To replace or restore? We’ll give you the answer right up front: it depends.

Lots of factors can be considered before you make a firm decision on what to do about those dull, dirty headlights. Cost is always a high priority (new headlights are not always cheap). On the other hand, a restoration kit may be cheaper, but it may not always do the job if the headlights are beyond repair. How’s that for a dilemma? Not to worry, though — we’re going to shed some light on this.

Restoration kits — their cost, effectiveness, and contents — vary greatly, so it’s not always easy to generalize about how much they’ll help you. Some will require a bit more elbow grease and time than others. Also, there is no shortage of selection when it comes to choosing and buying restoration kits. In fact, the choices could make you dizzy.

If your vehicle is only a few years old, your lenses will still age, cloud and scratch, but that doesn’t mean you have to physically replace them. For most owners, a restoration is in order, which costs much less than a replacement.

Yellowing, dull headlights do not necessarily mean you have to immediately replace them.

It is what it is: aging headlights are part of your vehicle’s life. Bulb heads, UV rays, weather, salt and snow can contribute to their tragic, ugly downfall. Most headlights these days are made of polycarbonate plastic, which works for as long as it works, but is also easy to cloud and make opaque. As this happens, less light emits from the headlights, reducing your visibility.

First, step back and take account

Take a good look at your headlights. On a new (or newer) vehicle, headlights should be 100 percent sharp and transparent, and the headlamps should be easy to see, down to their fine details.

As a car ages — perhaps even a few thousand miles — those same brilliant headlights may begin to show a hazy, cloudy, dirty look. This can happen slowly, so it may not be immediately noticeable. That sucks, but it’s also a serious safety hazard. Hazy lights will interfere with your ability to see the road (or oncoming traffic) at night.

You have options, though.

Is restoration basically the same as replacement? Either/or?

Know right up front that cleaning your headlights DIY-style is not the same as a professional or kit restoration. In fact, the simple act of regular cleaning may seem efficient and effective, but the results may last as long as the next snowstorm. Also, the chemicals you use to clean may break down the protective coating, whatever is left of it. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clean your headlights, but you should always consider the next step: restoration or replacement.

When you perform a headlight restoration, you can get a professional to do it, or use a store-bought polish kit to remove the accumulated dirt and grime. Either way, the goal is restoring your headlights to a cleaner and brighter condition.

Restoration usually involves sealing the headlights, protecting the delicate acrylic and keeping the lights from hazing. The degree of success depends on the quality of sealant you use, or if you opt to use a professional service to do the job.

These kits come in many versions, with some requiring a bit of physical labor (hand polishing, drilling). In most forms, a headlight restoration kit includes a substance that you apply to your lights before you polish and a sealant that will preserve your work, at least for a while.

Note that polishing doesn’t always do the trick. Your headlights may be too destroyed by oxidation or regular use to be brought back to its original condition. Even small cracks can contribute to your headlights’ downfall. If this is the case, replacement may be your better option.

Further considerations:

Restoration kits can cost as little as $30. The cost of new headlights could be $100 or more, depending on the style of your vehicle.

  • Consider your time

A typical restoration may take up to an hour of your time, which includes at the minimum some physical work like polishing, sanding and scrubbing. However, if the procedure is performed well, your lights could be as brilliant as the most high-end headlights on the market.

  • Consider your costs

Aftermarket parts replacement can restore light output to between 83 and 90 percent of the original unit, according to AAA (this is with some limitations in light intensity and increased possibility of glare).

That said, replacement costs can range from $130-$430, depending on the part you select (original or aftermarket), and the installation method you choose (professional or DIY).

Headlights restoration may be seen by some as a reduced improvement compared to replacement. AAA reports that restoration can return light replacement to about 70 percent of that of new lights, and the process can cost between $20 and $190, depending on whether the job is done professionally or with a DIY kit.

Bottom line: no matter which option you choose, the objective is to see more clearly and safely at night. And your headlights looking good ain’t so bad either.

Find out more at Headlights Depot.

Ron Sklar
Ron Sklar is a business writer based in New York City. He writes content for a number of clients in many industries, including real estate, fashion, automobiles, tech, and financial services. He generates content for website blogs, social media posts, thought leadership articles, email blasts and white papers.

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