Types of car wax

When shopping for the best car wax, there are two main questions to ask: How easy is it to use? And how well does it work? Each brand seems to make endless claims about its products, and it can be hard for consumers to separate fact from hype. The unfortunate reality is that no single product excels in each category. Consumers must choose which features are most important, then select the best car wax to meet their needs.

A variety of finish enhancers and protectors crowd the marketplace in different categories. These terms are what you'll commonly see on packaging in the car-care aisle.

Wax: These products contain some portion of natural wax and may also include synthetic elements. Carnauba wax, typically from the leaves of a Brazilian tree, is the preferred ingredient. Many aficionados say that carnauba wax delivers the best shine (especially if you seek a high-gloss "wet" finish).

Polish: A polish contains abrasives that remove contaminants from weather, bugs and birds. These can be used alone or may be combined with a wax to add shine.

Sealant: Any paint protector that doesn't contain natural wax is technically a sealant. "Sealants are the place to go for the ultimate in protection and durability," says professional auto detailer Darren Priest. "The chemical bonds created by these synthetic polymers are much stronger than the bonds created by natural waxes."

Adding to the options, car waxes, polishes and sealants are available in different forms, each with its own attributes and limitations:

Paste: Paste is the most time-consuming wax to use, but many car enthusiasts say it offers the best protection and gloss. To prevent reenacting a scene from "The Karate Kid" with sweat and sore muscles, it's important to select a paste that's easy to apply and buff off. 

Liquid: Available as a cream or gel, liquid wax offers the best cleaning and is the optimal choice for finishes that need restoring. Some can be tricky to evenly apply, but one testing organization says that liquid waxes generally provide the highest gloss enhancement.

Spray: These are the fastest to apply, with a full wax job taking under half an hour. They're also the fastest type of wax to wear out, and require frequent applications. Spray waxes work best for newer paint or as a booster in between full wax jobs. Another upside: Many spray formulas can safely be used on plastic trim. As a true wipe-on/wipe-off product, users don't have to wait for the wax to cure before removing it.

Traditional waxes should be applied in shade for best results. Even though some newer products can be used in full sun, auto experts still say it's still best to wash and wax in a cool area out of direct sunlight. Hot sun softens car paint, making it easier to scratch.

When selecting a car wax, remember these considerations:

  • Different wax types require differing effort. Some car enthusiasts enjoy putting extra time and elbow grease into waxing their car. But if you're looking for a product that is faster to apply with fewer restrictions, then a liquid or spray wax is your best bet. Spray waxes take about 20 minutes to finish the entire car, and many can be used in the sun.
  • More labor equals more shine. A natural paste wax typically takes more time and effort, but many car experts are happy to endure this labor of love because of the results. "Carnauba-based paste wax will provide depth, gloss, and a healthy layer of protection that is generally superior to any synthetic-based product," advises Darren Priest.
  • Longevity varies, too. The longest protection comes from a polish/sealant, giving you several months of protection. Most natural waxes are effective for three months or less.
  • Most waxes are for maintenance, not restoration. If you have a new car, or if your paint is in peak condition, you can use a basic car wax or spray wax to maintain the shine. A dull, hazy finish with scratches or swirls needs a polish or a wax with cleaners to remove oxidation and brighten the color.
  • Dark colors don't need tinted waxes. But they do require a product that won't scratch or haze. While some waxes bring out the depth and richness of a color better, a wax specially formulated for specific colors isn't necessary. An abrasive wax may leave swirl marks, so use a car wax that is safe for clear-coats and test on an inconspicuous area first.
  • Watch out for the plastic trim. Check to see if your wax is compatible with plastic trim. Sealants and other products can permanently stain plastic and rubber, while some pastes leave a white-dust coating during the buffing stage. Be mindful of your trim while detailing your car with any product.
  • Waxing is the last step of auto-detailing. Getting the most out of your wax job starts with washing and fully drying your car. If you have a buildup of contaminants or oxidation, consider using a polisher or clay bar before waxing, or opt for a cleaner wax, which includes abrasives to safely remove surface problems.
  • Higher price doesn't mean a better product. While some professionals only use top-shelf products, you can get great results with highly rated, lower-cost brands. Prices are all over the board with car waxes, but you can purchase good products from 60 to 90 cents per ounce.

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