Car polish vs car wax: what's the difference?

A simple guide to help explain what the difference are between car wax and polish, and how to use these cleaning products

Car polish vs car wax
(Image credit: Getty)

You would be forgiven for thinking that car polish and car wax are closely related, or perhaps even the same thing. However, this is not the case. In fact, polish and wax are very different, but can be used together – or rather, one after the other – to clean your car, remove scratches, and add protection to the paint.

In simple terms, polish is used to remove light scratches and clean the painted surfaces of your car, then wax is used to give a glossy finish but also protect the surface against future scratches. For the ultimate clean, you should wash your car, then polish it and finally apply the wax.

Here is a quick look at what polish and wax do, and why they are different.

What is car polish?

Although it looks and feels like a smooth paste, car polish is actually abrasive, but only very slightly. The abrasive nature of car polish means it can be used to rub away a very thin layer of the clear coat applied to the paint of your car. This helps to remove light scratches, as when the area of clear coat around a scratch is removed with abrasive polish, the depth of the scratch relative to the surrounding areas reduces to nothing.

It used to be that different types of polish with varying levels of abrasion were required to remove scratches from a car. But today’s car polish uses an abrasive that breaks down as it is worked into the paint, producing a gradual polish as you rub it in with a pad or microfibre cloth. These polishes are known as diminishing abrasives, because as they break down their abrasiveness is reduced. 

It is important to remember that the polish is not adding any protection to the paint or clear coat of your car. Instead, it is actually rubbing away the top surface, flattening scratches and imperfections, while also removing dirt and producing an attractive shine. Some polishes also include gloss-enhancing oils to help give your car the sort of showroom finish your neighbours will be jealous of.

Your car does not need to be polished every time it is washed. If you do a good job (and seal it with wax, more on which in a moment) then a simple wash with car shampoo should be enough to make your car look its best. You should only need to polish your car a couple of times a year, or even less if using a polishing machine.

What is car wax?

Now the car has been washed and polished, it’s time to reach for the wax. Where polish takes away a very thin layer of clear coat to remove light scratches, wax works in the opposite way, by filling in imperfections. This has the effect of smoothing the surface of your car, while also adding a thin protective film to the paint.

Browse the car wax shelves of any auto store and you will likely see references to carnauba, also known as Brazil wax or palm wax. This is the wax of the leaves of the Copernicia prunifera, a plant native to northeastern Brazil. As well as car polish, carnauba is used in polishes for shoes, floors and furniture, and is often mixed with beeswax or turpentine.

A key property of this wax is that it isn’t soluble with water, so won’t easily wash away when it rains or when you wash your car. It also has a high melting point and isn’t damaged by UV light, meaning it can protect your car’s paintwork from sunlight as well dirt and general road grime.

Car wax usually comes in a tin and is applied by hand, in small quantities, with a cloth or pad. Some waxes come in bottles and can be sprayed onto the painted areas of your car. Apply the wax in slow, circular motions and use extra pressure on scratched areas. Once rubbed onto the car, leave for 10 to 15 minutes then buff with a clean microfiber cloth to a high shine. The key here is to rub the wax into the surface of your car until it is no longer visible.

How often you should wax your car depends on how much it is used, where it is stored overnight and the local climate. But generally speaking, waxing a couple of times a year will help protect the paint and keep it looking its best for years to come.

Finally, a major difference between car polish and wax is the price. A bottle of car polish from an established brand generally costs in the region of £15 to £20, while car wax starts around the £30 mark, but can stretch well beyond £100 and even up to £1,000 for just 200ml.

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Alistair Charlton
Alistair Charlton

Alistair is a freelance automotive and technology journalist. He has bylines on esteemed sites such as the BBC, Forbes, TechRadar, and of best of all, T3.