What are Swirl Marks? Causes and Prevention Explained

Swirl marks are tiny imperfections or scratches in your vehicle’s clear coat that can be caused by a number of different things. New vehicles, freshly-painted vehicles, and those that have been professionally detailed usually lack swirl marks, but most other vehicles, even if they are well-maintained, usually develop swirl marks over time.

Most of the time, they are relatively harmless in and of themselves but left unattended, they could lead to greater damage to your vehicle’s paint. Most people who just use their vehicles for transportation don’t even know they exist.

To the perfectionist and many enthusiasts, they are very annoying and unsightly. To the serious automotive junkie, they are hideous and problematic.

What Causes Swirl marks?

Left side polished - Right side swirl marks

There are numerous things that can cause swirl marks. Most have to do with how you wash your car or the materials you or someone else used to do so. Here are the most common causes of swirl marks:

Car Wash Brushes

Automated car washes are great things in a pinch. They usually do a decent job of getting dirt off your car, they are efficient, and they are quick. They do have one drawback though: they are one of the leading causes of swirl marks. 

Even though the automated car wash is designed to be as gentle as possible, your vehicle’s paint is very delicate. Brushes swirling around at such a high speed, along with the fact that the same car wash has serviced potentially hundreds of vehicles a day with different levels of dirt accretion combine to give your paint a run for its money.

If you do have to get your car washed in a hurry, most experts recommend running your car through a touch-less automatic, which uses water pressure rather than brushes to get your vehicle clean.

Incorrect Car Washing Techniques

Incorrect car washing techniques are probably the first or second thing people think of when they talk about swirl marks and what causes them. It is a very broad category that encompasses more than just the way you scrub your car, though that is part of it.

Many people wash their vehicles using a circular motion. Most experts recommend scrubbing across or up-and-down in an overlapping pattern to make sure all surfaces are covered. If you happen to miss some surface dirt during the pre-wash, the circular motion in which you scrub results in the swirly patterns you see.

Failing to rinse your car before washing it falls under this category. Without doing a pre-rinse, the surface dirt that would easily be lightly washed away could end up getting scrubbed into your paint along with the car wash shampoo you use. Even the best car wash shampoos will not work if there is residual dirt just sitting on your paint. Likewise, failing to do a complete car wash or washing your vehicle insufficiently will ultimately result in swirl marks. 

One more important car wash technique that leads to swirl marks is using a dirty cloth or wash mitt to wash your vehicle. Using the two-bucket car wash method can prevent this, but using the same bucket to mix your cleaning solution and continually rinsing the same washcloth or mitt allows the removed dirt to stick and be reapplied to the car. These fine dirt particles are what scratches the surface.

Incorrect Drying Techniques

Even if you wash your vehicle thoroughly, you could make the huge mistake of drying your vehicle with a dirty towel. It may look clean, especially since you only used it one-time last week to dry your clean car, but you need to make sure it is washed before second-time use. Just like how using the same washing and rinsing bucket can reapply dirt, using the same drying towel multiple times can do the same.

On rare occasions, you may be tempted to forego the car wash altogether. Maybe there is one pesky dirt spot on your car that is bothering you, but it definitely does not warrant an entire car wash with the time it takes to set everything up.

Simply grabbing a towel and wiping down that spot will probably do much more harm than good and is another way swirl marks can appear. You should never wipe down a dry vehicle with a towel, even if it is only to remove a small spot.

Incorrect Car Washing Materials

Incorrect car washing materials are another very broad reason swirl marks can occur. Anything from incorrect car washing soap, not using a microfiber washcloth, using paper towels or bath towels to dry your car after it has been washed, and many more materials can cause swirl marks. 

Things like specific car wash soap and cleaning cloths can be costlier than something like a bath towel, dishwashing liquid, or paper towels, but car washing materials are specifically designed to keep your paint intact during use.

You will still have to follow the directions on each product you buy as each can be a little different, but there will still be less chance that you can cause swirl marks from washing your own car if you use the correct materials.

Polishing pads and buffers are culprits for swirl marks. This can be especially true as a first time DIY car washer. It is great that you want to learn how to do a complete car wash and wax by yourself, but you have to make sure that everything you use is correct depending on what kind of car you have, the car wash soap you use, the polishing material you choose, and even your vehicle’s paint color.

Doing the best car wash job possible for your own car means researching the best materials to use for your specific car. 

Car Covers

Car covers can be a great way to shelter a vehicle from the elements if you do not have a carport or garage. They can also lead to swirl marks, especially when your vehicle is dirty.

Using a cover on a dirty vehicle can have similar effects to using a towel on a dry car or reusing a dirty washcloth over and over again. Car covers are not glued to the surface of your vehicle and can slide around, even if just a little. Putting the car cover on the car is another way dirt can get ground into the paint. 

Many people that use car covers probably don’t use them for their daily commuters. They are used primarily when garage space is at a minimum and someone has a restored, classic, or special car they want to keep safe.

Make sure to read the instructions on how to cover the car appropriately. Even clean cars can receive swirl marks from the incorrect application of a car cover. 

Car Dusters

Keeping within the theme of reapplying dirt to the clean surfaces of your car, a car duster is a car cleaning item that is not talked about too often. This is because many experts don’t recommend them.

They can be great for cleaning some of the hard-to-reach areas within your interior, but they cannot take the place of a quick car wash. Though they are made of more delicate materials designed to be gentle on your car, they are still harder on your paint than microfiber cleaning cloths, and they can easily retain and reapply dirt, creating swirl marks on your paint.

Can You Prevent Swirl Marks?

The answer to this question is twofold. You can take steps to prevent swirl marks, but as long as you use your vehicle for any kind of transportation, you will likely not be able to prevent swirl marks completely.

Almost any amount of dirt that accumulates on the surface of your car will cause swirl marks over the course of time. If you wash your car at all, it will be inevitable, even if you do a careful job. This is mainly because dirt is everywhere, and it is very difficult to eradicate completely.

With that being said, when you do wash your car, you can do it the right way with the right materials so you can prevent swirl marks as much as possible. If you take care of your car, you can prolong the life of your car’s clear coat and keep swirl marks at bay.

Avoid conducting hasty car washes, going through the automated car wash, and make sure to use clean microfiber cloths.

How Can You Fix Swirl Marks?

swirl marks repair

Everything we have covered so far, especially knowing that swirl marks are not completely preventable most of the time, might sound terrible to the perfectionist.

There is no need to worry though because it is possible to fix swirl marks. There are several ways to do this:

Polishing/Scratch Remover

Polishing and using scratch removers are the simplest, most inexpensive, and most accessible way to remove swirl marks.

Many companies that make automotive products like shampoos and vehicle towels also offer polishes and scratch removers. Many of these work by “filling in the cracks” to provide a smooth look to the paint surface.

Despite being an easy way to remove swirl marks, polishes also tend to hold up the least amount of time compared to other fixes.

Automotive Paint Correction

Automotive paint correction is a next step up from polishing or using scratch remover. It involves using a buffer and cutting material to grind down the clear coat and remove the ridges associated with swirl marks.

This produces a true smooth clear coat surface. This method is much more involved than simply polishing the paint as the clear coat could be damaged further if too much is removed or if a mistake is made.

Repaint Your Car

Repainting your car is an extreme way to remove swirl marks. It is much more expensive (just in paint alone) and labor-intensive than the first two swirl mark removal methods and is usually reserved for extensive vehicle damage beyond the scope of simple swirl marks.

Nevertheless, this is an option if you have the money. It is also a good option if you are restoring a vehicle as a thorough repaint job can restore your vehicle’s paint to near showroom condition.

Final Thoughts

Swirl marks are an annoying and often overlooked part of owning a vehicle. Most swirl marks are caused by the interaction between dirt and a car wash in which incorrect techniques or materials are used.

They can be prevented, though total prevention is nearly impossible. You can do your part to prevent swirl marks in your own vehicle by using the correct car washing materials and techniques, by taking the time to wash your car correctly, and by using quality products.

Swirl marks can also be fixed by polishing, automotive paint correction, or by repainting. Most of the time, swirl marks are merely more than an annoyance, but learning what causes them will help you prevent them in the future.

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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