What’s the Difference Between Wax and Polish? (Explained)


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When it comes to car detailing, what’s the difference between wax and polish.  Are they the same thing?  No.  They’re completely different products.  Understanding the difference between them is key if you want to get the best shine possible on your car.

Car wax and car polish are not the same thing.  Car wax is designed to protect your paint and enhance its shine.  Car polish is a light abrasive designed to correct light swirls and scratches.

What Does Wax Do?

Pure wax such as carnauba can add shine and gloss to your paint.  It will also add protection.  By protection I mean that water and dirt wont stick to your paint so much.  So it will be easier to wash.

But this protection doesn’t last forever.  Harsh weather or taking your car through a car wash will remove some wax.  And after a few months most wax will be gone so you need to reapply it every now and then.

What Does Polish Do?

Polish and Compound are usually talked about together.  Both are abrasive products.  This meant they cut away a microscopic layer of your clear coat.

So what makes them abrasive?  There are tiny particles in polish and compound that do the cutting.  They are too small to see.  Polish contains smaller particles and fewer of them so it gives more of a shine than compound.

Compound contains more abrasive particles than polish so it’s better for fixing more scratched or marred paint.

So compound is more abrasive than polish.  But both are abrasive.

What are the different types of car polish?

As mentioned above, compound is more abrasive than polish.  And for most people, that’s all you need to know.  But if you really want to get in to detailing your car in a big way you can go a lot deeper.

You can go from a heaving cutting compound for extremely weathered and scratched paint right up to finishing polish that reveals stunning gloss.  Of course the pads you use make a big difference too.

Normally, if you use a cutting compound, your scratches and swirls will be gone but the paint wont be as shiny as it could be.  The paint is described as looking hazy or cloudy.  So you would then follow up with a polish to reveal the gloss and shine.  This is called multi stage correction.

By the way, the pros will usually use a polishing machine.  But you can get great results by hand too – it just takes longer.  A lot longer.

What are the different types of car wax?

I have tried many different types of waxes over the years.  Some are really good and deliver fantastic shine.  Some take a longer to apply than others.  

And just to confuse you, some waxes don’t have any actual wax in them.  They are completely synthetic and are sometimes called sealants.  Some have both synthetic sealants and waxes in them.

Waxes come in different form factors.  Spray, liquid and paste are the most common.  I might apply spray wax after I wash my car to boost the gloss.  And I might apply a liquid or paste wax a couple of times a year as it takes longer but gives amazing results.

Check out some of my favorite waxes here.

Do you wax or polish your car first?

You should polish your car first, then wax.

What about 2 in 1 or 3 in 1 products?

You can get polish and wax in one product.  They help remove scratches and apply wax at the same time.  They can be a good way to quickly boost your paint and give some improved levels of gloss.

Meguiars 3 in 1 is an excellent product.  It contains two products – wax and polish which does three things – it cleans, polishes, and protects your paint.

What about glaze?

A glaze can fill in scratches and make a car look amazing.  Meguiars Ultimate Polish contains polish for fixing scratches and glaze for filling in other scratches.  You can quickly get great results with it.  Notice that Meguiars calls Ultimate Polish a “Pre-Waxing Glaze”.  So you can apply wax on top of it.

Apply glaze is much faster than polishing and compounding.

Can I polish my car without waxing it?

No, you should apply wax or sealant after you polish your car to protect it.  Otherwise the time you spent polishing will be wasted as the shine will quickly fade away again.

If you are in a hurry you can use a simple spray wax or sealant to quickly add protection.  But as you spent so much time polishing and you are happy with the results its worth taking the time to apply a quality paste wax.

Conclusion, Wax Versus Polish

Car Wax and Car Polish are different products.

  • Car polish should be used before car wax.
  • Polish is a light abrasive.
  • Compound is like polish except it is more abrasive.
  • Polishing before waxing will give better results.
  • Wax will protect paint by repelling water.
  • Polish will remove light swirls and scratches.
  • Waxed cars are easier to wash.
  • Polishing takes more elbow grease than waxing.

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