Sadly it’s not uncommon for an automatic car wash to cause swirls and scratches in the clear coat of a car or truck. It’s especially true of older automatic car washes that use stiffer brushes. Even a hand wash can cause significant scratches and swirls if proper care isn’t taken. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, these scratches are usually very light and only on the surface of the clear coat. The clear coat is the outer most layer of your finish and is a clear coating as the name implies. The scratches are most noticeable on cars with dark color finishes. Black cars show these marks the worst. They are most visible in bright sunlight but can give your car a dull or slightly dirty look in dimmer light. Fortunately the scratches can be be removed by polishing them out. You can have the polishing done by a professional detailer or do it yourself. Professional detailers usually call this service “paint correction”. You should expect to pay significantly for the service however since it is time intensive because the entire vehicle will need to be polished. If you’re a do-it-yourself type, as the name of this site would imply, we’ll run down how to restore your paint yourself easily and safely and make some suggestions for how to protect your finish going forward.
It should be obvious that you’ll need to do a thorough washing before you begin try to polish. It is a little more complicated that simply giving it a good wash however. You don’t want to create more scratches and swirls when washing your car so I highly recommend checking out an article I wrote about how to wash you car without scratching the clear coat. The article goes over the 2 best methods of washing a car without scratching it which are the Touchless Method and the 2 Bucket Method. Once a good thorough washing is complete you’ll need to go back over it with a clay bar. If you’re not familiar with how to use a clay bar you should read my article “Clay Bar Car Before And After”. A clay bar will remove stuck on grit that washing alone can’t remove. You may also need to use a good bug and tar remover to finish the job.
You may be hoping that you can polish out all of these scratches by hand but there is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that yes, you can polish out the scratches by hand. The bad news is that shortly after you start you’ll realize that polishing an entire car by hand is a massive job and not very realistic to do without a power tool like a good random orbital polisher. I’ve written a detailed article about how to hand polish a car if you are determined to go this route. There’s no harm in giving it a shot. If you were to break the job up into multiple weekends and focus on small sections it can be done but will take a lot longer and honestly probably not quite as good. It’s easier to get a more flawless finish with a power buffer than by hand.
A lot of people are concerned about using a power buffer on their car or truck because they’re afraid they will do more harm than good. It’s true that you can polish through the clear coat or cause marks called holograms in your paint. Don’t let this hold you back though. If you are using the proper tools you’ll almost eliminate the possibility. You’d have to be very negligent to do any damage if you’re using a quality random orbital polisher, good polishes, and good pads. I’ve created an article that goes in depth into how to polish a car with an orbital polisher that you should read if you’re up to the challenge of going this route. The key is to take your time. You don’t need to do the entire car all at one time if you don’t want to do so. As you work you can adjust to more or less aggressive polishes as you feel comfortable. You’ll likely find that it’s a pretty easy job and your fears were way overblown.
If you want to do your best to ensure that you don’t scratch your paint there are several options to consider. Obviously the first best option is to no longer take your vehicle through the car wash that caused the scratches. If you still want to try to use automated car washes you should try to find one that is touchless and uses high pressure sprayers to remove the dirt and debris. Or at least find one that uses cloth or fabric for cleaning your car or truck. Ideally you’d wash your car by hand yourself or you could hire a detailing pro to do it for you.
As far as protection your paint there are a few options we can recommend:
Paint Protection Film
Paint protection film is a great option that will do a better job than anything else currently on the market at protecting your finish. It’s a clear sticker-like material that is applied over every painted surface on your car. You can also just get it on rock chip prone locations but if you want to protect your car or truck from fine swirls and scratches wrapping your entire car is the way to go. It isn’t cheap but it is very effective and is very hard to notice. You have to know what to look for and where to look to discover it. This is something you’ll have to pay to have applied and isn’t Diy-Friendly. It’s typically many thousands of dollars to wrap an entire car so it’s not for the faint of heart and wallet. Also it doesn’t last forever. It will begin to yellow slightly over time. This isn’t noticeable on dark colors but it is quite noticeable on bright white and some other light colors. Also, if you get a rock chip in the film that peels it away you’ll have to replace that entire panel. For instance, if you get a rock chip in your hood you’ll need to replace the film covering the hood. PPF can withstand most rock chips very well without tearing and peeling away but sometimes it will. Although if you didn’t have the film you’d have a large and deep scratch which would likely require repainting.
You can think of ceramic coating like wax that will last a crazy long amount of time. It is extremely durable and can even help prevent the occurrence of swirls and scratches in your clear coat. You can buy ceramic coatings that you can apply yourself like Cquartz UK by CarPro which can last up to 2 years or more. These over-the-counter ceramic coatings typically cost less than $100. Professional detailers have access to more advanced ceramic coatings that are more challenging to apply and can last as long as 10 years. These advanced ceramic coatings are less expensive than Paint Protection Film but still not cheap at a couple thousand dollars to coat a typical car. Ceramic coatings won’t prevent rock chips or heaving abuse from rubbing with gritty materials but they are good protection that will help keep bugs, tar, and other road debris from adhering to your finish and potentially doing damage. These coatings will also help keep your car looking cleaner longer.
Paint sealants are great protection for you car but not quite as good as a ceramic coating. They aren’t durable enough to protect from light scratches into the clear coat but they will help keep bugs, tar, and other road debris from sticking and help keep your car cleaner longer than having no protection. Sealants aren’t very expensive and are easy to apply. You can expect to pay $50 or less for most good sealants although some could be more. Wolfgang Deep Gloss Paint Sealant is our recommended sealant and can last up to 2 years in mild environments but reapplying yearly is more realistic.
Removing light swirls and scratches from your clear coat is possible and almost easy with the right equipment. It will require thoroughly cleaning your car or truck with a very good wash, clay bar treatment, and likely some good bug and tar remover to get the surface completely decontaminated prior to trying to do any polishing. While you can technically polish it by hand we don’t think that is realistic for most people. Using a good quality random orbital power polisher is way more effective and efficient. Be sure to protect all your hard work once you’re done with paint protection film, a ceramic coating, or a good quality paint sealant.