What’s the difference between Polish and Wax?

Let's Cut to the Chase...

Okay, so you’ve just washed your car and it looks beautiful!
So how can you maintain that shiny finish?
One friend tells you to Polish it, another tells you to Wax it.  Aren’t they the same?
 
No, they are not the same.
 
Let’s break it down…
 

CAR PAINT

BASIC PAINT ANATOMY

Car paint is a science and a field in its own right, so we don’t want to get off track here. But it is important just to know the basic structure of your cars paint, so we can then understand when to use a Polish, and when to use a Wax.

Put simply, most car paints these days have the following structure:

  • Car panel
  • Primer
  • Base coat (colour of the vehicle)
  • Clear coat (clear layer of paint)

The scratches, swirls, oxidation and defects your see in your cars paintwork are mainly in your clear coat. This is the layer of paint that gets polished and/or waxed.

Did you know? The clear coat on your car is about as thick as as a Post It note! And that’s being generous!

Cross section of cars paint work to show the differences between wax and polish
Typical cross section of a modern cars paintwork

Technicalities

The purpose of this article is to explain the strict difference between a Polish and a Wax. Therefore, both compounds and polishes will be referred to as polishes in this article.

All-In-One’s (AIO), Cleaner Waxes and other similar products that contain a combination of both Polish and Waxes will be discussed in another article.

 

POLISHING

REMOVAL OF DEFECTS

What is it?

It is an abrasive product used to remove or diminish any minor imperfections and paint defects on the exterior of your car, leaving it looking shiny again. Polish works by ‘cutting’ down the thickness of the top layer of paint on your car in order to minimise the appearance of these minor imperfections such as scratches and swirls. 

This top layer is usually a clear layer (clear coat) on top of the base coat (colour layer) on most modern vehicles, but some older classic vehicles will only have a base coat, and polishing will be removing the top most layer of the base coat and reducing its overall thickness. 

Paint Correction, Graphene Coatings, Ceramic Coating, Car Detailing, Paint Protection What's the difference between Polish and Wax?
Polish 'cuts' the top clear coat layer to remove paint defects

When should I Polish my car?

Polish is best used after the car has been washed and decontaminated to bring back the beautiful shiny finish we all want.
So after thoroughly washing your car, if you notice this process left you with some scratches or swirl marks to the paintwork this is a good indication that a good polish is needed. It will remove any unwanted marks and oxidation while giving you that ‘polished’ look.
 
 

What are the imperfections that Polish can correct?

Dust, dirt and other contaminants attach themselves to the surface of our cars. Unfortunately, the process of washing off these fine particles can leave the paintwork damaged. Yes! Washing your car actually causes damage to your paint. True, there are ways to wash your car safely and minimise the risk, but ultimately any surface contact with your cars paint runs the risk of scratching it, no matter how light.  Eventually, a build up of these scratches can make the overall surface coat look dull rather than shiny. The polishing process will then help to bring back that shine by correcting these paint defects.

The usual defects that polishing can correct are:
  • Random Isolated Deep Scratches (in clear coat)
  • Swirl marks
  • Oxidation

Note!

There are countless types of polishes on the market and all range in different levels of aggression and have different abrasive technology. If you want to remove deep scratches, oxidation or heavy swirl marks, then multiple types of polishes with specific abrasive technology will be required along with the use of machine polishers and multiple steps. It is highly recommended this process is undertaken by a trained and experienced professional detailer.

How often can I polish my car?

Unfortunately, there is no standard rule that can be applied here. There are too many variables that need to be considered before polishing your car, some of which are:

  • Existing paint thickness
  • Abrasive strength of polish being used
  • Age of vehicle
  • Method of polishing (hand or machine)

As polishing your car is actually correcting the paint by removing a layer from the surface, it is important not to over-polish. Remember: The thickness of your clear coat is not even as thick as a Post It note! So over-polishing will thin out the paintwork and you may even cut right through to the undercoat (hello respray!) So it is recommended that you only polish the car as needed, and if you are unsure, ask a professional.

WAXING

A FORM OF PAINT PROTECTION

What is it?

Wax protects the paintwork like nail polish. How so? It not only protects the finish of the car but it enhances the shine. It does this by filling in and smoothing out any grooves or scratches with a protective layer. Most waxes now also have UV inhibitors in them that protect your cars paintwork from fading due to Sun exposure.

Waxing a cars paint is adding a layer on top of the clear coat to protect it, not subtracting from the layers thickness like polish.

Paint Correction, Graphene Coatings, Ceramic Coating, Car Detailing, Paint Protection What's the difference between Polish and Wax?
Wax is a form of paint protection which protects the clear coat from environmental elements and can also mask paint defects

When should I Wax my car?

Waxing is best done after a good clean and polish to lock in and protect that defect free beautiful, glossy finish. Unlike polish, however, wax needs to be applied more often as it does deteriorate over time (typically up to 3-months) from UV exposure, environmental fallout and incorrect washing soaps.

It is good practice to apply a spray wax after each (or every other) wash.

If you are noticing your paint work has a good level of reflection after a wash, and isn’t dull due to swirl marks, oxidation or scratches, then grab the wax.

Though if your cars paint feels rough to touch, dull and is swirl city, then its time to decontaminate the paint, polish and then protect it.

Extra:
A common ingredient in most waxes is carnauba wax which doesn’t wash away in water and can withstand heat while giving your car that sleek finish. This, along with the UV inhibitors, will provide a great shield to protect your car and will be a great final step to caring for and maintaining that beautiful, clean paintwork.

What is Paint Protection?

Simply put, Paint Protection is a sacrificial layer applied on top of the cars clear coat to protect it and make it more durable to environmental fall out such as road grime, bitumen/tar deposits, bird droppings, bat droppings, water spots and more. All of which damage the cars clear coat if not removed promptly and correctly. Hence, the applied Paint Protection acts as a sacrificial barrier to protect your clear coat and give you more time to remove the fallout and other defects before reapplying. Most Paint Protections come with the added benefit of being high water repellent (hydrophobic), increase gloss levels and make the vehicles paintwork easier to clean.

Paint Protection Scale in regards to durability:

Wax (up to 6 months)

Sealant (up to 9 months)

Ceramic Coatings (12-32 months)

Graphene Coatings (up to 5 years)

So, what’s the difference?
 
Basically, polish removes what we don’t want and wax protects the finish we do want.
 
Polish removes paint defects that washing and decontaminating your car didn’t. This leaves the car feeling smooth while looking shiny and scratch-free. 
 
Wax differs as it is used as a protective layer that only enhances the effect that the polish gives. It smooths out and protects the paintwork while polish actually works to remove the defects. Wax, also, needs more touch ups than a polish does.
 
We hope this clarified any misconceptions you may have heard and have been unsure about. 
 
Please contact us if you’d like to book in your service.
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