What is the difference between, car wax and polish? 

"Getting the best shine with wax or polish."

PolishingThe two things are very different but sadly most people are unaware and have probably been using the wrong product for years.

Polish is mildly abrasive so it effectively sands the surface of paint removing oxidization and small scratches. Whereas Wax is protective coating on the paint which fills in the dimples, dents and imperfections of the paint causing it to shine.

TorqueCars note that some manufacturers confuse the terms polish and wax when labeling their products. As wax is just a coating you will still see most of the imperfections in the paint beneath so you should view waxing is a final finishing job only on good quality paint.

Polishing is only something you need to perform when the paint finish has become flat, oxidized or scratched. Years of sunlight, bird lime, dirt and grime will degrade the paint work finish on a car. Red cars seem to be much more susceptible to sunlight degradation that other colors and the paint turns a dull pink color (this is caused by oxidation).

Determine if the paint defects are above or below the surface by dragging your finger over the imperfection,this will determine if a wax or polish should be used.

WARNING: Each time you use polish you will be removing a small layer of paint (your cloth will show up this color). Do its too often and you will go through to the undercoat and the only way of fixing that is to respray the car.

You need to determine if the paint defect is above or below the surface. After washing the car sweep your fingers over the paint and if it feels smooth any defects are below the surface and if it feels rough, pitted or slightly sticky it indicates above surface imperfections.

Below surface defects are dealt with by polishing. Most above surface defects like traffic film, tar, bug guts and the like are best treated through washing and then by using a clay bar. (Follow the instructions that come with the clay but it is a simply a case of wiping the warm clay over the paint with a supplied lubricant to trap the dirt particles. It can be a time consuming process but it really makes a big difference to the finish of your paint especially on lighter color cars which seem to show every slight imperfection.

After a clay bar treatment look closely at the paint. If there are still imperfections visible they will generally need to be polished out. Any stone chips and scratches should be touched up at this point before applying the wax because paint will not adhere very well to a waxed surface.

How to use a car polish.

To polish the car apply the cutting paste/polish to a soft cloth and rub in a circular motion. Use plenty of polish and make sure the cloth does not dry up. If you are removing a scratch or specific flaw include the surrounding area, aiming to fade in the freshly cut paint to the old paint and make sure that the freshly polish paint does not stand out - you may even need to do the whole panel if the paint is badly faded in order to match it in. 

It is best done in gentle stages because you only want to cut away the smallest amount of paint to remove the imperfections. Although an electric polisher will make the job a lot quicker, it is very easy to remove too much paint. Wax can usually be more effectively applied with an electric polisher and a fantastic finish is possible in a very short time.

Many scratches from keys, scrapes in car parks and other damage can be almost completely removed with polishing as these photographs show.

A nasty scrape is rendered virtually invisible with a bit of polishing. So, before you take the car to a body shop for a respray quote have a go at polishing out the damage and see what the true extent of the damage is.

For scratches you should use a more abrasive polish than you would for a general paint work mop up.

Many thanks to forum member Freddie for his photographs which demonstrate that if you know the difference between wax and polish you really can make a big difference to the finish of your car. Generally wax a car every 3-6 months and polish the car only when the paint becomes dull as outlined in the method above.  Please join the TorqueCars friendly chat forums and chat with other car enthusiasts about all aspects of detailing, car care and car ownership.

Our favourite wax is Collonite 476 - it lasts a long time and gives a good deep protection. We also recommend Meguiars NTX Tech wax and Autoglym super resin polish for older cars with slight imperfections in the paint and for cars with lots of imperfections the Bilt-Hamber Ultra Fine Paint Conditioner. 

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Your Constructive comments on this article

4 Responses to “Is car polish and wax the same thing?”

  1. gareth says:

    now i know to use wax on my 2004 land rover td4. good .

  2. mohammed says:

    can the buffing pad be used for polishing?

  3. Selva says:

    1. Please e/mail me the difference between car polish & wax.
    Need some advice, I make tyre & dash polish with silicon water based. What can i add to give a longer shine. You can e/mail me on both e/mail address.

  4. Thomas says:

    I think this article is very good. Unfortunately I have to disagree at the key scratches comment above. If the paint has come off; as is normally the case with a nasty key scratch. I would re-paint, rather than polish out as I believe polishing out a deep key scratch doesn’t work. I’d be keen to hear others comments/ experience regarding this.

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