What is the Difference Between Car Wax and Car Polish and Why it Matters

The two most regularly asked questions I receive are; “What is the best car polish to use to protect my car” and “What is the best car wax to use to polish my car”. Here are the best car wash products to use at home, including Autoglym, Meguiars & Turtle Wax.

Unfortunately these two questions demonstrate the big misconception in the general market place as to what can be achieved by the sole use of a car wax or sole use of a polish.

In this article, which forms one of my guides to Detailing and Proper Car Care series, I aim to dispel these car polish vs wax misconceptions and help explain why, unless you have an immaculately and regularly detailed car, you should not initially use one without the other and what benefits you will get from each.

What is the difference between car wax and polish?

Firstly let’s start with the question What is a Wax? A wax in its natural form comes in many guises from vegetable waxes i.e carnauba to animal waxes i.e. bees wax. Its is the natural properties of some of these waxes that make them ideal for use in car waxes. The most popular for use in the automotive industry is carnauba wax. What makes this type of wax ideal is that it is:

  1. virtually insoluble in water, so won’t immediately disappear after each wash or rain shower
  2. a melting point of 82-86 °C so will withstand the high daylight summer temperatures without melting off your car
  3. although one of the hardest waxes to be found in its natural form it produces a durable and very glossy finish when combined with other waxes/ingredients used to produce a softer product that can be more easily applied to paintwork.

Most car waxes will therefore be a combination of the natural wax, solvents, silicone fluids, other waxes and colorants. Some will also contain abrasives, depending on the product being developed but for the purposes of this article we are looking to compare the “pure” wax vs polish. In giving your paintwork its shine, your wax will effectively be “smoothing” out the surface of the paint by “filling” in many of the imperfections in the paintwork.

Unfortunately if your paintwork is suffering from oxidation, dullness or swirls there is only so much “filling” that the wax can achieve and all you are effectively doing is covering up and hiding the true nature of why your car is not looking as good as it should.

One other category of “wax” we have not yet considered is the “synthetic wax” or “sealant”. Again these have various other added ingredients that change how the product adheres to your paintwork giving a longer lasting and more durable finish.

The difference between waxes and sealants is again a subject in its own right and I will explore this further in a future article.

However you won’t find a car wax made of just 100% pure carnauba.

In the section below we look at What is a Car Polish? At the end of this this article there are also links to a couple of related articles I have written about waxes and polishes specifically suited to different paints.

What is a Car Polish?

In contrast to a wax a car polish is a product that uses an abrasive action to remove very fine layers of the top coat protection to flatten out the surface to ensure and equal reflection of the light and thus a highly polished look. Such products come in varying degrees of abrasiveness from medium to ultra fine.

The quality modern polish will be made of what is known as diminishing abrasives which break down into further smaller particles as they are worked on the paint thus getting finer and finer the more they are “polished” into the paint.

This avoids the need to go through varying steps of abrasiveness in different bottles to achieve a highly polished look. Many polishes also contain gloss enhancing oils which further help to provide a deep look shine to the paint work.

What however is missing by just applying your polish is any protection to the polished paintwork, which is where your wax comes in to protect all the hard work you have just put in polishing and a achieving that deep gloss shine.

Which, using your wax or sealant, you will now protect for a few to several months (depending on how often your car is used, how it is stored, the wax you have used and the environment).

It is worth mentioning at this stage another product group called Glazes. A true glaze is a product that does not contain any abrasives but a mix of gloss enhancing oils and Koalin which effectively fills in any remaining imperfections in the paintwork to ensure a bright evenly reflective surface.

It is good practice, especially on some of the more softer modern paint finishes not to us a pure polish too often but to use a glaze more frequently than you polish to maintain the gloss and look of your paintwork.

This will ensure you are not continually taking off micro layers of the clear coat each time your detail your car and thus ensuring the longer term effectiveness of your paints protection. You need to learn more in order to maintain your car.

As with polishing however it is vitally important after using a glaze that you immediately seal it in with your wax or sealant otherwise the fine fillers and oils that provide the smooth reflective surface will be washed away in the first rain or next car wash.

I hope this has helped to explain the difference between polishes and waxes, how they work and what difference they make to the look and protection of your paintwork. After polishing and waxing my car read more about the benefit that I’m getting.