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How to protect your car’s finish

Photo by ronstik/

What’s that, Bunky? You want to wax your car, but you’re confused by all the unfamiliar potions and elixirs on the shelves of your favorite auto parts store? Well, cheer up. Caring for your car’s finish needn’t be complicated.

A modern car’s finish consists of a primer beneath a color coat, both topped by a clear coat that protects the color coat from damage caused by ultraviolet rays, acidic bird droppings, and other environmental contaminants. With proper care, clear coats can last 20 or 30 years. That’s a good thing, because a high-quality paint job can cost thousands of dollars.

If your car’s finish is extremely weathered, a professional detailer using a polishing machine and various substances can (hopefully) bring the clear coat back to life. But if the clear coat is in relatively good shape, here are some products you can apply yourself.

Begin by washing the car with one of the many pH-balanced detergents specially made for cars. Don’t wash it in direct sunlight or if the paint surface is hot. Apartment or condo dwellers might not have access to a water faucet, however. And given the extreme drought conditions in many Western states, driveway car washing may be prohibited.

Fortunately, several makers of car-care products, such as Meguiar’s, Armor All, Mothers, and Rain-X, offer spray-on car washes that emulsify dirt and don’t require water. You’ll need to carefully wipe the residue off using multiple towels, but these products are surprisingly effective at cleaning your car without scratching the clear coat.

If the paint doesn’t feel as smooth as glass after you wash and dry the car, use a clay kit, consisting of a clay bar and lubricant, to remove contaminants bonded to the clear coat.

Although white and silver paint jobs lack the depth and richness of red, black, or other dark colors, they’re also not as prone to ugly clear-coat swirls (light scratches). Clay bars won’t remove swirls, but a liquid pre-wax polish/cleaner containing a very fine abrasive can. Lightly work the stuff into the car’s surface and then wipe it off.

Once the clear coat is clean and prepped, use a wax, sealant, or ceramic coating to protect it. Carnauba wax, made from the fronds of carnauba palm trees, is the old standby. Available in either paste or liquid form, it gives a warm, wet look.

A sealant is a synthetic wax that’s more durable than carnauba wax and yields a brighter, crisper look. Ceramic coatings with silicon dioxide (SiO2) are now all the rage. They produce a high gloss and intense beading when they encounter water, and cling tenaciously to the clear coat.

Professionally applied ceramic coatings last several years, take a lot of time to apply, and cost, at a minimum, hundreds of dollars. But for less than $20, you can buy spray-on liquid silicon dioxide–based coatings that are super easy to apply and perform similarly to ceramic coatings, although they aren’t as durable.

Use microfiber towels to wipe off the wax, sealant, or ceramic coating residue. A man-made material, microfiber absorbs more than cotton and is less likely to scratch the clear coat. Microfiber towels are woven differently depending on the task at hand (say, drying after washing versus removing wax).

Some final advice from Mike Stoops, Meguiar’s senior global product and training specialist: “The trick is to follow the product’s directions carefully and not use too much—more isn’t better.”

Peter Bohr is an award-winning automotive journalist. Write to Peter at or Drive Smart, Westways, PO Box 25222, Santa Ana, CA 92799-5222.

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