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Car wax

Car wax buying guide

Last updated: April 2013

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Getting started

With warm weather here, this is an excellent time to wax your car and help protect it from bugs, pollen, sun, and road grime. Before buying a car wax, be aware that premium car wax brands don't necessarily hold up any better than lower-priced alternatives, based on our latest tests. In fact, some moderately priced liquids scored near the top of our Ratings--better than some products costing twice as much.

Still, none of the 19 products tested were good enough to be Rated excellent, with most showing signs of deterioration within a few weeks.

We also found that pastes performed no better than liquids overall, though the two top-scoring pastes were the only waxes to rated excellent for durability. Both wax types had similar scores for ease of use.

We did not evaluate spray-on/wipe-off products this time, because earlier tests have shown them to be less effective for cleaning, to be ineffective against weather, and to rate the worst for durability. They're best only for newer finishes and if you wash and wax frequently.

Thanks to today's clear-coat finishes, our testing shows that even the best wax will probably not improve the shine on a new car. Regular washing is still the most important step to protecting your car's finish. But a coat of wax can add a layer of protection against tree sap, bird droppings, and other contaminants--at least for a while. Most products we tested showed a significant loss of protection within about five weeks. For this reason, we recommend waxing even new cars every two or three months. And if your car is older or the finish has begun to dull, the effects can be even more dramatic. Waxing can fill minute finish imperfections, and waxes that scored highly for gloss improvement removed oxidation and made paint appear darker and more vibrant.

But be aware that the paint finishes on some darker-colored cars can actually be damaged by some of the more abrasive waxes, which can leave swirl marks. Check our Ratings for products that scored lower in this area.

Since this test was performed in 2011, the roll out of government regulations regarding volatile organic compounds (VOCs) has pushed the industry to alter its formulations. At last check, these tested products are still available for sale, but new variations are expected to appear on store shelves. When shopping based on our Ratings, be sure to match the exact product with those tested. We are monitoring the market to determine when it would be best to test a new batch of products.

How to choose

All waxes require elbow grease, patience, and time. Depending on how fast you work, how thorough you are, the size of your vehicle, and the product you choose, expect to spend at least an hour to do a decent job. (Check our Types section to see which product type best suits your needs.)

Throughout this report, we will refer to the products as car waxes, rather than polishes. In part, this is for clarity, but also, the words "wax" and "polish" are often used interchangeably by makers of the products. Both describe a product that provides a glossy and protective coating, and may or may not remove oxidation and embedded contaminants. Products labeled "cleaner wax" may be somewhat abrasive and can actually remove some paint from the surface of the vehicle.

Consider the age of your car. If it's one or two years old or still has a good finish, an easy spray wax might be all you need. But keep in mind that these products wear out the quickest, and they are best suited to weekly or special-occasion applications. While a quick spray-wax treatment can freshen the vehicle's appearance, no wax will truly improve the shine on a newer car.

If you don't plan to replace your car for a while, waxing will help preserve the finish over time. If you have an older car, or one whose finish has already begun to oxidize or has embedded grime, you may want to consider a product that scored high for cleaning to help bring back and maintain the finish. Liquid waxes proved the best in cleaning.

Watch out for abrasion. Waxes can be abrasive, and the tiny particles in car waxes or harsh chemicals can leave fine scratches or a haze on your car's finish. Dark-colored vehicles show scratches more easily than lighter-colored ones. If you own a black or dark-colored vehicle, be especially wary of products that scored low in our scratching and hazing tests. The same abrasiveness can make clear-coated surfaces look hazy or cloudy when the finish is marred by fine scratches, giving the paint a duller look than before waxing. Most wax packaging indicates whether a product is safe for clear-coat finishes.

Consider how much plastic is on your car. Some waxes can leave a visible residue on non-glossy, porous plastic parts such as bumpers, plastic body panels, and door trim. Those parts are often black or gray, and some newer cars may have a lot of them. If that sounds like your car, choose a product that scored well in our compatibility-with-plastic tests. Once wax gets on those surfaces, it may be necessary to use a commercially available plastic cleaner to get rid of it.

Types

First things first. Match the car wax to your car-care needs. Car waxes come in three forms: liquid, paste, and spray. Overall, we found that paste waxes are easier to use than liquid waxes; liquid waxes cleaned the best; and spray waxes were easiest to use and left the fewest stains on plastic parts, but they didn't last as long as other wax types.

Liquid waxes

Good for cleaning, gloss, and durability.

But they can be more difficult to apply evenly and buff out. Most dry to a haze within about a minute, but this varies with wind, sunlight, and thickness of application.

Paste waxes

Good for ease of application.

But overall performance is not as good as with liquids, and it can be difficult to remove wax from the container as you near the bottom. Paste waxes usually dry to a haze within 30 seconds.

Spray waxes

Good for new cars with excellent finishes. Also for convenience, plastic compatibility, ease of use, and spot waxing. They're quick to apply and many can be wiped off without drying.

But they are not good for cleaning and are the worst for durability.

Waxing tips

Test the wax

Before waxing your car with any product, we recommend you first try using it on an inconspicuous area such as a doorjamb. And regardless of how hard you work, how much you spend, or what longevity claims manufacturers make, don't expect any wax to last indefinitely. Even the best products we tested lasted no more than a few months.

Stop using those old rags

What you use to wax your car can make the job easier. We have found that the terry cloth rags people often use for waxing can make it significantly harder to remove residue than micro-fiber rags, which are widely available at auto parts stores, big box chains, and even supermarkets. Normally sold in packages of five or ten rags, for a modest price they can easily be worth it.

Washing and waxing your car

  • Before waxing, thoroughly wash and dry the car using a cleaning solution designed for automotive finishes.
  • Never wash or wax a car in direct sunlight or if the paint is hot to the touch. The sun can soften the paint and make it more susceptible to scratching.
  • Use a lamb's-wool mitt for washing and applicator pads or micro-fiber towels for waxing. Do not use rags for washing; they can trap dirt and scratch the finish.
  • Synthetic fabrics and brushes can also scratch a car's finish.
  • Wash and wax in small sections. This saves time, and if the soap or wax stays on too long, it can be difficult to remove.
  • With washing or waxing, start at the top and work your way down. Lower surfaces are the grimiest and can contaminate your mitt or cloth, risking scratches.

Waxing won't improve the shine on a new car, but can offer protection against tree sap, bird droppings, and other environmental factors. Paste waxes are often regarded as offering better protection than liquids, at a cost of being more difficult to use.

   

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