Car Polish vs Wax: What’s the Difference?

If you are a car owner, you may start to notice small imperfections ranging from paint scratches to oxidation on your vehicle. Naturally, you'll want to remedy these problems.

If you ask a random person on the street, they might not even know the difference. There are also manufacturers that make these products and will sell you wax with a label that says “polish.” It’s come to the point where people use these terms interchangeably.

The main difference between wax and polish is that polishing is used to removed paint surface blemishes and is applied before waxing. Wax is used to provide a protective layer on top of the paint. It is for this reason that you should polish before waxing your vehicle.

The Differences Between Car Polish and Wax

What is Car Wax?

car wax

Waxing is the process of applying a protective layer over a car's paint as a form of detailing finish. As a product used for automotive detailing, it can be applied both by hand or using a buffing machine.

Apart from providing protection to the vehicle's paint, they also often feature "color-enhancing" compounds that help to add shine and depth to the color.

There are three main types of car wax: spray, liquid, and paste.

Note: All detailing/automotive care companies have their own formulations for wax products. Generally speaking, they are comprised of protective polymers, gloss enhancers, and some degree of natural wax - carnauba or beeswax. A synthetic wax is almost entirely made of synthetic polymers and are more accurately described as a paint sealant.

Spray-on wax is the easiest to apply and the most affordable, however it's also the least durable. These products are usually composed of several different synthetic and natural ingredients.

Liquid wax is similar to spray wax in terms of ease of application but is much more universally used. It also does a better job in terms of protection and durability.

Paste wax is the highest quality of automotive wax available. They are generally thicker, and are purported to be all-natural. However, of the three options they are the hardest to apply and typically require a car buffer.

Note: Paste waxes provide an unmatched level of shine, however they do not last as long as synthetic compounds designed for paint protection.

What is Car Polish?

car polish

Polishing is the process of abrading a small portion of the clear coat in order to remove surface blemishes like swirl marks, scratches, and oxidation. This is done through the use of polishing compound which contain abrasives, polishing powder, and waxes/fat.

Polishing is a form of paint correction - removing surface defects from your vehicle. Polishing a vehicle is a time consuming, tedious, and delicate task. You are quite literally sanding down the clear coat to level the surface; It's irreversible.

Paint correction typically follows these steps:

  • Wash your vehicle using a two bucket wash, car wash sop, and microfiber cloths. Any difficult dirt/grime should be removed with a clay detailing bar.
  • Coarse gritting and sanding compounds are used first to level the surface of the paint. As the process progresses, less coarse compounds are used in order to finish/blend the surface so that the clear coat isn't entirely removed.
  • Due to the paint correction above, polishing helps to restore the shine that's lost from the sanding the clear coat.
  • After which, wax or paint sealant is applied in order to add protection to the surface.

Final Thoughts

The question shouldn't be presented as polish vs wax, rather it should be polish or wax; Waxing and polishing are two different processes involved in paint correction or automotive detailing as a whole.

Richard Reed
I've been a General Manager of a moving company and I've also been a Professional Mover for over 30 years. I've driven flat beds, reefers, dropdecks, moving vans, heavy machinery, etc. In my time as a Mover I've driven over 1,000,000 safe miles. My days of moving and driving truck are past me but The Vehicle Lab allows me to share the knowledge I've gained over the past 40 years.
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