The Difference Between a Car Wax and a Polish

The Difference Between a Car Wax and a Polish

Waxing and Polishing are terms that I often hear getting mixed up and misused by a lot of people, particularly those who are new to detailing their car and have not gained the experience and knowledge of these types of products, and what their specific use cases are.

To a lot of people, Waxing and Polishing can mean the same thing, where they are two completely different products with two very specific and different purposes.

I have also seen Car Cleaning Sites ( Which will remain nameless ) which are giving out wrong information, which in turn does not help the general public misunderstanding of the two terms.

Now there are products available that are “All in one” products, which try to serve multiple purposes which can contain wax and polish compounds( and usually are not very effective, when compared to a product which is aimed to fulfil a specific task ), but today we are going to discuss Car Wax and Car Polish as they exist as individual products.

Before we dive into the details and discuss the differences between both types of products, let’s have a quick overview of what makes up these products as it will help to give a basic understanding of when they should be used.

The Difference Between a Car Wax and a Polish

What is a Car Polish?

Polishing is a broad term used for a range of processes designed to either completely remove or mask (with fillers )  paint defects and therefore greatly enhance the surface gloss of the car’s paintwork. Paint defects are any forms of damage that are  in the uppermost layer of paint on your car and include marring, swirl marks, scratches, stone chips, water spots and acid etching caused by bird poop and bug remains.

Car polish is a product that uses an abrasive action to remove very fine layers of clear coat protection to flatten out the surface of the car’s paint which results in a highly polished look.

Such products come in varying degrees of abrasiveness ( you may hear the term “Cut” being used on a lot of products ) from light, medium to heavy cut )

Best Polish for Beginners

How Does a Polish Work?

Car Polish is made up of what is known as diminishing abrasives which break down into further smaller particles as they are worked on the paint thus getting finer and finer the more they are “polished” into the car’s paintwork. Polish needs a bit of force to work, so it is usually applied with a Machine Polisher, either a Dual Action or Rotary Polisher.

You can apply polish by hand, but it would take a lot of elbow grease and the results just wouldn’t be the same. I plan on doing a full write up and guide on how to polish your car so be on the lookout for that post in the future.

Best Car Polisher For Beginner

Does Polish Protect Your Cars Paint?

In simple terms no , it does not provide any real protection for your car’s paint. This is one of the biggest differences between a wax and a polish. As I mentioned above there are all in one product available which can leave some protection on the car, but to be honest I have rarely found any to be anywhere near as effective as a dedicated Wax or Sealant.  

Polish should be used when you need to correct any paint defects, not when you are looking to just protect it. Polishing is an important step which comes before waxing, which ensures that your cars paint is in the best condition possible BEFORE you add that layer of protection that only a wax, sealant or Ceramic Coating can provide. 

Let’s take a look at what exactly a Car wax is and when it should be used.

What is Car Wax?

Car wax is a product – usually a paste, liquid or a spray – you apply to your car which adds a layer of protection to the paintwork which helps to avoid damage from road dirt ,grime and UV Rays, as well as leaving a glossy finish to the car’s paintwork. 

Car wax can be made using a variety of different methods. A traditional car wax formula usually consists of a blend of carnauba wax, mixed with other waxes, such as beeswax, natural oils, and will sometimes also include petroleum distillates.

Many car waxes contain special polymers and resins which are used as both a car wax hardener and shine enhancer.

Nattys Paste Wax Blue

How Does a Car Wax Work?

Car wax is all about protection, protection and more protection. Wax Puts a barrier between your cars paintwork and the outside world. Car Wax Bonds to the surface of the paint and adds a layer of protection so that it can resist nasty stuff in the air, UV rays, and water.

Water is of particular concern – rainwater and sprays from the roads are full of all sorts of pollutants which can easily transfer onto the car’s paintwork, so the best way to protect against it is to make sure water quickly runs straight off your cars paintwork – something that wax will do by making the surface ‘hydrophobic’ You may have seen this hydrophobic effect if you have ever recently waxed your car, as the water will sit on top of your cars paint in little beads. This is called water beading. ( A pic below of one my favourite beading shots )

difference between car wax and polish


Will Wax Remove Swirls and Fix Paint Defects?

No. This is where Polish and Wax differ vastly. There are no compounds in Waxes that will perform any polishing or cutting on your cars paintwork, so it will not correct it. As mentioned above, a wax is designed to protect your cars paint, not “fix” it. However, I have seen many Waxes or “glazes” that will fill small scratches or cover up swirl marks.

However, this action is only temporary and your swirls and scratches will appear again once the wax has fully worn off the car. This can be useful for someone who does not own a machine polisher or does not want to go to the effort of fully polishing the car’s paintwork ( Which can take hours to do properly )

How Long Will Wax Protect my Car for?

This does depend on the wax in question. Most Waxes you will see protection on the car’s paintwork for at least a few weeks, this can increase to months if you choose a more expensive, high quality or harder type wax. I don’t tend to go for any of the crazy expensive waxes as believe it or not, I enjoy waxing my car!

It will also depend on how often you wash your car. If you wash your car very regularly ( In particular with a non-wax safe or overly harsh car shampoo, you may find that the coat of wax does not last very long at all. if you are someone who likes to wash regularly, I would recommend something like G1 shampoo by Gtechniq, as it is very gentle on anything on any protection you may already have on the paint.

As suggested to me by my friends over at Car Detailing Melbourne , I will typically apply a new coat of wax about every 4 weeks, as I like to keep it topped up. There is no hard and fast rule, apply wax as you think you need it, although I would recommend keeping your car as protected as possible during the winter months.

Summary – Should I Wax Or Polish My Car?

Hopefully, the descriptions above give you a good idea of what each of these products does and when to use them.  in case you skipped down to the very end of this page let me give you a quick summary

When to Polish

  • If your car has swirl marks or defects in the paint
  • if you want to remove scratches
  • if you want the best possible finish on your car before adding any extra protection

When to Wax

  • If you want to add a layer of protection to your cars paintwork
  • if you want a glossy and shiny look to your car
  • if you want to keep your paintwork looking the best for the longest time possible ( it also makes cleaning the car easier )

As you can see from the points above each of these products has a very specific and unique purpose so you need to make sure that you’re using the correct tool for the job at hand.  if you buy wax and expected to fix your scratches and defects in your paintwork you will only be disappointed. The same goes if you buy a Polish to protect your cars paintwork, it just isn’t going to happen.

Please feel free to share in the comments below any tips you may have or any products you would recommend me to try out, I would love to hear them.  what is your favourite wax or favourite Polish?

Until Then

Happy Detailing!

About the Author – Darren O Hara

Darren is the founder of the DriveDetailed blog and is a keen detailing enthusiast living in the rainy south of Ireland. When he is not cleaning his car he is always researching ways he can improve his techniques and enjoys testing out out new products.

Darren currently drives an Audi TTRS and is a big fan of performance cars.

You can follow Darren on Instagram @darrenoharacork

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