Difference Between Car Polish & Wax

by Dennis Hartman

There are many steps involved in keeping an automobile looking its best. Auto detailing can be done by a professional or at home. It may involve protective measures that keep a car looking new or taking steps to eliminate scratches, dents and other blemishes after they've occurred. Car polish and wax are important to auto detailing and each one serves a purpose.

What is Wax?

Car wax comes in two main forms: liquid and paste. It may be made from natural wax, but is mostly synthetic. Paste-type wax is the traditional car wax. It is applied to add a protective layer on top of a car's paint and clear coat. This layer of wax adds shine to the car's appearance and protects the paint job itself from the elements, causing water to bead up and slide off. Wax also filters ultraviolet light and prevents the color of a car from fading over time. Wax also helps delay the onset of oxidation by forming a physical barrier between the metal of the car and the salts, oils and other contaminants the car is exposed to during driving and storage. Liquid wax functions in a way similar to paste wax, but is produced in a thinner form. With both types of wax, the application process involves rubbing the wax onto the surface of the car and then, once it has tried to a dull luster, removing it by rubbing with a clean cloth. The portion of the wax that stays behind provides the glossy shine and typically lasts for several months before wearing off.

What is Polish?

Car polish is a liquid applied to painted surfaces to eliminate scratches and dirt. It does this by containing abrasive elements that scrub the paint surface, actually removing a thin layer of the car's paint job. Additional solid components in the polish settle into fine scratches and minimize their appearance by reflecting light and making them blend into the rest of the surface. Most car polishes contain wax to help produce the desired glossy appearance. Polish can be applied by hand or using a power polisher or buffer with a soft cloth attachment. Many products exist for turning power drills and other power tools into polishers. Most manufacturers of car polish advise applying several coats with lessening degrees of pressure, gradually minimizing the appearance of imperfections in the car's surfaces.

Similarities and Differences

While car wax and polish are used to achieve a glossy, clean appearance, they function in different ways. While waxing a car adds a layer of protectant, polishing removes a layer, eliminating dirt but also thinning the top coat of paint. Oftentimes, wax will be applied after polish to restore any protective layer that has been lost and protect the newly smoothed surface. Car polish is generally thinner than wax, being sold as a thin liquid or as a liquid spray. Once applied, polish does not need to be removed as wax does, but excess polish should be wiped off to prevent streaking and running. While most car wax serves the same purpose, polishes are sometimes marketed for certain types of paint or even certain colors. Polish specially designed for dark paint colors promises to prevent fading while polish for light cars is intended to keep the colors bright and clean.

How to Choose

The decision to use either polish or wax depends largely on the car itself and the intentions of the owner. Despite myths to the contrary, new cars should be waxed on a regular basis according to manufacturer recommendations. A new car should not be polished (it should not need to be) until it has been driven long enough, or under environmental conditions, so as to have experienced some visible amount of surface scratching or deterioration. Applying wax to a new car every few months can put off the need to apply polish for many years. For older paint jobs, using polish and wax is preferred when maximum results are desired. If the intent is simply to preserve the paint in its current condition, wax alone is best. Using polish without wax is uncommon since the removal of a layer of paint leaves the car vulnerable to scratches that wax would protect against.

Other Detailing Options

While both car polish and wax are designed to enhance the appearance of a car's paint job, in certain situations it is best to have the car painted. This can be an expensive procedure and may never achieve the same look as when the car was new, but even regular applications of polish and wax cannot preserve a paint job forever. In cases where a small section of a car has been repainted or touched up, using polish and wax can help to blend this section into the rest of the car. A host of polishes, waxes, and cleaners exist for cleaning and preserving the interior of a car. These vary widely and may be designed to dissolve dirt, add shine or provide a layer of protection from light and heat.

About the Author

This article was written by the It Still Runs team, copy edited and fact checked through a multi-point auditing system, in efforts to ensure our readers only receive the best information. To submit your questions or ideas, or to simply learn more about It Still Runs, contact us.

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