The Differences Between Car Wax & Car Polish

Written by chuck ayers
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The Differences Between Car Wax & Car Polish
(Photo from an auto show in Australia, photographer unidentified)

Even among knowledgeable car buffs, a controversy persists over when it's appropriate to apply car wax to your vehicle and when you should use car polish. And with constantly improved formulas for both wax and polish, what may have been true at one time may be less true, or not true at all, any longer. And for those owners who want to care for their cars but aren't car nuts, the pros and cons of car wax versus car polish can be even more confusing. Heck, many people aren't even aware there is a difference between the two.

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Car wax

Car wax is a non-abrasive coating usually containing Carnuba and other waxes. It is applied after washing your car and dries to a thin, milky-white layer when applied properly and is then wiped or buffed off. The wax serves as a clear, shiny protective layer between the elements and the clear-coat that has been applied over the paint on your car. It fills in very tiny (read, microscopic) dimples in the clear-coat and will help them shine to near-showroom brightness.

Car polish

Car polish usually contains a mild abrasive that removes not only some of the more difficult road materials that could splatter onto your car like chemicals, salt, tar, and bugs, but also a very, very thin layer of clear-coat depending on how it is applied and removed. Eventually, the polish could clean away the clear-coat itself and after that it can begin removing paint that the clear-coat was applied to protect in the first place. For this reason, it is highly recommended not to use an electrical buffer when applying polish. Instead, apply and remove by hand or leave it to professionals. Some polishes contain Teflon, so don't even think of making your bathtub regain its lustre using polish because it is too slippery.

When to use which

Before deciding whether to wax or polish your car, first wash your car thoroughly and make sure it is dry. Then lightly run your fingers over the paint, feeling for rough spots or elevated specks. If the surface is smooth it means you need only apply wax and wipe off according to the manufacturer's instructions. If you feel little bumps or irregularities, it means the defects are below the surface and the car needs to be polished according to the instructions of the polish you've purchased.

Ups and downs

We've already talked about the downside of polish. If used too often and wrongly (especially with older cars), it can eventually polish away the clear-coat, paint, and even the undercoat. If it gets that far along, the vehicle will need to be repainted. However, given technological advances, some polishes contain such mild abrasive or polymer blends that damage to the clear coat is minimal. The biggest advantage to polish is that it will shine a lot longer and water will continue to bead for up to a year. Wax, on the other hand, needs to be applied much more frequently and can actually melt if it gets hot enough, particularly on flat surfaces, like the roof and hood, which are exposed the most to the sun.

Leery of polish? Try the Appleton solution.

Try this tip from Bob Appleton of Hewlett, New York, who was kind enough to share it on an Internet car blog. There appears to be no downside to this trick. After washing and preparing the surface and then applying wax to your car, fill a sock halfway with cornflour and tie a knot at the top of the sock. Holding the knot, lightly smack the starch ball every 18 inches or so around the waxed surface. Lightly rub the powdered remains of the cornflour with a clean cotton cloth. The cornflour acts like jewel rouge used to polish glass. Finish by hosing the car off and you're done.

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