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What Causes Paint to Fade: Process Explained

Your vehicle’s paint color is the first thing everybody sees when they look at your car. Even if your car is older, vivid, bright paint can make it look much newer than it is.

However, as you use your vehicle the paint will begin to fade. Even if you take very good care of your car, paint is one of the most delicate parts of any vehicle. 

What Exactly is Paint Fade?

car paint fade

The term paint fade is pretty self-explanatory. It is when, over a given time, your vehicle’s paint starts to lose its shine, and color due to any number of different factors.

Many lighter colors like white, gray, or even yellow, do not show as much fade as deeper or darker colors like red, blue, or black. This is because color fade often washes out colors and turns them into a drab, lighter version of what they originally were.

What are the Factors That Lead to Paint Fade?

Three main factors can lead to paint fade. By taking care of your vehicle you minimize the power of those factors.

Even still, there is no good way to prevent fading altogether. However, even some of the most unpreventable factors are somewhat preventable if you take the time and effort to try.

The following are the main factors that lead to paint fade:

1. Environmental Factors

Environmental factors include any outside elements that affect paint fade, most of which are completely out of your control because they simply exist.

These are the most common factors that people associate with paint fade as well as the most unpreventable. They include things like sunlight, air pollution, and even the weather.

2. Human Factors

Human factors are the opposite of environmental factors. They are the things we do – most often accidentally – to speed up the process of paint fade. They are also the most preventable factor as we almost always control what we do with our vehicles.

Examples include improper cleaning methods, using improper car washing solution, and washing your car too often, even if the proper techniques and materials are used. 

3. Combination Factors

Combination factors are, as you might think, a combination of environmental factors that can be fairly uncontrollable and human factors that are largely controllable.

A good example of this is air pollution, the location in which you live, and the things you choose not to do to prevent paint fade.

What Causes Paint to Fade?

There are so many individual elements that cause paint fade, it can be difficult to keep track of all of them. The good news for you is that the majority of them are preventable in some way, even though some are harder to prevent than others.

Let’s look at some of the most common reasons for paint fade, why they cause it, and how you can mitigate each one. 

Sunlight/UV Rays

uv damaged paiont

The Sun and the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays it produces are the most commonly recognized reason for paint fading, both on vehicles and everywhere else. If a bad sunburn on a nice summer day is indicative of what the Sun can do to you, it is probably easier to see why most people see it as the main reason for paint fading.

A phenomenon called oxidation occurs as the Sun’s UV rays penetrate the vehicle’s protective clear coat, heat the metal beneath, and mix with oxygen. This causes the blotchy paint fading often seen on the hood or roof of older vehicles.

Sunlight fading is difficult to prevent entirely as your vehicle is exposed almost every time you drive. The most obvious way to prevent exposure to UV rays is to park your vehicle in a garage or shady area when you are not driving. If this is not possible, purchasing a vehicle cover that protects against UV rays is the best option.

Improper Cleaning Solution

car wash solution

Like harmful ultraviolet rays, using an improper cleaning solution causes oxidation, and therefore, fading. Unlike UV rays that penetrate the clear coat, soap, and cleaning solution not specifically designed to wash your car can scratch off the clear coat. This is because cleaners like household dish soaps and all-purpose cleaners are microscopically abrasive. They will eat away at the surface of your vehicle over time both causing fading and making it easier for other methods of fading to occur.

Unlike sunlight, using the correct type of car wash soaps is completely within your control. There is a wide variety of specifically designed car wash soaps that are engineered to be gentle on your paint and in some cases, enhance the color of your vehicle. If it isn’t a car wash soap, do not use it to clean your car.

Improper Car Washing Techniques

When it comes to things like scrubbing patterns or the number of passes you should take over the door versus the hood, you can find all kinds of sources that swear by one method over another.

On the other hand, drying your vehicle with paper towels instead of microfiber cloths, using the same towel to wash and rinse your vehicle while cleaning, or even washing your vehicle too frequently can do the same kind of damage to your vehicle as using the incorrect type of washing solution.

Paper towels are very abrasive and can harm your vehicle’s clear coat. Reusing a cloth too much in dirty water can reapply dirt that can also be abrasive. As great as washing your car can be, the overuse of chemicals and frequent scrubbing can have the opposite effect as intended and damage your paint. All of these things and more allow other fading elements to act quicker.

Make sure you understand how to wash your vehicle and acquire the necessary materials to do so. Using both the wrong kinds of equipment and using the equipment the wrong way can lead to paint fading.

Road Grime and Chemical Buildup

Salt used in the winter and road oils are the prime culprits here. As they get kicked up onto your vehicle as you drive, they stick and also cause oxidation. The longer they stick to your car, the greater chance they have of eating away the clear coat and causing oxidation and fading. This can be difficult to control for those who live in a climate where there are four distinct seasons, extreme climate shifts, or harsh winters.

Similar to sunlight, everyone who drives their vehicle will be subjected to at least one of these elements. Road grime happens, and regular car washing will prevent hard chemical buildup over time. For those who deal with salt, even a quick rinse at the local car wash can go a long way in removing at least the surface salt from sticking in the long term.

Scratches

paint cracking

Scratches are yet another part of what happens when you drive. Chances are that you probably even have some scratches on your vehicle that you didn’t know were there. All forms of scratches allow the opportunity for oxidation from the Sun or road chemicals to occur. 

There is no hard and fast way of preventing scratches from occurring, but you can look for them by doing a quick scan of your vehicle. If you do find a scratch, you can look for a scratch repair product depending on how small it is. Larger scratches may be harder to fix, but consulting a body shop for the largest scratches is the best course of action.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is a lesser-known reason for paint fading but it can be a contributing factor. The carbon molecules expelled by other vehicles, factories, and other sources are also abrasive. Like household cleaners and paper towels, they are microscopically abrasive.

Unfortunately, the only real way to prevent air pollution from eventually fading your paint is to go/live somewhere with less air pollution, and even then, you can’t escape it completely. For many who make a living in larger cities where air pollution is highly-concentrated, this is a solution that won’t work. As a result, we should all be mindful of what we contribute to pollution and prevent it as much as we can.

Weather

Weather is not so much a cause for paint fading as it includes or results in the combination of several elements already mentioned. Acid rain in particular results from high air pollution in certain areas.

You can’t prevent the weather itself, and sometimes, you can’t even prevent yourself from driving through bad weather, but you can protect your car from the weather much the same way you would protect it from sunlight. Parking your car in a garage or carport is the best choice, but if you do not have access to one of those, you can buy a weather-resistant car cover.

Age

Age takes its toll on everything, and there's no a solution to prevent it. The longer you have your car, the more it will tend to fade. None of the factors above and below are entirely preventable all the time, and the result is inevitable.

Miscellaneous Factors

Strange things happen all the time, and other rare occurrences could contribute to paint fade. The improper application of paint after an accident is a good example. Some manufacturers have even been known to use low quality paint or thin paint which leads to peeling, cracking, and fading. Bird dirt is another common reason that paint fading can occur if left alone.

Conclusion

Vehicle paint fade is an issue that is common to all vehicles, regardless of how well they are kept. Knowing the things that cause paint fade and taking the necessary measures to prevent it will go a long way in preserving your vehicle’s paint for a long time and keeping the colors bright. Not every cause of paint fade is preventable, but now, you are better equipped to do your part in preventing it.

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
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