Car Polish vs. Wax: What’s the Difference?

Updated: Jul. 21, 2023

Ever wonder what the difference is between car wax and car polish? Both products are useful when detailing your car. Learn about the differences here.

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Auto detailing enhances your car’s appearance and resilience against the elements, and part of that process involves applying different substances to the paint. Two of the most common aspects of auto detailing are polishing and waxing, and both are important to giving your car’s paint the best appearance and protection possible. If you’re new to auto detailing and want to learn, the first step is understanding what car wax and polish are, the differences between them and when to apply each.

What Is Car Polish?

Car polish is a mildly abrasive liquid compound designed to clean, smooth and enhance the sheen of automobile paint. Over time, the paint and clear coat on your car develops small scratches, marks and microscopic roughness from oxidization. This makes the once-shiny paint look dull, old and unattractive.

Folks who use vehicles strictly for getting from Point A to Point B might not mind this worsening appearance. But car lovers everywhere know that with the right products and knowledge, a car’s looks can be greatly restored. One of those products is car polish.

Best applied by a power polisher (also called an orbital buffer), car polish comes in a bottle designed to dispense onto the polisher’s foam application pad. Then it’s gently massaged over the car’s paint, smoothing the imperfections and restoring the factory sheen. Here’s our round-up of the best car polishes.

What Is Car Wax?

Like polish, properly applied car wax improves the appearance of vehicle paint. Unlike polish, wax also offers protection. Available in firm paste and liquid, natural and synthetic, all car wax is applied in basically the same way. Rub it onto the vehicle in a thin layer, allow it to dry, then buff off the excess. Buffing can be done either by hand or with a power buffer.

If applied properly, wax not only makes the vehicle extra shiny, but forms a protective layer that lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the product. Mothers car wax is highly rated.

When to Use Car Polish vs. Car Wax

In my experience, car polish and car wax are both essential parts of proper auto detailing. A polishing job won’t look great for long if it’s not protected by wax, and wax won’t bring out nearly the same sheen if applied on unpolished car paint. Don’t forget to check out these before and after car detailing photos.

The best approach is to thoroughly wash the car first, using water and car soap. Rinse it, then let it dry. Next, apply polish on your car, going over the entire vehicle body for as long as needed to remove all surface marks and dullness. Rinse the polish residue off, dry the car, then finish by applying quality car wax and buffing. Here’s our list of the best car wax removers.