What’s the Difference Between Car Wax, Polishes, and Compounds?

Taking care of your car’s finish requires some elbow grease, the right tools, and proper solutions. For beginner car detailing enthusiasts, it’s not always easy to figure out the difference between a wax, polish, and compound, but each has a vital role to play.

The more you work on your car, the more care you put into it, the more experience you’ll gain. In the beginning, though, it can feel daunting. Overwhelming.

So, let’s cut right to the chase and help you determine the difference between a wax, polish, and compound so you choose the right one for the job.

Think of Compounds, Polishes, and Waxes in a Strategic Line

For the most part, compounds are your baseline, starting solution when you have scratches you want to work out of the car’s finish. There are generally two types you will need to consider: a rubbing compound and a polishing compound.

Rubbing Compounds

This is what you would start with when you have scratches. It is an abrasive compound and while it may come in a liquid form, most commonly you will see it as a paste.

When using rubbing compounds, you can apply these with a basic applicator pad or cloth, but it would be best to use an orbital buffer of some kind. In short, these are necessary when you want to buff out scratches, but there is a risk of causing damage to the paint because of the abrasive nature.

Polishing Compounds

This falls in the category of a polish, but because it is also a compound, there is a slight abrasive quality to it. You should only use a polishing compound after you have thoroughly worked in a rubbing compound to eliminate scratches.

You can also use a polishing compound for very fine scratches. Keep in mind, though, that if you have deeper scratches or wider ones, a polishing compound isn’t going to do very much to remove them.

Next, There Are the Polishes

As mentioned, you have a polishing compound, which is kind of a bridge between rubbing compounds and chemical polishes. Now, a chemical-based polish will not be abrasive, so it will not be able to penetrate the clearcoat of your car’s finish.

You will generally be using a polish when you want to remove water spots or other surface contaminants. If your car’s finish doesn’t have any deeper scratches or other blemishes you need to work out, you will most likely want to start with a chemical polish rather than a compound.

There are a couple of other types of polishes, including a chrome polish, which are also nonabrasive. Some people will use a glaze instead of a polish and consider the two to be relatively interchangeable.

Yet, for the most part, a true polish is going to have some abrasive quality to it whereas glazes are most commonly used to help give a vehicle the kind of mirror finish you would think of with brand-new vehicles.

A key benefit to a chemical polish is that it is great for minor imperfections, and is ideal after compound applications, but you will find as you gain more experience that some polishes are simply better and more effective than others.

That means you may struggle at times to find one that’s going to be ideally suited for your specific and unique vehicle needs.

Waxes: The Last Step

Most automotive enthusiasts, if they’ve washed their own car in the past, may very well have used a wax at some time. This is often considered the last step product in auto detailing.

You may have heard car wax being used synonymously with carnauba. That’s because these waxes are derived from palm trees in either a paste or liquefied form.

Generally speaking, waxes are a type of sealant and, when they are in a spray form, that’s exactly what they may be called. The most common use of a car wax is to protect the vehicle’s finish after washing.

What About Sprays?

A car wax that is in the form of a spray will contain some wax, but it will not be in the same quantity (dilution) as the liquid form. Some liquid sprays can be ideal in various situations, but you do run the risk of streaking or hazes forming if you don’t apply it properly.

If you truly want the best finish for your vehicle, a quality paste is the way to go. That’s because when applied properly, in a circular motion, and removed with a terrycloth material or proper pads, the wax adheres to the car’s finish. That helps provide a smooth, even shine across the entire vehicle.

When you apply a car wax to your vehicle’s finish, and it is done properly, it should provide a smooth and natural finish. You shouldn’t notice any types of water spots or other blemishes.

However, keep in mind that once you reach the waxing stage of auto detailing, it can highlight some minor imperfections that could more easily be overlooked before you reach this point.

When you do, though, you can go back and use the rubbing compound, polishes, and then wax again.

One of the significant downsides to using a car wax is the amount of time it takes to apply and remove. However, when you see the finished results, you will be motivated to do this part of the job every time.

Everything Has kept its Place

When it comes to auto detailing, there are numerous tools and products that are designed to help you do the job right the first time. It does take effort and time to gain experience, but the more you do it, the more diligent you are in using the right compounds, polishes, and waxes at the right times, the more you will enjoy the finished results.

When using compounds, though, always be careful with the application because of the abrasive qualities. You may wish to start with something less abrasive, like a polishing compound for tougher scratches until you get the hang of it.

And as you develop your skills, you will be more discerning about which compounds, polishes, and waxes you want to use for your vehicle’s finish.

About the Author
Steve Brown

Steve Brown

Hi, my name is Steve and I'm a car detailing expert.... Read more


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