrubbed all the dirt away.

Wash the HeadlightsSteve Maxwell for Family Handyman

Step 2

Apply Rubbing Compound

  • Drizzle some liquid automobile rubbing compound on the foam buffing disc on your random orbit sander or buffer. Make a generous circle of rubbing compound about two inches in diameter on the buffing pad.
  • Press the buffing pad firmly against the first headlight lens before switching on the tool.
    • If you start the sander with the pad in the air, it may spin fast and spray rubbing compound everywhere.
  • Switch the sander or buffer on at medium speed, then move it slowly and evenly over the entire headlight. The rubbing compound should spread into a thin white haze covering the whole light.
  • Continue buffing the headlight for three or four minutes, methodically working over the entire lens area.

Apply Rubbing CompoundSteve Maxwell for Family Handyman

Step 3

Rinse and Evaluate

  • Rinse the rubbing compound off your headlight when you feel you've buffed enough.
    • Be sure to rinse liberally to remove all hazy residue left over from buffing.
  • Let the first lens dry while you're buffing the other one, then re-examine the first one.
    • If the plastic is now perfectly clear and free of yellowing, you're done. If not, apply more rubbing compound and do more buffing.
  • A wet lens can sometimes look clearer than it is. Allow the lens to dry completely before evaluating.

Rinse and EvaluateSteve Maxwell for Family Handyman

Step 4

Buff the Other Lights and Re-buff as Needed

  • Move on to the second headlight and possibly your tail lights or running lights if they're cloudy, too.
  • When all plastic lenses look as good as they can, apply a coat of automotive wax to keep them clear longer.
  • Your revived headlight lenses will look good for at least a year. Redo the process to restore clarity when things get cloudy again over time.