Car Polish vs Car Wax

One of the most misunderstood issues when it comes to car detailing is a question that we are asked often at this website. What is the difference between car polish vs car wax? In fact is there any difference at all?

In this article I am going to explain the exact differences and more importantly why it matters. As a car detailer myself, and also as someone who simply loves cars, the differences may sound small to some people, but in effect these two car care products do entirely different things.

Later in this article we have explained the various layers of paint that are put on a car when it is built in the factory. However, for now we want to explain the main difference in car polish and car wax.

Difference Between Car Polish and Car Wax

When you are looking after your car, the first thing that you would do is rinse it with water to remove most of the dirt. Then you would wash your car with a good quality car wash and then dry it off. The next step should be to apply a good quality car polish and buff that up for a great shine.

The final step would be to apply a good quality car wax, and that waxing process is in effect what protects your car from the weather. That is the main difference, polish shines and wax protects.

A good way to remember the difference is “Polish for shine, wax for protection.”

We have done a couple of articles on the best buyer rated car polishes and the best car waxes. Please click on either of the links below for more detail.

You can click here to read our article on the top 10 car polishes

You can click here to read our article on the top 10 car waxes

To help explain the difference in more detail, it is very important to know just a little about the layers of paint that are applied to a car in the factory.

The video below will also help explain the key differences between wax and polish.

Brief Understanding of Car Paint Layers

We have gone into more detail later in this article about the various coats of paint that go on a car and most vehicles. However if you don’t have time to read that in detail, here is a very short summary. There are four main stages:

  1. Preparation – your car is dipped into phosphate to protect the body of the car against corrosion and also to prepare the surface of your car for paint
  2. Primer – this coat levels out any surface defects in the body of the car, and adds protection for things like stone chips, UV light from the sun etc and also acts as preparation for the base coat
  3. Base Coat – this is really the color and the effect of your car and there are three types which are solid, metallic and pearlescent pigments. The solid is the easiest and cheapest to apply and would be used on cars, trucks, planes and many cars. Metallic and pearlescent are more difficult to apply and also more expensive to apply.
  4. Clear Coat – This is a glossy and transparent coat, often referred to as a lacquer, and it is a tough and durable coat that gives the overall protection for the car.

When you buy a new car it will come with the usual showroom shine straight out of the factory. This is of course as good a shine and protection that you are ever going to have. After that your car will be subject to the general driving conditions and to your everyday normal wear and tear.

After that the care of your vehicle is really up to you. So when you are washing it, polishing it or waxing it, you are in effect looking after the clear coat, the final step of the car painting process.

Why the Confusion Between Car Polish & Car Wax?

There is a lot of confusion out there when it comes to car polish vs car wax. Primarily that comes down to one main thing and that is the manufacturers of these products. They will advertise their products as both a car polish and a car wax. Typically they will say something like, “get a great showroom shine with built-in wax protection.”

Although we lay the blame at the manufacturer’s door, they are in fact responding to the general lazy nature of human beings. Please understand we are not trying to insult anyone, and we are not pointing the finger at anyone, but just pointing out the reality.

Allow us to explain the key differences in washing and caring for a car the way most people do it, and then the proper way of washing, polishing and waxing your vehicle.

Car Care – The Way Most People Do It

  • They fill a bucket with hot water and add some type of cleaning product (some use car wash and some use a general detergent) and then they wash the car. They will wash the wheels at the end after they have washed the windows and the body of the car.
  • Then they will dry the car off or worse still leave it to dry.
  • Then they will use a combination polish/wax product and buff it off by hand or by using a buffer

The alternatives to this is that they will either use an automatic car wash which is guaranteed to ruin the surface of the paint, or they may opt to go to something like a sponsored car wash where the car paint will also get ruined, or finally they may go to a car detailer, and hope that they are good at what they do.

Car CareĀ  – The Proper Way

  • The car should be thoroughly rinsed with cold water before washing to ensure that the majority of the dirt has been washed off and removed from the car surface. Stubborn spots such as bird poop will be removed and then completely rinsed off the car
  • The car should then be washed with hot water, a car washing mitt and a good quality car shampoo – a separate cleaner should be used for the car wheels, a separate product should also be used to remove stubborn tar spots
  • The car should then be completely dried using microfiber cloths
  • If there are under the surface contaminants then the car should be treated with a clay bar and car lube (usually twice a year)
  • The car should then be polished and buffed using a high quality car polish and a good quality car buffer to remove on surface contaminants and to create a deep gloss shine
  • The car should then be waxed using a high quality car wax and buffed primarily to protect the car from the elements

The reality is that very few people ever rinse their car first, very few ever clay bar their car, and the majority of people use a combination car polish/car wax product.

That of course saves them a lot of time and overall it does a good enough job. At the end of the day people have other things to do and they don’t want to spend a couple of hours doing it properly.

What manufacturers are essentially doing is taking out the use of a clay bar, the use of a car polish and the use of a car wax and replacing it with one product that does a decent job of doing all three. In other words wash and dry your car and apply a combination polish/wax product.

Why Use a Polish & a Car Wax – What Impacts the Clear Coat Polish On Your Car?

This is probably something most people don’t give a lot of thought to. Cars are however just like us subject to a whole range of environmental conditions. These include some or all of the following:

  • UV light – these are rays from the sun that can over time cause damage to us and also to paint surfaces. Over time these rays will start to discolor the car. This is known as photo-degradation (fading) and oxidation.
  • Rain wind snow and hail – the weather does of course vary a lot depending on where we live. However all cars are designed to have paint that can stand up to these conditions. However they will only do this with some proper care and attention
  • Salt and Spray – If you live close to the oceans there is a lot of salt in the air. In addition to this many of the roads are sprayed with salt and grit to help deal with snow, hail and ice showers
  • Trees, Birds and Insects – Many cars are impacted by the sap from trees, from bird poop, insect poop and also from dead insects. Most of these if left unattended are highly corrosive and in the long term will damage your car paint
  • Atmospheric PollutantsĀ – This includes car exhaust fumes, fumes from factories and general smoke that is in the air along with elements such as acid rain
  • Stones and Chippings – These are always going to be a hazard for cars and these do cause the most damage as they can penetrate the protective clear coat. When that happens the base coat is exposed and that is when you can start to get rust
  • Water Marks and Swirls – this usually happens when a car has been badly washed or a low quality car buffer has been used or used incorrectly. The most common problem is washing a car with a sponge and not having rinsed the dirt off first. The sponge basically gathers the dirt particles and scrapes those over the car, causing quite a lot of damage
  • Normal Wear and Tear and Scratches – If you add on to the list above the normal wear and tear such as car keys scraping against doors, people walking past your car and rubbing along it, other cars opening doors and hitting you car, you can see that there are many ways for your car paint to get damaged.

So as you can see just like us, our vehicles are prone to many elements including the weather, pollution and the general wear and tear while out on the road.

car polish vs car wax

Understanding The Car Paint Process In Detail

To really try and understand the difference, it is important to understand exactly how a car is painted before being sold to you. The reality is that almost every car is painted in a factory by robots. That ensures that the paint is applied uniformly, and let’s face it that is also a faster and more efficient process.

You will also know that generally speaking car paint holds up pretty well when compared to many other paint types, such as house paints or masonry paints. After all your car has to be out in all weathers, rain, sun, wind, snow and hail.

The reason car paint is able to do that is because there is a chemistry process involved for the paint and the order in which paints are applied.

4 Part Car Painting Process in More Detail – Referring to Polish & Wax

No 1 Process – The Phosphate Dipping Process

This is a phosphate painting process where water jets under very high pressure are aimed at the car. This is a vital stage and if not done properly the finish effect will be very weak and will fail quickly when exposed to the normal wear and tear of driving.

The process for doing this is known as the Electro- Coat Paint Operation. This process helps degrease the metal and also coats it with zinc that is an excellent product to resist corrosion, and also is a very useful product to allow better adhesion of the remaining layers of paint.

No 2 Process – The Primer Coating Process

This is the first actual layer of paint and this process has changed a lot over the years. This important process helps fill in and minute scratches so in many ways acts like a micro-filler. It also helps cover up any imperfections on the metal and as such creates a smooth surface.

It also provides an excellent surface for the application of the main base coat colored layer. For many years this primer color was a rather boring and dull grey. Most car manufacturers will now used a colored primer to match the base coat of the car.

That is useful because if the car surface gets chipped or scratched, you will still have a matching color and not the usual grey spots that you would have seen on older vehicles.

No 3 Process – The Base Coat Process

For most car owners this is what they will be most familiar with. Up until the 1980s this was in effect the final coat of paint that was applied to a car. The clear coat process was only added to cars after that date. So any older or vintage cars would never have had a clear coat applied.

So the base coat in these modern times is essentially the color of your car. As I mentioned earlier there are three types of base coat paints which are solid, metallic and pearlescent pigments.

Solid Color

This is the paint you see on the tin. It is simply just the pure color with nothing added. It is very easy to apply and it is also the cheapest coat to apply. That is usually recognized in the price of your vehicle when you purchase it.

Metallic & Pearlescent Base Coats

Metallic paint contains minute particles of aluminium, also known as aluminium flakes. It is those flakes that create this grainy almost sparkling effect on car paint. This is a lot more difficult to apply to make sure there is a high quality and consistent finish.

It also makes it more difficult to touch up if you get scrapes or scratches. Pearlescent paints contain small pigments (known as pearls) and those give a sparkle and a greater depth of color to a car.

No 4 Process – The Clear Coat Process

This is the final stage. This is a layer of paint that has no pigment and is nothing more that clear paint. This coat adds a a very high gloss and helps protect the base coat from chips and scrapes.

Conclusion of Car Polish vs Car Wax

When caring for your car, you are in essence looking after the clear coat paint on your vehicle. This is a clear coat of paint also known as a lacquer and it is a high gloss finish, that helps protect the colored base layer of paint.

When you use a car polish on your car, you are removing above the surface contaminants and also creating a deep rich shine.

When you wax your car, you are the protecting the clear coat from the elements and the surrounding environment.

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