Rubbing vs Polishing Compound: Is There a Difference?

Though many people associate both a rubbing and polishing compound with sprucing up their vehicle to make it look better by getting rid of scratches, the primary difference between a rubbing compound and polishing compound is the level of abrasive material each one offers.

Rubbing compounds typically offer more aggressive abrasion levels than polishing compounds. This makes each compound useful for differing stages of polishing, cleaning, and fixing imperfections on vehicle paint.

Polishing Compound: What is it For?

car polish on buffer

Polishing compounds, as they are less abrasive than rubbing compounds, are used for lighter cleaning and polishing of a vehicle’s paintwork.

Not only do they usually require less preparation before their use than rubbing compounds, but they also require less complicated application procedures, less complicated equipment, and fewer finishing procedures, making them less complicated overall. They have several main purposes.

Removing Hard Water Stains and Other Surface Materials

Water stains and light surface imperfections as a result of acid rain can easily be taken care of by polishing compounds.

Water stains can sometimes be pesky to remove or impossible to completely remove by simply performing a quick wash. A quick wash itself is often the culprit of leftover water stains.

Vehicles that are left in the open are subject to sunlight and weather effects. Acid rain can eat away at paint over a long period of time. Other surface materials like bird dirt, road grime, oil, and tree sap can also have a negative effect on paintwork but can also be extremely difficult to remove with just soap and water.

Since polishing compounds are mildly abrasive, they are able to remove these types of materials without doing significant damage to the paint.

Removing Light Scratches and Imperfections

Light scratches and other slight imperfections can also be removed using polishing compounds. They are not able to remove deep scratches as their abrasion levels are not as high as rubbing compounds.

Essentially, they work by slightly scratching the paintwork themselves. By scratching away scuff marks and the slightest bit of the paint surface (clearcoat), they effectively remove these types of imperfections.

Scratch removers are commonly found in automotive retail locations and are easily applied per the instructions given on each container.

Helps Paintwork Shine

The most obvious use of a polishing compound is to make your vehicle’s paint shine. This usually occurs after a complete washing and should not be done as frequently as many people think.

Experts often recommend only one or two polishing compound applications per year to avoid damage to the paintwork. Washing and polishing your vehicle can be a satisfying experience, but with polishing compounds being slightly abrasive, overuse can lead to clear coat damage and further deterioration of the entire vehicle’s paintwork.

Rubbing Compound: What is it For?

rubbing compound application
First Stage: Rubbing Compound Application

Rubbing compounds are much more abrasive than polishing compounds. As such they are used for more in-depth paintwork correction.

They are not used for polishing as much as they are used to fix various paintwork issues that result from accidents, neglect, age, and other major factors. Their application is usually done more by professionals than the average vehicle owner.

Rubbing compounds require a large amount of prep work, more complicated tools, and a larger amount of finishing work compared to polishing compounds. There are two main uses of polishing compounds.

Removing Moderate Scratches and Imperfections

Because the grit level on rubbing compounds is greater than on polishing compounds, rubbing compounds are able to remove larger imperfections and deeper scratches in a vehicle’s paint than polishing compounds and scratch removers.

This is accomplished by actually removing part of the clear coat by leveling the surface with the coarse material within the compound. The reason rubbing compounds are used more by professionals than even average enthusiasts is because of the greater danger of damaging the paintwork and removing too much of the surface.

This can be done with a polishing compound as well if used too much or incorrectly, but the more aggressive nature of a rubbing compound makes it much easier for those with less experience to make a costly mistake. Additionally, the process surrounding using a rubbing compound is more extensive since its aim is to fix more extensive, potentially widespread paint damage.

Restores Old Paintwork From Oxidation

Rubbing compounds are also commonly used in paint correction to remove oxidation. By removing the affected clear coat, a rubbing compound can remove the damaged areas of paintwork and helps prevent an entire vehicle repaint. Although paint correction can be expensive, it is not nearly as expensive as repainting an entire vehicle and is often less expensive than repainting just portions of one.

Additional Information Concerning Polishing Compounds

Polishing compounds can be found in both liquid and paste forms. Liquid compounds are usually the least harsh polishing or rubbing compound available, but more liquid polishing compounds are found than liquid rubbing compounds as they can’t reach the thickness levels needed for rubbing and leveling.

Whenever you do any kind of polishing work or use a rubbing compound, it is always best to start with the least harsh compound and work your way up to a more abrasive compound. Because the potential exists to remove scratches with a less abrasive compound than initially thought, it may save your vehicle’s paintwork from undergoing an unnecessary amount of clear coat leveling.

As a result, a thorough car wash should always precede the use of a polishing compound. If that does not work, a more aggressive compound will be needed. 

The application of polish should always be followed by the application of car wax. Even though it is not a long-term protection solution, it does help protect the vehicle’s paint for some time. Doing this will allow everything you have just accomplished to last longer than it would without any kind of protection. 

Additional Information Concerning Rubbing Compounds

Because rubbing compounds are more aggressive than polishing compounds, they are more commonly found as a paste rather than a liquid. They too can be found at most automotive retail locations, but any directions on the container should be followed closely to ensure that no paint damage is done to your vehicle.

Unlike polish, rubbing compounds may need to be used multiple times or in layers as they are able to level deeper scratches, remove traded paint, and get rid of thicker substances.

Using a buffer and buffing pad are often recommended when leveling since it is a more aggressive procedure than polishing. Both polishing and rubbing can be done by hand, but polishing can more easily be done by hand and with lighter tools since it is not as aggressive of a procedure. 

Once initial leveling is complete, it is a good idea to remove any remaining compound material and assess if another rubbing coat is necessary. This should always be done with a microfiber cloth. As with polishing, a final wax is recommended as a protective measure to ensure that any work is not immediately undone.

More expensive options like ceramic coating or clear coat film can preserve the work done by yourself or a professional to keep the paint as nice as possible for as long as possible. This is especially common in restoration projects, though many opt for a full vehicle repaint when restoring a vehicle.

Final Thoughts

The difference between a rubbing compound and a polishing comes down to the abrasion levels of each.

Polishing compounds are less abrasive than rubbing compounds and are used for lighter paint restoration work such as removing surface scratches, water stains, light oxidation, and other pesky grime.

Rubbing compounds are much more effective in leveling large scratches, restoring paint after moderate oxidation, and removing traded paint as they are more aggressive than polishes.

Both compounds should always be applied carefully according to the instructions to avoid more harm than good to your vehicle’s paintwork. 

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.
The Vehicle Lab looks to cover all aspects of the automotive industry: News, Maintenance & Repair Guides, and Product Reviews
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