Should You Wax or Polish Your Car?

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Mr. Miyagi taught a generation to “wax on, wax off.” You’ll note that Sensei Miyagi never said, “wax on, polish off.” That would have been silly.

Waxing and polishing are words that are often used interchangeably, and incorrectly, by weekend warriors who are keen to make their cars look showroom new. Though similar, waxing and polishing serve different purposes.

Polishing a car removes small damages done to the top coat of your car’s paint, such as road gunk, bird poop, and swirls that have built up over time. What polish doesn’t do is make your car shiny.

Wax makes cars shiny. It also provides the paint with a protective coating to keep it from fading and acts as a defense against scratches.

A lot of weekend warriors think that keeping the car sparkling clean is easy. Grab a bucket, a sponge, some dishwashing soap, an old towel from the linen closet, and you’re ready to go.

That car cleaning strategy would be okay if weren’t for the dirty bucket, used sponge, dishwashing soap, and old towel. Like everything in life, you have to use the right tools to achieve the desired results.

Giving your car a bath

Before attempting anything, you need to wash your car thoroughly. You need to remove as much of the road dirt, dust, and grime as you can before you begin to polish or wax.

When you wash your car, avoid using dishwashing soap because it’s abrasive and accelerates the oxidation process. That’s a fancy way of saying your car is going to look dull if you keep washing it with dishwashing soap. Instead, use a soap that’s made specifically for cars such as Meguiar’s Gold Class.

Ditch the used kitchen sponge when washing the car. It’s probably dirty, and a dirty sponge will leave dirt on your car. Depending on the type of sponge you’re using, they can also be abrasive and can scratch your paint. Instead, use a microfiber wash mitt, which is soft, lifts the dirt off the car, and holds it in the mitt.

When you dry your vehicle, use microfiber towels because they absorb much more moisture than a regular towel, they’re soft, they collect and lift dirt, and they don’t leave lint behind like regular towels do.

Polishing your car

Once your car is clean and dry, take a look at the paint. If you notice swirls, scratches, rock chips, water spots, chunks of bird poop, or parts of bugs, it’s time to polish your car. Why? Because polishing it will remove those pesky bumps and make the surface of your car smooth.

Polishes come in three forms: cream, spray, and liquid.

Once you’ve polished your car, and it looks spiffy, you’re done right? Maybe, but maybe not. If you’ve waxed your car within the past few months and it still looks shiny, then yes, you’re done. The polish gave your paint a tune-up. If it’s been more than a few months, though, give your car a wax.

Wax on, wax off

Car paint takes a lot of abuse. Rocks hit it, mud sticks to it, and people open their car doors and ding it. Add in the sun (with no SPF 45 to protect it), bird poop, and Father Time, and after a while, the paint looks dull.

Polish will take care of bugs and things, but wax will restore the luster of your paint. Waxes, which also come in cream, spray, and liquid form, also have UVA and UVB absorbers to protect the paint from the sun.

Choosing the right car wax depends on your needs. Consumer Reports has a car wax buying guide to help you choose the right product.

Tips for polishing and waxing

Polishing or waxing a car isn’t hard, although it does require some elbow grease, the right products for the job, and a little time. Here are some tips for polishing and waxing:

  • Don’t use the same cloth for washing, polishing, and waxing. If you do, there will be cross contamination of products (soap, polish, and wax).

  • Don’t wax your windows.

  • After washing your car but before polishing or waxing, spray on a finishing product such as Final Touch. A finishing product removes smudges, fingerprints, or smears that may have occurred while you were washing the car.

  • Don’t work in the sun.

  • Don’t assume if a little wax is good, a lot must be better. This is not true. Don’t over apply polish or wax.

  • Be aware that if you missed any patches of dirt or grease during the washing or polishing process, they will be sealed in when you wax.

  • If you’re going to use an electric car polisher, be careful not to buff too much or too hard because you could wear down the paint, leaving yourself with a great view of the undercoat.

You should wax your car about every three months. If you live where it snows, you should wax your car before and after snow season. If you live where it’s very hot, you should wax your car before summer to give the paint a layer of protection from the UV rays. Polishing, on the other hand, only needs to be done when you notice trouble spots.

By understanding the difference between waxing and polishing and what they each do for your car, and by keeping the tips above in mind, you’ll be able to achieve a grime-free paint job with a luster to match.


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