Does your vehicle suffer from yellow headlights? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. This is very common, especially on vehicles that spend a lot of time outside in the sun. It leaves them looking dull and cloudy, and even lowers the light output. Luckily, you don’t need to buy new ones! Yours can be saved.
Yellow headlights can be restored as long as they are made of plastic and not glass. The failed UV coating that causes the yellowing needs to be removed with sandpaper, then the headlights can be polished back to clarity. This can typically be done within an hour.
We can do this job the same way the professionals do, with products that are easy to find. If you take good care of your car, there’s a chance you might already own some of these! Here’s what you’ll need to cure cloudy headlights:
I prefer this 3M tape but any low-tack tape will work as long as it’s easy to peel off
Spray bottle of water
Nothing fancy needed here, tap water is fine
I like to use a Griot’s Garage DA Polisher with a smaller backing plate and 3″ cutting pad. You can also do the compounding and polishing by hand with a towel if you don’t have a machine.
Just like the compound, any finishing polish will be fine. Meguiar’s M205 is a great choice.
Any cheaper towel will work. You don’t need to waste your fancy ones on this job.
Here’s how to restore your yellow headlights:
1. Clean the headlights
This doesn’t have to be perfect, just a quick wipe down will do the trick. The main thing is that we don’t want to have any larger debris grinding into the headlight as we sand.
2. Tape off any nearby painted areas
This is a very important step. All it would take is a quick slip with some sandpaper on your paint and you’ll be dealing with a whole new issue. Play it safe and tape off the surrounding area of the headlight. Two strip widths is usually enough coverage.
Tip: On many cars, you can simply lift the hood rather than tape the top of the headlight.
3. Dry sand with 800 grit
With your 800 grit paper, sand from west to east as evenly as you can. Remember, the more consistent the sanding pattern, the easier the marks will be to remove when the time comes to refine it. Keep sanding until you feel the yellow layer is gone. It shouldn’t take a whole lot.
This is what I refer to as the “Heart Attack Moment” also known as the “What Have I Done Moment”! Dry sanding to remove the remainder of the failed UV coating is going to feel like you’re ruining them even more. But trust me, it’ll be fine.
The cloudiness you just added to your lights will be removed as you go through the following multiple steps of sanding and polishing. They need to get worse before they can get better – they’ll be clear again, I promise!
4. Wet sand with 1000 grit
For the first time, we’re going to introduce water to the process. With your 1000 grit paper, sand from north to south until you no longer see the sanding marks from the previous step (west to east).
Tip: If you’re having trouble seeing, try turning the headlights on. Sometimes that will help to spot any remaining sanding marks.
5. Wet sand with 2500 grit
Now it’s time for another round of wet sanding, this time with 2500 grit paper. Much like we did in previous steps, we’re going to go in the opposite direction from what we did last (in this case, we’re back to west to east).
Again, keep going until you can no longer see the 1000 grit marks going vertically. At this stage, you should be starting to see the headlights become much more clear already. They’re going to get even better though!
Tip: If you’re planning to compound and polish by hand, you might find it easier to add an additional sanding step with 3000 grit paper. The reason is that while 2500 grit will come out easily with a machine, it could take longer by hand. The extra sanding step will bridge the gap and take some of the workload off when you polish.
6. Compound with a polisher
Now that your headlights are starting to look better, we want to take it a step further. Grab your buffer and some compound and go at it. You should see a big difference in clarity over the sanding steps at this point, and for some this will be good enough. For others, we’ll want to do one more step of refinement.
7. Finishing polish (optional)
Compounding with a machine will often leave a little bit of haze, and we can easily remove that with a quick finishing polish. This step is going to take your headlights to the next level towards being crystal clear. It’s possible that they’ll look even better than new!
The key to getting good results through this entire process is to take your time and keep at it. This is very much a case of “you get out what you put in”.
8. Protect them
The final step to restoring your headlights is the most important one. You see, without proper protection from UV rays, all of your hard work will be gone within weeks. That coating that used to protect your plastic has failed (and it’s gone now) so your lights are completely vulnerable to the elements.
You have a few options for protecting them. A traditional paint sealant will work, but you’ll need to reapply it every 6 months or so. A leftover bottle of ceramic coating from your paint will also work and likely last longer. A proper spray-on UV coating or clear coat paint will be your best form of long term protection. Some companies even sell this on ready-to-use wipes.
If the worst case happens and they turn cloudy again in the future, at least you know how to fix them!
9. Bonus tip: Headlight restoration alternative
You may not have the products, equipment, or time to fix your current headlights. I don’t know if you’ve priced new ones out from the dealer, but they’re usually a lot more money than you’d expect (although this is the best way to fix cloudy headlights if money is no issue).
I’ll let you in on an interesting tip. Have a body shop order you a set of aftermarket replacement lights. No, not the weird looking ones that look like pepperonis. The direct OEM replacement ones from an aftermarket company like TYC.
Many times when insurance companies don’t want to pay for dealership parts to fix a crashed car, body shops will use cheaper parts from these aftermarket companies. The lights will look exactly the same, might be slightly lesser quality, and they’ll be a fraction of the price! I’ve done this in the past with great success.
There you have it. You’ve just restored your headlights in the same way that a professional would. It can be a little intimidating at times, but it’s not that hard. The results are definitely worth it. Plus, if your lights are already damaged, you’ve got nothing to lose!
Restoring your headlights is one of the easiest ways to improve the look of your car in a big way. Think of dull, yellow headlights as the weakest link in your exterior appearance. It might be surgically clean with shiny wheels and have beautiful, swirl-free paint, but neglected headlights will drag the overall look down drastically.
Whether you’re getting ready for a car show or you’re planning to list it for sale, restoring your vehicle’s headlights is a great way to take years off of its age.
Headlight restoration myths and FAQ
There is plenty of bad advice online when it comes to restoring your own headlights. Toothpaste, bug spray, and WD40 might add some improvement temporarily, but they are not proper fixes. The DIY kits you can find at the store will do a much better job but they can be expensive considering their results. You can hire a pro to do it (and they’ll be happy to – it’s easy money) but it will cost you.
What causes headlights to turn yellow, dull, and cloudy
The headlights on most modern vehicles have clear plastic lenses on them. That plastic has a coating on it to protect against the sun’s UV rays. Without that coating, bare plastic would turn cloudy in a matter of weeks. In most cases, that UV coating will last for a number of years before the sun finally wears it out and causes it to fail.
What you’re seeing when you look at faded yellow headlights is typically the failed UV coating itself. The concept behind restoring your headlights is to remove what’s left of the failed coating, polish the plastic, then add a new layer of protection.
When is headlight restoration a bad idea?
Some older vehicles (and high-end ones) actually have glass housings on the headlights. A traditional headlight restoration won’t work on these. The good news is that glass headlights are much less likely to fade or discolor than plastic ones so it shouldn’t be an issue. It’s always worth checking to make sure they’re plastic before starting the process though.
As with other detailing jobs like using a clay bar or polishing your paint, restoring your headlights is something you don’t want to do unless you absolutely have to. The real goal is to keep the factory UV coating maintained for as long as you can before you eventually restore them.
It’s best to wait until they’re bad enough that you just can’t stand it anymore – then restore them. At that point, you have nothing to lose.
It’s worth noting that restoring your headlights won’t fix any fading or cracking that happens on the inside of the lens. This typically happens to cheap aftermarket lights more than OEM ones but it’s something to consider.
Ways to prevent the need for a headlight restoration
It’s always best to keep the original UV coating for as long as you can. Here are some tips to prolong the need to restore your headlights in the first place:
Keep your headlights clean
Allowing embedded contaminants to build up on your headlights will decrease their longevity. Always wash your headlights when you do the rest of your car to keep them as clean as possible.
Protect your headlights
Protecting the UV coating on your headlights with a wax, sealant, or ceramic coating is a great way to prolong their life. This will help to shield the UV coating from the sun, which takes some of the workload off of it. It’s important to stay on top of this because it can really make a difference in how long your headlights stay clear.
A good schedule to follow is to protect your headlights whenever you protect your paint. Whether it’s a one-time ceramic coating, or a shot of spray wax after every wash, doing your headlights at the same time as your paint is easier than trying to remember to do them separately.
Don’t park in the sun if you don’t have to
Pay attention to where your car is parked during the time of day when the sun is at its hottest. Consider backing your car in whether it’s in your driveway or your parking spot at work in an effort to keep the sun off your headlights.
Your taillights are less likely to be damaged by the sun and they’re easier to fix if they do get faded. Choosing a parking spot that offers shade from a tree or building is a great idea as well.
Remember, the sun is what kills the coating on your headlights. Avoiding the sun means you’re avoiding yellow headlights!
Never hit them with a polisher
This is a common mistake that people often make. Some professional detailers will even offer to run a polisher on your headlights while they’re doing your paint as a bonus. This is done with good intentions, but it’ll actually degrade your headlights rather than help them (despite the short term results immediately after).
We know that dull, yellow headlights come from the UV coating wearing out and failing. Polishing them with a machine will remove material from the coating, making it thinner and more likely to fail in the future. Unless you’re restoring your headlights, you should never use a polisher on them.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: