Get ready to learn everything you wanted to know about how to protect the paint of your vehicle. The detailing world has long moved on from simple wax. We still use the term wax often but these days that really isn’t what we mean.
Carnauba car wax used to be the best car paint protection available but nowadays there are much better options. Paint sealants, ceramic coatings, and paint protection films are the most effective and popular options.
We’ll describe each of these three car care options in detail and suggest what we consider to be the best product choice for each category to protect your paint.
Is car paint protection any good?
Absolutely. You definitely want to use some sort of protection to protect the paint on your car or truck. It’s just smart car care. While carnauba wax used to be the only real option to protect car paint, it just isn’t worth the trouble anymore for a daily driver. Natural carnauba wax doesn’t last more than a month or two. It still provides the best shine when compared to most sealants or ceramic coatings so it’s still a great option for show cars.
For a real-world car, truck, or SUV, you want to use something that is going to hold up on automotive paint for an extended period of time. You also want your protective layer to actually protect. It should prevent damage to your car’s paint from acid rain, water spots, bird droppings, acid rain, bug guts, tar, and the sun’s UV rays.
Also, a good protective coating can help reduce or prevent the occurrence of swirl marks and scratches on the paint surface of your car or truck. Over time, fine spiderweb-like scratches can appear in your paint. This usually happens during washing your vehicle. There are many ways to help protect your paint job from these ugly scratches and car paint protection is just one method.
The current main options in the automotive detailing world are:
- Paint Sealant
- Ceramic Coating
- Paint Protection Film
How to protect a car from scratches
Car paint protection isn’t primarily about protecting your car from scratches but that is a benefit of some.
Sealants generally don’t provide scratch protection of any kind. They will help keep scratch-causing dirt and debris from sticking to your car’s paint and thereby help reduce the opportunity for scratching but they don’t have the hardness of a ceramic coating or thickness of a film.
A ceramic coating provides some minor protection from fine swirls and scratches. It creates a quartz-like coating over the paint surface of your car that is hard and durable. It isn’t strong enough to repel rock chips or attempts to key your car, but it will provide some protection from light scratches that can be caused during washes.
PPF provides very good protection from scratches and even small rock chips. Nothing is indestructible though and even PPF can be damaged enough to need to be replaced if larger rocks hit it with sufficient force. Scratches can even occur through PPF with large hits.
If scratch protection is your primary goal then a PPF should be the one to put at the top of your list to protect your paint.
Car Paint Layers
Your car or truck paint is composed of layers. Each layer is usually applied in multiple passes to build up that particular layer. An older car may only have one layer which is referred to as single-stage paint. If your car was built in the last 30 years, however, it likely won’t have a one-layer single-stage paint.
Typical Car Paint Layers:
- Base Coat (Paint)
- Clear Coat
The primer is a layer that is applied to the bare metal and helps bond the base coat. The base coat is the colored paint. The clear lyaer is a sacrificial clear protective layer over top of the paint.
Car paint protection is essentially about protecting the clear coat. As your vehicle ages, the clear layer will inevitably accumulate scratches. Also, bird droppings, acid rain, and bugs will stick to it and etch into the paint. Tar and other debris will stick to it and be difficult to remove. UV rays from the sun will break down the clear layer and cause it to fail.
To make sure your clear coat remains intact, free from scratches or etching, and easy to remove road grime from, and retains its gloss finish for a long time, you need to apply a protective layer over the top of it.
New car paint protection
Protecting the paint of a new car is something many new car owners consider when they pick up their new ride. The pristine paint looks so flawless, it’s easy to see why someone would want to do everything they can to retain that look.
Any of the protective options covered in this article are great for helping maintain the perfection of the original factory finish on you new car with a layer of protection.
The most important thing to keep in mind when considering how to protect the finish of a new car or truck is not applying protection too soon. Paint on new cars needs to be able to off-gas for 3 months. This isn’t likely to be a problem for most people unless ordering a custom-configured new car.
It’s common for a new cars or truck to spend more than 3 months in transit and on dealer lots prior to being purchased. Check the manufacture date for your vehicle and before applying anything that would prevent gases to naturally escape from the paint.
If your new ride hasn’t reached the 3-month mark by the time you take ownership you should do your best to minimize chances to incur scratches or other marks and damage.
Also, you should know that just because a new car or truck is “new” doesn’t mean that the paint doesn’t have issues that may need to be addressed. Imperfections can happen during manufacture. Slight paint surface damage can occur in transit. Damage can also occur while your vehicle is sitting on the dealer lot.
Paint correction and decontamination should be done whether your vehicle is new or not. If you don’t address these problems prior to applying a protective coating you won’t be able to resolve them afterward without removing the coating you choose.
The sealant category has gotten saturated with a myriad of options making it very confusing. Manufacturers use terms like hybrid wax, synthetic wax, polymer wax, hybrid ceramic wax, wax sealant, and more. Essentially all of these products are just variations on paint sealant.
A paint sealant is a synthetic polymer that is wiped on and wiped off to leave a thin layer of protection. Many sealants mix in carnauba wax to help the polymer-based sealant achieve the gloss finish of a natural carnauba. Unfortunately mixing in carnauba with a polymer tends to reduce the longevity and protection that the polymer coating provides.
A high-quality car sealant product will not only help protect your vehicle better than carnauba wax for a longer time, but it will also make your car or truck easier to clean as well as keep your car looking it’s best. Many car enthusiasts find paint sealant best for protecting their car or truck because it is so easy to apply, the price is reasonable, and it can protect their vehicle for a long time.
I’m a bit old school and love the simplicity of a paint sealant. Stepping up to a ceramic coating intrigues me but I haven’t personally applied one to my personal car. I’m strongly considering it as I get older to limit the amount of work I need to do to keep my car looking its best.
Paint Sealant Pros:
- Easy to use
- Generally inexpensive
- Much longer lasting than carnauba wax
Paint Sealant Cons:
- Not as typically as glossy as carnauba waxes
- Doesn’t last as long as a ceramic coating typically
- Doesn’t provide much scratch protection to your car’s paint
Best Paint Sealant:
Wolfgang Concours Series Deep Gloss Paint Sealant 3.0
Wolfgang DGPS is my favorite paint sealant and I consider it the best choice. It’s currently what I use on my Black Tesla Model 3.
Here’s why Wolfgang DGPS is your best choice for a car paint sealant.
Wolfgang Deep Gloss Paint Sealant Benefits:
- Like most car sealants it is very easy to apply
- It has an excellent high gloss look that rivals the best carnauba car wax
- It can last up to 2 years although I find it lasts closer to 1 1/2 years
- While it isn’t cheap, it doesn’t cost as much as a ceramic coating or PPF
Wolfgang DGPS is a polymer coating developed to bridge the gap between the high gloss of carnauba car wax and most other lower gloss car paint sealants yet still perform well above car wax and even the best sealants. Not only did they achieve this goal but I’d say they exceeded it. It has the longest-lasting shine and protection in a high-quality paint sealant that I know. And the gloss coating gives your car or truck the wet new-car look you desire.
It’s easy to use and easy to apply but for best results, you’ll want to make sure to decontaminate your car’s paint thoroughly. This is to ensure it bonds well to the finish. This will help the product last a long time and give the best protection.
Prepping car paint for a sealant is the same process you should follow before applying a ceramic coat to your car’s surface. This is where most of your time will be spent. Applying the product to your car or truck is very quick and easy. It’s even easier than traditional wax which can be a little more difficult to apply quickly.
When applying this brand of sealant on top of your paint job you need to wipe it on and allow it time to adhere to the paint surface of your vehicle. While a wax can usually be wiped on and rather quickly wiped off, Wolfgang DGPS needs to 30 to 45 minutes before it can be wiped away.
You’ll need to ensure your vehicle can be protected from moisture for 12 hours to allow the coating time to cure and properly bond to your car’s paint. Many people have a garage or other protected parking area but some people don’t and will need to plan ahead. Make sure to consider rain obviously, but also dew, sprinklers, and other unexpected sources of water.
Wolfgang DGPS is an easy choice for protecting the paint of your car or truck. It repels UV rays, dirt, bugs, acid rain, and tar. It has a high gloss, the cost is reasonable, the application is easy, and with the longevity of well over a year, annual reapplications are very reasonable for many people.
Ceramic coatings are essentially a more advanced type of paint sealant. The market has evolved quite a bit and the types of ceramic coating products have gotten quite confusing.
Spray ceramic coatings are merely stop-gap solutions. Hybrid-ceramic products generally are attempting to either cash in on the ceramic craze or are simply trying to boost a lesser product with ceramic polymer additives.
Nano-ceramic coatings types:
The main difference between these two ceramic coating types is the SiO2 (Silicon Dioxide Polymer) percentage. The higher the SiO2 percentage the more difficult to apply. At a certain level of difficulty, manufacturers will not sell the product to the average detailer and only sell the product to a professional detailer. They also usually require the installer to complete training and become certified to apply the coating.
One point about a ceramic polymer that I want to point out is that multiple ceramic coats can improve the performance of the paint protectant allowing it to last longer and achieve improved hydrophobic properties as well as a superior gloss finish. However, this ability will vary from product to product. One product may bond very well with itself while another may not be able to bond with itself at all.
Check with the manufacturer of your ceramic coating and ensure that multiple applications are both possible and worthwhile. You could waste quite a bit of time and money applying a second coat to your vehicle. In general, you don’t need to worry about applying a second application of ceramic coating product of choice to your car or truck’s paint surface to improve durability and performance. One coating is usually more than adequate, even for a ceramic coating product that can bond to itself.
One more point I’d like to mention is that the amount of product in a single bottle from some manufacturers may not be enough to cover your vehicle. You don’t want to go through the entire decontamination cleaning process only to find you don’t have enough product to complete the job.
One great benefit of a ceramic coating product in addition to UV ray protection and hydrophobicness is its hard and durable quartz-like properties. The SiO2 polymer chains together to help create a mildly scratch-resistant barrier. Don’t expect it to prevent rock chips or anything like that, but it is more resistant to scratching than an unprotected clear coat.
For this article, I’m focusing on do-it-yourself ceramic coatings. But if your wallet can handle the typical couple thousand dollar cost to have a professional-grade ceramic coating applied to your car or truck you may want to research that route and find a reputable professional detailer.
Ceramic Coating Pros:
- Long-lasting protection
- Superior hydrophobic performance
- Mild scratch protection
- Resistance from chemicals
- Protection against UV rays
Ceramic Coating Cons:
- Not as easy to apply as paint sealants
- More expensive than paint sealants
- Very difficult to remove from your vehicle if you need
- Still requires maintenance for best performance
- Fine scratches can still appear in on the surface
Best Ceramic Coating:
Adam’s UV Ceramic Paint Coating Kit
Adam’s UV Ceramic Paint Coating Kit is a particularly impressive ceramic coating kit. While CQuartz UK 3.0 may edge it out in hydrophobic properties and high gloss, Adam’s is very close and lasts more than twice as long.
Here’s why Adam’s UV Ceramic Paint Coating Kit is your choice for the best ceramic coating.
Adam’s UV Ceramic Paint Coating Benefits:
- It lasts an amazing 5 years
- It has a unique UV feature that makes it easy to use
- It’s extremely hydrophobic
- It has a high-quality gloss finish
When it comes to ceramic coating, you expect a lot of performance. Adam’s UV Ceramic Paint Coating delivers in every area. Most high-quality do-it-yourself ceramic coatings last between 2 and 3 years. At a minimum of 5 years of protection with this ceramic coating, your car or truck won’t need any other protection for quite a while. Compare that with car wax that only lasts a couple of months.
The unique UV glow technology built into this product takes the guesswork out of ceramic coating a vehicle. It can be difficult for many people that are beginners at a ceramic coating to ensure they don’t miss an area with the product or apply only a little product on those harder to reach places on your car or truck’s paint job. Just shine the included UV flashlight over the surface to help identify the areas that have been properly ceramic coated and those that need another pass.
Whenever you ceramic coat a car or truck, you’re going to need to spend a significant amount of time on decontamination of the finish. Even the best car paint will collect road grime and contaminants that can’t be removed with a simple car wash. Car owners that want to properly protect their vehicle and ensure the polymer of ceramic coating bonds with the finish need to follow a complete decontamination regime. This ensures there isn’t anything between the car’s paint and the ceramic coat.
Bottom-line: One treatment of this ceramic coating you don’t need to worry about your vehicle protection for a shockingly long period of time.
Paint Protection Films
Car paint protection films have been around for quite a while now. They are amazing at their ability to protect your car or truck from rock chips and scratches. Paint protection films also have self-healing properties. While this can sometimes get overblown, a good PPF product will can receive light scratches and it will smooth out with heat and time. Usually heat from the sun is enough to allow light scratches to fade away. For some more pronounced scratches, a heat gun may be helpful in reducing the severity of the scratch.
No other product on the market can protect the paint on your car or truck as well as PPF. This protective film is essentially a clear vinyl-like material, similar to a bumper sticker or car wrap, but much thicker. This durable material can deflect small rocks and do an amazing job at preventing rock chips and scratches.
Due to its incredible effectiveness, many automotive manufacturer’s apply it to each new car that rolls off the assembly line. It’s not uncommon to see it on rocker panels, especially just in front of the rear wheel well. It can also sometimes be seen behind door handles to prevent finger nail scratches. This layer of protection is especially common on the rear arches of Porsche 911s due to how they protrude and are prone to rock chips.
Many owners of high end luxury and exotic cars will have paint protection film applied to every inch of their paint job on their new car before they even take delivery. Protecting the finish of their fine vehicles with PPF ensures UV rays, acid rain, and road grime never get a chance to spoil the finish.
As with any product though, there are pros and cons. While it can do an amazing job of providing a protective barrier, it isn’t as shiny or glossy as other types of protective coatings that you can use on your car or truck. This can be overcome by applying another type of paint protection over the top of the film to restore the shine lost by adding PPF. A good quality wax or paint sealant can add depth and gloss to the film while also helping extend its usable lifespan.
The installation of a paint protection film is difficult and usually requires a professional to apply it. It can be a do-it-yourself project if you are so inclined and feel you have the patience to do the job. If you think your skills might not be the best for this task though I recommend you high a professional detailer that offers this type of product to apply it to your vehicle.
PPF itself isn’t terribly expensive. Buying the product in bulk and applying it yourself can save you a substantial amount since the installation cost is very high. This isn’t an unreasonable charge. PPF is challenging to apply and requires experience and skill.
Due to the high cost of application, many car owners opt to only have the leading edges of their vehicle covered. Often PPF installers offer different levels of protection. These usually include protection as minimal as just covering the front portion of the hood and front bumper, working their way up to packages that cover your entire car or truck.
You can spend as little as a few hundred dollars to as much as many thousand to have your car or truck completely covered. If a panel that is covered with PPF gets damaged by a larger rock the entire sheet of PPF on that panel will need to be replaced. For instance, if a rock flies up and tears a spot out of the PPF on your hood, if you had your entire hood covered, you’ll need to have the entire sheet of film removed and a new sheet applied. This would not be inexpensive. The same is true for the front bumper which is obviously a high-risk area for rock damage. It’s not uncommon for installation on a front bumper to be a little more complex since there often are lots of things to work around.
PPF also usually needs to be replaced every 5 to 10 years. Over time the film will yellow. This is particularly obvious on lighter color cars. A white car can experience a very noticeable shift of color while a black car may not have a perceptible change over time. Due to the installation expense, you definitely want to purchase the paint protection film that has the longest usable lifespan.
My personal experience with paint protection film left me disappointed but your situation may be different than mine and PPF may be the right solution for your needs. I had PPF installed on my front bumper, the front portion of my hood, and the front corner of my quarter panels. Over a rather short period, the film yellowed and the adhesive on the edges of the film turned dark from collecting dirt and debris. While most edges weren’t as noticeable, the edge across the middle of my hood was quite distinct. I decided to remove the film and found that it peeled the clear coat off with the film. I was livid, to say the least. My recommendation is to read reviews of different PPF brands and understand their features so you won’t suffer the same fate I did.
Paint Protection Film Pros:
- Unmatched protection that can deflect small rocks from your car or truck without damage
- Can self-heal light scratches simply with the heat from the sun
- Needs little maintenance
Paint Protection Film Cons:
- Not DIY friendly
- Expensive to have installed
- If a section is damaged the section will need to be replaced
- Not as glossy as other protective coatings
- Not as hydrophobic as other protective coatings
Best Paint Protection Film:
VViViD 3M Scotchgard Paint Protection Film
3M is the inventor of this type of protective film. They are still the leader in the market as well. While there are other great options available, none provide a compelling reason to sway away from the king of the hill in PPF.
Here’s why VViViD 3M Scotchgard PPF is the one best film to protect your car or truck.
VViViD 3M Scotchgard Paint Protection Film Benefits:
- 10-year warranty
- Maintenance-free car protection
- They are the inventor of PPF and have the most experience
There are several PPF products on the market but 3M is the original and it is still the best. With a 10 year warranty, you know that your investment paying an installer will be maximized. If you decide to install it on your car or truck yourself you can also rest assured that it won’t need to be replaced anytime soon due to problems with the film.
Some manufacturers suggest products to help maintain their films. 3M claims that their film is maintenance-free. They suggest that you simply wash and wax your car as you normally would.
I personally don’t feel the ends justify the means when it comes to protective films. That’s my personal opinion based on my use case as well as my preferences. Don’t let my “opinion” sway your decision. If I had the financial means to better afford it and replace panels when damage happens I might feel differently. Facts should drive your choice. List your personal goals and wants and weigh them against what each type of protective solution provides.
The addition of a ceramic coating over top of PPF can solve the hydrophobic and gloss issues but that’s throwing more money at an already expensive solution.
Being a non-DIY-friendly option combined with the expense makes this a less appealing choice but if you have deeper pockets than me you may see this in a completely different light.
Preparing for paint protection
All of these products we’ve covered are designed to provide a protective layer to your vehicle. Whether you’re using car wax, paint sealant, ceramic coating, or PPF, your vehicle will need the surface of your paint to be prepared properly so that it can bond well and provide the best shine and protection to your finish and be long-lasting.
Even the best car paint protection product will be unable to protect your car’s paint if there are contaminants and other road grime between it and the car paint. You need to ensure your vehicle paint job is properly prepped to receive the paint protection product of your choice. This is one step you shouldn’t skip.
A high-level overview of the paint prep process:
- Thorough Wash
- Clay Bar
- Iron Remover
- Paint Correction/Polish (Optional)
- IPA Wipedown (Isopropyl Alcohol)
I’m not going to dive deep into the prep process since I’ve already written a detailed article about how to prepare car paint to be ceramic coated. While I wrote primarily about ceramic coating prep, it is identical to how you would prepare your car’s paint for a paint sealant or paint protection film.
Know that this is a critical step that you need to follow if you want your protection to perform well and be long-lasting. If you don’t take the time to properly clean and decontaminate your car paint you might as well be throwing all the money you’ve spent on high-quality paint protection in the trash.
Vehicle paint preparation is a time-intensive process that you need to do but it’s one that is well worth the effort.
Ceramic Coating Over Paint Protection Film?
You don’t need to use just one option. If you have the budget then the ultimate solution for protecting your car paint is this dynamic duo.
PPF is an amazingly durable product but it lacks gloss and hydrophobic properties. Adding a protective ceramic coating overtop of a protective film will counter the performance downsides of PPF. This one-two punch will not only provide an incredible barrier between your finish and the elements, it will make keeping your car clean much easier.
If I had the means I would love to have ViVViD 3M PPF with Adam’s UV Ceramic Coating overtop. That would be the ultimate paint protective solution.
The best car paint protective solution for your vehicle is one that fits you and your needs personally. The one I currently use myself is Wolfgang Deep Gloss Paint Sealant. You may not find a sealant best for you but I like that it’s easy to apply and lasts very long for a sealant. It might not be the most robust layer of paint protectant but its economical and easy to apply.
A wax, whether it’s a hybrid wax sealant or a pure carnauba wax isn’t something I’d recommend as the primary protection for your vehicle due to its short lifespan. make sure you apply something that is worth your effort and will properly protect the paint.
Sprays, toppers, boosters, and similar products designed to improve hydrophobic performance and shine aren’t lasting protection and just stop-gap measures to extend the life of a sealant or ceramic coating that is failing on your paint job. While you can use them as the primary protection for your paint, they are similar to wax. They will need to be applied frequently. They also may not be as protective against UV rays, acid rain, bugs, etc.
Adam’s Ceramic Coating could be my next protection of choice for my own car. It is definitely one I would recommend to car care enthusiasts. It’s remarkably long-lasting and performs spectacularly.
PPF is an excellent option for those that can afford to hire someone talented and trained to install protective film properly. Also, you need to have the financial reserves to be able to replace a panel on occasion due to rock chips and such that will inevitably damage the film. The added benefit of this being a maintenance-free solution makes it a very appealing choice.
Buying some 3M PPF yourself and applying it to some critical areas may be easy enough for quite a few of you. You can save a substantial amount and get some excellent rock chip protection. Apply some Wolfgang DGPS or even a ceramic coating on top and you have a bargain protective barrier on your vehicle. Bird droppings and UV rays won’t stand a chance.