3M Headlight Lens Restoration – How To Make Your Old Car Look Slightly Less Crappy

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3m headlight lens restoration afterWe’re going to stretch the “Home” in “HomeFixated” to encompass not only the garage, but also the car that might reside in it. In fact, we will be providing a review of the 3M Headlight Lens Restoration Kit and a little how to in the hopes we can help you improve the look of any aging vehicles you might be stuck with own. I’m not ashamed to admit it, the Great Recession has been hard on my family’s vehicle fleet. Pre-recession I was liv’n the dream, zipping around in a two seater convertible that did zero to sixty in under 6 seconds. We had a family wagon (that has since been totaled). And then a late 90’s compact SUV, which I used as . . . wait for it. . . as a utility vehicle. Financial prudence and $500 German baby car seats led to me selling my (vehicle) baby. It’s a day I still mourn years later.

Then, when our family wagon bit the dust, we didn’t bother to replace it, unless you count my new Hurley bike trailer. Yes, my new car is a mountain bike and flatbed trailer. Contrary to popular opinion, not every tool blogger is rolling around in a pimped out truck. For the time being, we’re continuing our great “One Car Family Experiment”, with an aging compact SUV. One of the biggest give-aways that you’re driving a crappy old car is when your headlights fog over like frosted windows in a holiday display. Since GMC or Ford hasn’t sponsored HomeFixated with a new ride yet, I resorted to headlight lens restoration. If you’re Tim Carter of AskTheBuilder fame, you don’t need to read this. However, if you’re driving a crappy older car with headlights that look more frosty than Alaska mid-winter, you’ll want to read on for our 3M Headlight Lens Restoration how-to and review.

3m lens restoration kit contents
3M Lens Restoration Kit contents

There are a lot of headlight lens restoration kits on the market. I searched through some reviews on various kits. With just about every kit I found glowing endorsements along with some serious detractors. Keep in mind if you’ve got glass or severely yellowed headlights, there may be no hope for you (other than replacing your headlights or getting a new ride). I finally settled on the 3M Headlight Lens Restoration kit since it seemed to have respectable reviews and it was cheap. For about $17, (and with over 600 reviews and a 4+ Star rating the 3M Headlight Lens Restoration Kiton Amazon seemed hard to go wrong. In addition to the kit, you’ll need to supply a standard drill (1200-1600 RPM), masking tape, a spray bottle for water, and maybe a microfiber detail cloth.

Step number one in the process was washing the headlights. Once washed and dried it was time to apply masking tape to protect your vehicle’s finish around the headlight lenses. Don’t skip this step unless your car looks like it belongs in a junkyard and you could care less about further paint/finish damage. I also lifted up the hood for the whole process which saved me from having to mask the top edge of the lights. I recommend doubling up on the masking tape. By putting on two layers of tape you’ll prevent damage to your finish as you start to doze off during the hours of polishing you’ll be doing later. It’s also worth mentioning that, as with many tedious tasks, you can also pay a professional to do this for you. I’ve seen prices ranging from roughly $50 to $200. But HomeFixated’s tagline has DIY in it, not “PSETDIFY” (pay someone else to do it for you). PSETDIFY is not nearly as catchy for a tagline either.

3M lens restoration sanding
The first of several rounds of sanding

Once your chariot’s lights are suitably cleaned and you’ve masked off your precious finish, it’s time to start sanding. Yup, you’re going to be sanding your headlights. With the first two rounds of sanding with the 3M Headlight Lens Restoration kit you’ll be dry sanding. To avoid inhaling ultra-toxic, highly carcinogenic “headlight dust” we recommend using a mask. Actually, we have no idea if “headlight dust” is hazardous in any way, but our lawyers threatened to waterboard if we didn’t say something about the importance of wearing a mask. Anyway, I wore one since I’m not into my lungs turning into shop-vac receptacles.

bosch drill sanding
We used a Bosch Compact Tough 18v cordless drill

3M recommends a medium to light pressure on the drill while sanding. I personally recommend a cordless drill if you have a suitable one available. Not dealing with the cord is a good thing. In our case we put the Bosch DDS181 Compact Tough 18v Drillthrough its paces. Bosch sent us the drill after their last media event and it powered through roughly two and a half hours of on-off sanding without breaking a sweat. Their new hi-capacity Li Ion battery almost made it through the entire project on one charge. Whatever drill you use, make sure it runs around 1200 to 1600 RPM. Slower and you’ll be working on this all day. Faster and you might overheat the material and wind up with char marks on the headlights, which is probably worse than frosting.

3m headlight after sanding
It gets worse before it gets better

I was very meticulous about each step of sanding. You start with a relatively coarse grit of 500 and then move on to 800. 3M provides several discs of each and I made sure to use up all of them. Each successive step is critical to removing the deeper scratches of the previous grit. When you’re done with the dry sanding, you should be left with a truly frosted looking white haze that’s even across the lenses. Don’t panic, it’s supposed to look that way.

3m wet sanding
Wet sanding should yield a white slurry

From there, it’s time to wet sand using 3M’s included P3000 Trizact Foam Disc (which we think is a fancy way of saying “polishing pad”). This is where your trusty spray bottle comes in. You’ll initially wet just the Trizact disc, and then also the headlight lens surface if it becomes dry. On most lenses, if you’re doing this right you’ll begin to see a white slurry build up. As with the other steps, take your time, and make sure you’re giving even attention to the entire surface. Wipe the lens and you’ll be pleased to see some of the magic happening. If you see any scratches, keep going with this pad.

3m buffing padOnce you’ve finished with the Trizact disc, it’s time to attach the orange buffing pad disc. If you’ve had any experience polishing cars, then you’ll already know that after you dab a dime sized glop of rubbing compound (included in the 3M kit), you’ll want to rub the foam pad over the lens BEFORE powering up the drill. If you start the drill first, you’ll fling compound everywhere and look like a total lens restoration noob! Of course you probably are a lens restoration newbie, but you still don’t want to get covered with rubbing compound and look like one. I kept going with this process, alternating between the headlights until I was out of compound.

3m lens restoration before and after
The obligatory Before and After shot

Some kits include a protectant which you might apply now. At this point, it’s time to wash off the lenses and revel in your kick-ass restoration job! Upon close inspection I could see a few scratches I didn’t manage to remove, and some mild swirling. I would expect a pro with a random orbit polisher setup probably would deliver slightly better results. But as you can see from the before and after above, this little project resulted in a huge improvement in headlight clarity and how the entire vehicle looks. In fact, the first night I drove the car, someone flashed their headlights at me thinking my high beams were on (they weren’t). Two somewhat unexpected benefits were better performing headlights and improved safety.

Instructions will vary from kit to kit, and even if you get the same kit I did, follow the step by step instructions for your particular kit closely. You can find the3M Headlight Lens Restoration Kit for a bargain $17 on Amazon. You can also find the Bosch DDS181 Compact Tough 18v Drill, which I definitely recommend as a great 18v drill option, for around $150 also on Amazon. Congratulations, you’re on your way to making your recession-tolerant crappy car look significantly less crappy!

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About Marc Lyman

Marc grew up under a brave single mom who "encouraged" home improvement on the family home. Early toddler gifts included a tool set, and even a cordless Bosch drill when cordless drills first came out. In grade school (give or take a few years), Marc's mom said, "We need to cut down some trees. . . . here's a chainsaw." A father figure also involved Marc in many home improvement projects, including a summer of home remodeling in Palo Alto, CA. Toss in some Obsessive Compulsive personality traits researching everything home improvement related. The end result: a genetically pre-disposed, socially sculpted home improvement machine! For his complete profile, please visit our About page. Really, it's worth it.

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7 thoughts on “3M Headlight Lens Restoration – How To Make Your Old Car Look Slightly Less Crappy”

  1. WOW, glad I found this article, I’ve been trying to find something to fix my headlights for months. They look horrible and restoring them back to their original look will make my car look new again.

  2. Or, you can just get a couple of sheets of Wet/Dry say, 800, 1200 and 2000 grit, wet sand with those then use a bit of Meguiars Plastic Polish.

    • Haven’t tried that Lee, but thanks for the tip. We found the 3M kit so inexpensive (and it included everything we needed but the drill and spray bottle), that we didn’t even consider piecing together our own kit.

  3. “I would expect a pro with a random orbit polisher setup probably would deliver slightly better results.”

    Well, that’s really the law of diminishing returns. Is it worth $150 for the 2% better they could do? It is worth it on a 10+ year old non-classic car?

    Possibly, but there’s plenty of other turds I could polish around my place for that $150.

    • Agreed Chuck! I actually had fun with the lens polishing project, and for the little I invested in the kit (and a little sweat equity) it made a huge difference in the car’s appearance. Definitely a cool little weekend project if you have an aging (and fogging) vehicle fleet!

  4. I’ve been wondering if these really worked. I’ve seen them advertised on TV although I would probably stay away from the particular products I saw where you buy 1 and get 1,000,000 other things free just pay shipping and handling of $6.95 per item can get pretty expensive.

  5. Hey Marc,

    Sadly that is one of the challenges with the poly-carb headlight covers and living in UV zone they can fade quickly.

    I have a few mid 90 Volvo 850’s that have glass headlight covers that don’t fade but they do get scratch and pitted (much like windshields can – and some are spendy to replace and the insurance company (mine used have window glass replacement with zero deductible – so a star in your field of vision = new windshield. Now the stars rock chips 95% just get repaired, or you pony up the comprehensive deductible. ( but I prefer keeping my insurance payment low – by not making claims unless absolutely necessary my last was more than 10 years ago).

    But a pitted/scratched windshield can make driving difficult or dangerous, even more so at night.

    An inexpensive remedy not just for headlight covers and windshields, but also other glass items.

    Cerium Oxide – similar principle different abrasive compound
    Is :

    The Volvo wagons the taillights really suffer in the sun and fade badly, they can make a beautiful car look old.

    Here is primer for refinishing Taillights.


    Love the Volvo’s had a few “tuned turbo” wagons that were sub-6 sleepers. Embarrassed my share of 5.0L GT’s back in the day.


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