car service worker applying coating on a car

Polishing vs. Waxing A Car: What’s The Difference?

Cars are designed to get you from one place to another, that we all know. But, for some people, a vehicle is more than just a means of transport. Some people buy a sports car or truck as an investment, while others like the status that comes with a certain vehicle. No matter the reason for buying a car, we can all agree (mostly) that we want our cars to look good.

Not only is taking care of your car going to make you feel better about being seen in it, but it is also going to prolong its life. Oil changes, tune-ups, and fresh air in your tires will take care of your car’s internal workings, but maintenance does not stop there. If you keep the exterior clean, polished, and waxed, not only is your car going to look amazing, but the body is going to benefit from the added protection.

And the best part is that you can wax or polish your car yourself.

The only question now is, which should I do? Wax or polish? And, aren’t they the same thing, anyway?

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and find out what is actually meant when we talk about waxing or polishing a car.

What’s Car Polishing?

car polishing

If you have any small scratches, oxidation, water spots, or other blemishes on the paintwork of your car, then you are going to want to polish your vehicle.

Related: How To Polish Your Car by Hand or With a Buffer

Basically, polishing removes a thin layer of paint on your car. Don’t worry; the layer that is removed is very, very thin. So thin that you can polish your car dozens of times without doing and damage to the paint.

The reason that you want to polish is to take off that thin top layer and remove any signs of damage. Any shallow scratches will disappear (you are essentially removing enough paint that the scratches are removed too), along with any marks that are in the paint.

Car polish is abrasive. You can think of it as very fine sandpaper that is smoothing out the surface of your vehicle. There are different levels of abrasiveness for deeper marks and scratches, and people are often hesitant when they hear that polish is abrasive, but you need not worry. When used correctly, polish will smooth and not strip.

Done right, a good polish job on your car can last for around a year.

What’s Car Waxing?

car waxing

You can think of waxing as the next step after polishing your car. However, if your car is new or its paint is still in perfect condition, then waxing alone can be enough.

While polishing removes thin scratches, swirl marks, and other blemishes, waxing smooths and protects the paint of your car. It’ll fill up all the microscopic irregularities in the paint, protect against ultraviolet radiation from the sun (which causes premature aging of the paint), and prevent oxidation. Wax also keeps dirt, pollution, and grit from adhering to the paint and causing damage.


Many “natural” car waxes contain carnauba (also known as “Brazil wax”) which has most of the protective properties that wax offers. It forms a tough layer that is durable (it lasts anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks) and repels all pollutants that can damage the paint.

Synthetic waxes offer even longer protection because they chemically bond with the car paint. The downside is that the shine isn’t as nice as that from natural carnauba wax. Nevertheless, synthetic wax is often preferred by detailing professionals simply because it’s easier to apply and it lasts longer (typically 4 to 12 months).

Polishing vs. Waxing: When To Use Which?

If your car’s paint needs some refreshing to create a spotless finish then you need to polish your car. If your car’s paint is already polished or in great condition and you want to protect it, then you need waxing.

However, to give your car’s exterior a pristine finish, you can do both. Because polish removes a layer, you always want to polish before waxing if you are going to do the two together. And, make sure that you clean and dry your car before doing either.

Wax and polish serve two different purposes, and they can also be used together. If you are planning on owning your car for more than a few years and want to keep it looking great, we suggest investing in products for both polishing and waxing and doing both together.

Related: 6 Best Dual Action / Orbital Polishers (Corded and Cordless)

For an even more in-depth explanation with usage examples, watch the video below.

Henrik Soke

Henrik has over 20 years of experience in various IT fields. Durability Matters is his passion project born out of his love for minimalism and high-quality products that last. He's an avid hiker, mountain biker, and outdoor enthusiast.

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