Difference Between Polishing And Waxing A Car

Image by Marcin Machalski from Pixabay

Image by Marcin Machalski from Pixabay

Difference Between Polishing And Waxing A Car


The difference between a car polish and a car wax is that a polish is mildly abrasive and designed to polish out fine swirls and scratches.

Car wax

is designed to protect the finish on your car or truck. Polishing car paint to remove light scratches that are just in the clear coat can restore a dull finish to a glossy and new-like glow. 

Wax is simply a coating that is applied on top of your clear coat and it will protect your finish from the elements. It also has the benefit of hiding some minor defects and creating a wet look. 

Difference Between Polishing And Waxing A Car

Polishing is the act of using an abrasive to remove fine swirls and scratches from the clear coat of your vehicle.

Waxing is the process of applying a wax or paint sealant to the surface of your finish to act as a protective barrier.

Wax alone can’t rejuvenate your finish but it can make it look dramatically better until it begins to wear away. 

Many people are hesitant to polish their car or truck to attempt to remove light abrasions themselves. Waxing on the other hand doesn’t give anyone pause. 

Polishing isn’t much different that waxing but it does require a lot more elbow grease if you’re doing it by hand. If you need to polish your entire vehicle you’ll want to use a random orbital buffer to not only get the job done faster and better but to get better results.

Car polish

Car polish

 comes in various grades of abrasiveness which are designed to tackle varying degrees of scratches in your clear coat.

A polish is not going to be able to fix deep scratches that have gone through the clear coat and paint. These will require using some touchup paint to fill the gap created by the scratch.

In general, any scratch that you can drag your fingernail across and the scratch catches your nail is beyond what a polish is designed to fix.

The types of scratches that a polish can correct are very light but show up clearly in bright sunlight. They are particularly noticeable on black or dark colored vehicles. They are usually caused by drive-thru car washes, not carefully hand washing, or not carefully hand drying your car. There are many other causes for these types of scratches but these are the primary culprits.

Vehicle Paint Layers & Scratches

Car wax

Car wax

is typically carnauba wax  Carnauba wax gives the best shine a car and will give it an almost “wet” look.

Car wax

is typically a wipe on/wipe off process. You’re not applying any serious pressure. You’re simply applying it to the surface and then wiping it off shortly afterward. When wiped off it doesn’t get completely removed and leaves a thin layer of glossy protection to the surface.

True car waxes typically don’t last very long unfortunately and will often need to be reapplied monthly. For this reason true car wax is not the most popular product for protecting the finish on a car. That job has largely shifted to a much longer lasting product known as a paint sealant.

A lot of what is marketed today as wax though isn’t exactly a true natural wax and is more of a synthetic sealant or a combination of wax and paint sealant.

How to polish a car

Polish is quite safe to use since its abrasiveness is extremely mild. Polishing by hand is extremely safe although I can’t imagine anyone would want to do so to an entire car. Even a small section can take a significant amount of effort to get good results.

Most people will want to use a power buffer of some kind to make the job a lot easier. A quality random orbital polisher is the best tool for the job. A typical cheap orbital buffer is often what people think of but honestly this tool is better suited for applying wax and not as effective at polishing out clear coat scratches.

Some people are hesitant to use a power tool to polish their paintwork due to fear of doing more harm than good. While it’s true that if you’re negligent with a polisher you could harm the clear coat it’s a reasonably safe thing for the beginner detailer to try themselves.

Just go slow and begin with the mildest polish and work your way up to more aggressive polishes if you need to remove more difficult scratches and swirls in your clear coat.

Again, polishing is only for correcting scratches in your clear coat. Anything deeper will need some repair. Although polishing may be able to improve to appearance someone of slightly deeper scratches into paint but a little touchup clear coat would be suggested.

What’s the difference between wax and sealant?

While car wax is a natural wax that can typically only protect your finish for a month at best, a paint sealant (aka synthetic wax) is a synthetic product that bonds to the paintwork and lasts far longer than a car wax could ever hope to maintain protection.

Some of the best paint sealants can last up to 2 years. Sealants generally do not look as good as the best carnauba waxes but the better ones come quite close.

These days carnauba wax is mostly reserved for use in car shows where there is a desire to get the absolute best gloss possible. Sealants are far more reasonable for the average enthusiast to use for protecting their car and to make it look shiny.

There is also a new class of sealants typically referred to as a ceramic coating. These coatings typically are a little more difficult to apply but can last years before wearing away while performing better than typical paint sealants.

The better ceramic coatings are not available for purchase as a consumer and only professional detailers can buy them due to the level of difficulty in applying them.

There are several consumer grade ceramic coatings however they tend to not perform a lot better than a good quality traditional paint sealant. Don’t get me wrong, they do perform better but I prefer the ease of working with a regular paint sealant over ceramic personally for the difference in performance.

If I were to go with a ceramic coating I’d find a reputable local detailer that offers a premium ceramic coating that can last multiple of years longer.

How to wax a car

The short answer to how to wax a car is you simply wipe on the wax and then wipe it off.

To go into a bit more detail, you’ll need to thoroughly wash your car or truck first. Use a good bug and tar remover if necessary if you have any residual bugs and tar after the washing.

If your paint surface feels rough in spots you may need to also use a clay bar to remove contaminants that are difficult to see but stuck on firmly enough that washing can’t get them off.

At this point you can opt to polish out swirls and scratches if you have problem areas that need to be addressed.

Next you can apply the wax. It’s best to do so in a shaded area out of direct sunlight which can significantly heat the surface you’re applying the wax to and make it very difficult to work with.

Each manufacturer will recommend a different amount of time for the wax to cure prior to wiping off. Once the appropriate amount of time has passed you should be able to easily wipe it away. It may require a little extra effort since it will have dried but it shouldn’t be particularly difficult to remove.

Car polish

and wax in one

There are polishes and waxes combined into a single product that are designed to allow you to buff out light scratches while leaving behind a waxy layer of protection and shine. 

Unfortunately you end up with a less than ideal polish and a less than ideal wax. Wax tends to act as a lubricant that limits the abrasives from being able to work effectively. The polish interferes with the waxes ability to protect and shine as well as a pure wax. 

If your car or truck is in need of polishing and waxing you’re far better off purchasing a separate polish and separate wax. You’ll be far more able to polish away swirls and scratches from your clear coat than with an all-in-one product. 

A wax that is only designed to protect and shine will perform better and last longer than a polish and wax combo solution.

How often should I polish my car?

Polishing is not something that you should need to do regularly. Polishing is meant for removing swirls and scratches. 

Ideally you’re using a good method for washing and drying your car that will prevent scratching the clear coat. Avoid drive-thru car washes and anything else that touches the surface of your vehicle. 

Typically, scratches of the kind that can be removed by polishing are those that come from washing and drying your car or truck improperly. 

There are other ways these minor surface scratches can occur such as someone leaning against your car, especially when it’s dirty, but washing and drying are the usual sources of these scratches. 

You will also only want to polish your car when it is necessary to fix a problem. Since polishing involves applying and abrasive to the clear coat you are wearing away a little at the protective coating applied on top of the paint.

Is it necessary to polish a car before waxing?

It isn’t necessary to polish your car before you wax it. If you do plan to polish your car you will want to do so prior to waxing. 

If you were to try to polish your car after applying wax the wax will make it difficult for the polish to work. You’ll end up having to work your way through the wax and when done you’ll need to re-wax your vehicle. 

To prepare to polish your car you’ll need to thoroughly wash it to remove any dirt and road debris that has built up on the surface. Next, you’ll want to also be sure to remove any tar and bugs stuck to the surface with a safe bug and tar remover. 

Once you’ve done that it is a good idea to use a clay bar to thoroughly remove any remaining buildup that is so tenaciously stuck on that simply washing can’t remove it. 

This should leave you with a paint surface free of any remaining abrasive debris that could potentially get caught in the buffer pad and cause unwanted scratches that you’re trying to remove.


In short, polishing is for removing light swirls and scratches while waxing is for protecting your paintwork and giving your vehicle that glossy, new car look.

Polishing is a simple process but requires a good amount of prep work and the right tools to do the job properly and safely.

Waxing is also very simple but is quite easy to do with a good wax and microfiber towel.

The term wax has become muddied with the inclusion of paint sealants that contain wax to help them achieve a similar level of gloss and shine that a pure carnauba wax can produce. These hybrid waxes are often marketed as synthetic wax.

Pure wax lasts such a short time that it is hardly worth the effort to apply if you’re doing it solely for protection. A proper paint sealant is your best bet for protecting your vehicle finish.

We found Wolfgang Deep Gloss Paint Sealant to be the best paint sealant available for its extremely long life and incredible glossy finish.

If you’re in need of removing some light scratches and swirls we would recommend the Chemical Guys Random Orbital Polishing Kit.

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