Should you Polish Before Waxing your Car?

Polishing and waxing are two great ways to make your car look shinier, but they are both used for very different reasons and work completely differently.

Waxing adds a layer of protection to your car’s paint. Whereas polishing removes a layer of the clear coat to make it flatter so light reflects off the surfaces evenly giving it a glossy wet look.

But should you always polish your car before you wax it? Are both steps necessary every time you detail your car and want it to look shinier?

In this article, I’ll be discussing how often you should be polishing your car to get the best results, and whether it’s necessary before every wax step. So let’s get started.

The Quick Answer

It’s not necessary to polish your car before waxing every time. Polishing removes part of your car’s clear coat which protects the colour coat from UV damage and fading, so should only be done when you need to remove scratches and swirls.

What Does Polishing Do?

To understand how often you should be polishing your car, it’s important to know what this actually does.

Polishing removes a layer of your car’s clear coat. Check out the diagram below.

Your car’s finish is made mainly of a clear coat which is around 3 times thicker than the base coat (the colour) and sits on the top.

The clear coat protects your car’s base coat from UV and contaminants which cause the colour to fade over time.

When you polish your car, you’re removing a layer of this clear coat.

Unfortunately, the clear coat is pretty delicate and prone to micro scratches. So instead of it looking super smooth and flat. It usually looks like this instead.

These micro scratches are usually caused by improper wash technique using sponges or the wrong towels to dry and wax the car.

These scratches cause the light to reflect unevenly off the surface. The result, is a duller looking finish. You can even see these scratches in direct sunlight.

In order to get rid of them, the damaged section of the clear coat must be removed, to expose a fresh flatter layer that causes the car to look shiny and glossy again.

Before polishing
After polishing

Notice how there are still some scratches remaining? This is because polishing is quite mild, and cuts the paint slowly. So it’s hard to remove all the scratches using a polish.

Instead, you’d need to use a compound. This cuts the paint faster and is more aggressive, so the scratches can be effectively removed.

After polishing
After compounding

Because compounding is quite aggressive, the paint won’t be perfectly smooth afterwards, and can be a little hazy. So compounding is often followed by polishing, which helps to refine the clear coat to a mirror finish.

Should I Polish Before Waxing Every Time?

It’s really important to remember one rule when it comes to polishing and compounding. Only do it when absolutely necessary.

As you can see from the diagrams above, polishing and compounding cut away the clear coat to reveal a fresh and flat surface. This is great because it makes the paint look glossier.

But it also has a huge drawback. The clear coat is only so thick.

So you want to preserve it as much as possible. The clear coat protects your car’s colour coat from UV rays which cause fading, and also other contaminants which can cause oxidation and permanent damage to your car’s finish.

That’s why it’s important to protect the clear coat as much as possible, and only ever polish or compound when necessary. So if your car looks shiny and you can’t see swirls and scratches, don’t use paint correction techniques like polishing or compounding.

Granted, polishing is safer than compounding, because it cuts the paint more slowly and is less abrasive, which means you won’t cut away as much of the clear coat. So you can get away with polishing more often than compounding.

However, you should remember that your clear coat isn’t unlimited. You can only polish your car so many times before you run out of clear coat and go into the base coat.

You can measure the thickness of your clear coat if you’re worried about this, by using a paint gauge meter. This measures how thick the paint is so you can decide whether it’s safe to polish or not.

What Can You Do Instead?

If your car doesn’t need polishing, but you still want to enhance the shine and prepare it properly for waxing, what else can you do?

There are a couple of products and techniques that I use to make my car look glossier before the wax step.

Firstly, for best results ensure the paint is squeaky clean. This means you need to remove any contaminants that may have bound to the paint’s surface. These include things like iron fallout, road tar, bugs and tree sap.

You’ll know if your car has contamination if you run your hand over the surface of your car after it’s been freshly washed and dried. If it feels rough, then there is contamination present.

You can “decontaminate” your car either chemically, by using products called iron fallout removers and tar removers, or you can do it physically by using clay.

However, clay is abrasive so will likely induce some swirls and marring. Hence, the vehicle will need polishing afterwards. That’s why you should only clay when necessary. Chemical decontamination doesn’t have this risk so can be performed more often.

Alternatively, you can use a pre-wax cleanser. This helps to remove any old waxes or sealants if you don’t want to use a clay bar.

I use the R222 Paintwork Cleanser to do this. It can be applied by hand or machine and really enhances the shine and gloss level on your paint.

Check out my guide on 5 different ways to remove old waxes and sealants.

Finally, you can use a glaze. Glazes have filling agents which fill the micro scratches in your clear coat. It gives a similar effect to polishing, by making the clear coat appear flatter so light reflects evenly, however, it doesn’t remove any clear coat.

Glazes fill in minor clear coat damage

Therefore, it’s safe to use a glaze as often as you’d like. Keep in mind though, that glazes don’t really work well if you’re using a sealant to protect your paint. Sealants prefer to bond directly to your car’s paint, so using a glaze will interfere with this process and compromise the durability.

Glazes work well with waxes though and can produce a really great looking finish, without having to cut away any clear coat.

I use a glaze called Poorboy’s Black Hole which does a brilliant job of hiding swirls and scratches, and it’s super easy to apply and buff off. It takes around 10-15 minutes for me to apply and remove a glaze from my car so it’s a really effective method of increasing gloss.

Check out my complete guide to glazes to learn everything you need to know.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the blog to learn more about making your car look its best.



Heather is a professional car detailer & valeter based in Cheshire and the owner of Auto Care HQ. A familiar face in the car detailing community, she has written over 200 car detailing guides on and has produced over 165 videos on the Auto Care HQ YouTube channel.

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