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Car Care: Paint-Care Myths and Reality

With so much misinformation out there surrounding car care, it's no wonder people get confused about what's truth and what's fiction.

Rik Paul
Dec 5, 2003
With so much misinformation out there surrounding car care, it's no wonder people get confused about what's truth and what's fiction. Paint care is definitely one area that can raise a lot of questions. To sort the myths from the reality, we talked to Mike Pennington, director of training for Meguiar's. Active with detailing professionals, show-car owners, and amateur enthusiasts, Pennington conducts regular paint-care classes and seminars and acts as technical consultant for many auto manufacturers and their dealerships-including BMW, Lexus, Nissan, Infiniti, and DaimlerChrysler-as well as such automotive paint manufacturers as DuPont, PPG, and BASF. Here's his insight into the paint-care quagmire.
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  |   Natural 100-percent carnauba wax must be blended with other ingredients for a car wax that's easy to apply.
Myth: A wax made of 100-percent carnauba is superior to those using lesser amounts.

Reality: Carnauba wax has been a favorite among car enthusiasts for years, but don't believe that any wax is made of 100-percent carnauba. As the hardest natural wax known, carnauba is much too hard to apply directly to automotive paint. It comes in bricks that must be melted and added to a company's formulation. If a paint protectant advertises "pure carnauba," it means the part of the formula that is carnauba is pure, not that it's 100-percent carnauba. According to Pennington, today's synthetic polymer technology actually provides better protection than carnauba.
Myth: Avoid a silicone-based wax. If used, the vehicle can't be repainted.

Reality: It's true that silicones are a bane of the auto painter. For instance, if particles of silicone are on the sheetmetal when it's painted, they can keep the paint from adhering to the surface, causing defects known as fisheye. That's why some professional cleaners and polishes intended for shop use are formulated without silicone. However, once paint is on the car, silicone is no longer an issue. In fact, virtually every wax on the market uses some kind of silicone in its formula because it enhances the product's ease of application, gloss, and durability. If repainting is necessary, a body shop can easily take off the wax as part of its normal preparation.
Myth: You can assume that a finish that looks glossy is in good shape.

Reality: There are different degrees of glossiness, and a paint can dull so gradually you may not realize it's happening. For this reason, don't rely just on reflectivity to judge your paint's condition. Use your sense of touch, as well. Place your clean, dry hand flat against the paint and slowly rub it along the surface. Feel with both palm and fingertips. A well-maintained finish should feel smooth as glass. Any roughness could be due to oxidation, tree sap mist, or adhered grit, all of which degrade a paint's gloss to some degree.
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  |   To avoid swirl marks, dry with a clean chamois or high-quality, thick-nap towel.
Myth: Oxidation is a major problem for factory paint.

Reality: Until a few years ago, this was definitely the case. Today, however, oxidation is no longer the concern it used to be. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun was once a finish's worst enemy, gradually causing the paint to deteriorate into a white, chalky dullness. In the last five to 10 years, new paint technology has come onto the scene that's much more resistant to UV, allowing new-car paint to hold up many years longer. With older cars, though, oxidation is still a problem an owner should be concerned with.
Myth: Clear-coat finishes don't require waxing.

Reality: Even though today's clear-coat finishes are much more resistant to UV radiation, they're still as susceptible to other environmental contamination. A clear coat is still just another layer of paint, and is subject to the same deterioration as paint with pigment. Therefore, periodic waxing is still recommended for maximum protection against the elements. Always use a non-abrasive formula labeled safe for clear coats. "The problem today is the stuff that lands on paint," says Pennington. Contaminants ranging from bird droppings and bugs to tree sap mist, industrial fallout, and airborne pollutants can adhere to the paint and gradually cause dulling and roughness. If left unattended, it can chemically etch into the paint, causing permanent scars. A quality wax can help keep the contaminants from bonding, but the best strategy is to wash them off before they can adhere.
Myth: With modern "easy-care" formulas, paint scratches can be easily removed by hand.

Reality: Scratches can be temporarily filled with some types of products, but they'll likely reappear after your first wash. The only sure way to eliminate scratches is to use an abrasive product-such as a cleaner-that removes enough of the surrounding paint to physically make the scratch appear less deep. Pennington notes, though, there's a wide range of scratches. Even with a cleaner, only the very lightest scratches can be removed by hand. As scratches deepen, they require more advanced methods, progressing in order from an orbital buffer, a dual-action polisher, a rotary polisher, and finally wet sanding. Scratches that go completely through a paint layer cannot be eliminated without repainting.
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  |   The ol' flame-on-paint trick proves nothing about car-wax protection.
Myth: Machine buffing is dangerous for paint.

Reality: As mentioned above, there are different types of machines designed for buffing and polishing, and all are safe when matched with the right skill level. An orbital buffer, is the least aggressive type and can be easily used by the average do-it-yourselfer. A dual-action polisher is slightly more aggressive and therefore requires more care and skill to use safely. Finally, a professional-type rotary polisher can remove paint relatively quickly, making it a good choice for fixing damaged paint. This same trait, however, also makes it easier to burn through a paint layer unless used by an experienced person.
Myth: Swirl marks or spiderwebbing are found mostly in old or abused paint.

Reality: Even brand-new paint can quickly show spiderwebbing-very light scratches, often in a circular pattern, most easily seen in the reflection of a light. A number of products are designed to remove swirl marks, but Pennington emphasizes the real key is to find out what's causing them. Spiderwebbing is commonly caused by unseen dirt on a towel, sponge, or chamois, and can happen either at a carwash center (even those that handwash) or in your own driveway, while you're washing or drying your car. Even cheap towels can cause these marks. "Use a good quality terry towel with a thick nap," says Pennington, "and always use good car-care techniques."
Myth: A good paint protectant can even protect against fire.

Reality: Don't be misled by sleight-of-hand. You may have seen a car wax salesman demonstrate the durability of his product by lighting a flame on the surface of a car and then pointing out that his product's "superior protection" kept the paint from being damaged at all. What he sprays on the paint and ignites is lighter fluid, which burns extremely easily and quickly. In fact, the flame doesn't actually touch the paint surface because it's feeding off rising fumes. Usually, the paint gets no warmer than it would on a hot summer day, and you can place your hand on the spot immediately after the flame goes out and not be burned. Even paint with no protection at all will survive this test just fine.