Car Polish vs. Car Wax: When to Use Each

Everyone loves a clean, shiny car but how do you achieve that perfect shine? Polishes and waxes have been used since the beginning of the automotive era to prepare and protect the paint on our cars, and there are important differences between the two products. Keep reading to learn about those differences, as well as some exciting products that are out there for the car buff in you.

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What does a Polish Do?

When your car comes from the factory, its paint is in pristine condition, and it will be very smooth. The clear coat won’t have any sun damage, and the paint will never have been abused by sand, gravel, and the debris that punishes it daily in the real world.

All the abuses that your paint, and especially the clearcoat, face every day change its surface from ultra-smooth to pitted and irregular. Light that shines on the old, weathered clearcoat paint reflects differently, and this is why paint gets that faded look.

When you polish your car, you are actually sanding down the irregularities at a very fine level, smoothing out the pits and scratches, and removing adhered contaminants, leaving you a smooth finish.

If your car has a flat or matte paint finish, you want to be careful because polishing this type of finish could damage the look of it.

Why Should You Wax Your Car Paint?

Any time you polish or sand a surface, you remove some material from the original surface. In the case of your car, the polishing removes some clearcoat, and over time you could be left with only the basecoat, which will wear faster.

Waxing the vehicle adds back material, which helps to protect the paint on your car from the sun and other debris. There are a few different types of car wax, which we’ll look into later on.

What Do I Do First?

If you need to deal with heavily damaged clearcoat areas, you’ll want to start with a rubbing compound, which is basically a very aggressive polish. Use the compound to address any problem areas before polishing the entire car with a standard polish.

Once you’ve polished and wiped the entire vehicle, the final step in the process is to wax the car to protect the paint. Keep in mind, if the clearcoat has been damaged to the point of flaking or peeling, not much is going to be accomplished and the car will need to be completely re-painted.

How to Polish Your Car

The first step in working with paint on your car is always a thorough wash and dry. Any small debris or even dust that is left on the vehicle will be polished into the clearcoat during the procedure.

When washing, you want to start at the top of the vehicle and work your way to the bottom because most dirt and grime sticks to the lower parts of the car. Use lots of soapy water on your soft washing brush or cloth and rinse the washcloth often to remove any dirt that has come off your car. Microfiber products are very effective at removing dirt but they need to be clean to avoid scratching your paint. Rinse the car thoroughly and then dry it with a clean microfiber cloth or chamois. If you want to get the car perfectly clean, use a clay bar for the final touch up.

Now that your car is clean, take your microfiber polish applicator and apply a couple dime-sized spots of polish to the center of the applicator. Dab the applicator on a section of paint and use a circular motion to work the polish into the clearcoat, in an area of about 16” by 16”. Repeat the process over the body of the vehicle, pausing to use a clean microfiber cloth to wipe off the polish residue every so often. You don’t need to let the polish “set”, so as soon as you’ve done an area, like the hood of the car, for instance, you can wipe it off. Don’t polish your car in direct sunlight because the sun will bake the polish and it will be very difficult to wipe off.

To save time, most today will use an orbital buffer to apply polish or compound, as this will achieve the best results. Orbital buffers, like the one made by Griot’s Garage, are available at every AutoZone, along with a selection of buffing pads.

How to Wax your Car

There are a few different common types of car wax, so we’ll give a short explanation for each. Paste wax comes in small round tubs so that you can put your applicator right into the tub to add some wax, before applying it to the vehicle.

Liquid wax comes in squirt bottles and is about the consistency of mustard, so you can apply small amounts on to your applicator or buffing pad.

Both paste and liquid waxes are applied in a similar fashion to your car polish, using an applicator, working in small sections. The main difference is that you will want to leave the wax on the vehicle to set for a period of time before buffing it out with a microfiber cloth. You’ll know when it is ready to be buffed because if you swipe your finger along the paint, it will leave a clear line, without hazing or greasy streaking.

Spray waxes come in spray bottles and are the quickest method of waxing your car. If you are getting ready for the Sunday night cruise, a bottle of spray wax is a quick way to bring out the natural shine of the vehicle without spending a ton of time in the garage. Just spray the wax on a clean car and wipe it off with a microfiber cloth, being careful not to reuse dirty areas of the cloth. There will be a light film left after wiping, so give a quick buff with another microfiber cloth and you’ll be good to go. The only downside to spray waxes is that they will tend to wash off much faster than the other two types, so you have to reapply them more often. The upside is that you are protecting the paint of your car, and it looks great.


As automotive enthusiasts, there’s nothing better than seeing cars lined up and gleaming in the sunlight. Take the time to wash, polish and wax your car, and stop into your local AutoZone for all the buffing and waxing supplies you’ll need to get the job done. 

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