It can be overwhelming the amount of products and information out there on exterior car care products. Just go into your local auto parts store and you can see almost an entire wall dedicated to them. So what gives? Why are there so many different kinds of car waxes, sealants and ceramic coatings? Well, this write up will hopefully answer these questions and a few more like: What are the differences? When do I use which one? As with many things in life there is no straight answer since it depends on what goal you are trying to achieve. From having a classic car with a custom paint job to a daily driver, your choice in product may vary. In this article I will give a general review all three subjects and provide an opinion at the end of each for application.
I titled this article to highlight the 3 general categories for automotive paint care. So when you do go and look at products on the shelf you will be able to identify what category they might fall in and have a little background information on them from this article. Now I am stating that there are three general categories and most would agree, but I should state that these are not mutually exclusive and there are different forms of the same thing. A general way to put this is that there can be blends of all of these and also each category has a “spray on, wipe off” version. The spray on versions DO NOT have the same performance as other versions. However they do serve a purpose and have their place in the driveway detailers arsenal.
Car wax has been around for a very long time (since the 1900s) and are nothing new to the automotive world. In fact Meguiar and Turtle wax got their start with polishes and waxes. I consider car waxes generally as carnauba based, which is a naturally occurring wax from, you guessed it, the carnauba tree. The wax is harvested from the leaves of the tree and are used for many applications other than automotive paint protection. The car waxes do vary in concentration of carnauba and some are blended with sealants. Now these do come in many different forms such as a hard paste (comes in a tin or plastic packaging with a twist off lid), liquid (squeeze out of a plastic bottle) and spray. Each one of these carry a different application experience and longevity.
Car wax application can be a little bit labor intensive but many people find it relaxing. For the paste, and liquid versions they tend to leave a white residue powder behind that is a challenge to remove. The paste/ liquid versions will build up in small cracks and features such as emblems and panel gaps. Old dried paste wax is almost impossible to get rid of and requires a lot of elbow grease and chemical experimentation. You should know that the paste/ liquid waxes will get into the porous texture of black plastic and is very challenging to remove. Check out the photos below. The spray waxes don’t really have this issue. For the applications methods I would just follow the manufacturers suggested method.
How long does car wax last?
Car waxes are not known to have a long life (especially the spray versions), but they do have an exceptional depth and a warm shine to them. Generally these are a favorite before a car show. When you want the paint to pop for a week or two then go with the higher concentration carnauba paste/ liquid waxes. For a day or two I would go with a spray wax, some newer versions last a bit longer too.
There are plenty of versions that are blends with sealants in all forms (paste, spray/ liquid) that offer longer more durable protection. I would say generally the longer lasting versions wont have the same amount of gloss and depth as the more concentrated carnauba versions. In terms of longevity I don’t think I have seen a paste car wax last 1 yr in the real world. The only one that came close was a Teflon based wax. Although I’m not sure how they are able to get the Teflon to stick to the paint, or if you could call it a wax. Here are a couple of video links doing a durability test, car waxes and the full gambit.
When should I use a spray wax/ sealant?
I mainly use spray wax, or sealant, as a follow up after a wash. Many can be used as drying aids that can layer on top of the current coverage extending its protection. The spray wax or sealant are great at reducing water spots while drying. Check the product description and see if it will work over most surfaces such as plastic and glass. I consider the more universal ones better for drying.
They are also great for a detailing spray. Sometimes before a show, a quick wipe down will enhance the paint a little. I should mention that you can use a detailing spray for this as well.
Some spray sealants are a little harder to remove than others so it will come down to preference. I have some that are amazing with gloss and feel before a show (Carnauba based ones) . And others that are better for drying and protecting the daily driver (more polymer based ones). The ceramic spray coating blends are very good for that application.
How long do spray wax/ sealants last?
Spray waxes and sealants don’t generally last long. Some advertise 12 months and maybe that is true when it is covered in a garage. In the real world they last from a few days to 3+ months, but the formulations seem to be improving each year. The carnauba based spray waxes last about a week or two. The sealants or synthetic polymer based ones last a bit longer in the range of months. The ceramic spray coatings are a little bit more durable in lasting multiple months.
Ceramic coatings have a big range and it is worth having its own segment to clear somethings up. There is a difference in performance between spray ceramic, paste and DIY serum application to the professional application. Ceramic coatings are the latest generation of paint protection aside from PPF (plastic wrap films). They are very useful and in most cases superior to the older technologies. Current versions are now including Graphene into the chemical make up, however I haven’t seen a big difference.
Why are ceramic coatings so expensive?
Ceramic coatings are much more sensitive to contaminates during the application process. This is why a lot of work goes into surface decontamination. Clay bar and iron decon are a few that are most commonly used. This is then followed by a surface prep or alcohol wipe just before application. I cannot stress this enough the surface has to be chemically clean.
The reason for this is the main components of the ceramic coating are chemically (covalently) bonded to the paint. If there is a oil film or debris in the way of the ceramic formulation and the paint then the quality will be compromised. For the professional coatings, the car is usually clayed, decontaminated and polished prior to application. So the majority of the shine and contrast actually comes from the pre-work to ceramic coating. This is why professional applications are so much money due to the labor involved in restoring the paint.
Cost wise the the ceramic spray versions are the least expensive but they do not long compared to the other verisons. You might be able to get up to 6 months out of them. These ones are simple and versital with many different versions out there. I like to use them every 3 months or so to “recharge” the stronger coating underneath. For something in between you can buy you own ceramic serum and do the work yourself. Just keep in mind the amount of work that goes into cleaning and prepping the surface.
How long do ceramic coatings last?
These DIY coatings can last much longer than spray coatings (1-5 years). The DIY coatings are great but don’t come with the skill and probably warranty that a professional installer may provide. In addition to this professional installers do have access to ceramics coatings that are not sold to the public. These exclusive coatings require an installer to be certified and can last much longer (3+ years), so there is that.
What are the downsides to ceramic coatings?
The cost is probably the biggest downside to a ceramic coating. This because of the other downside, the amount of labor that goes into it. The prep work is very labor intensive and many different decontamination steps/ chemicals have to be performed. However you can do it oyur self and save some money and also have the option to just use a simple spray coating. Its really up to you and the level of durability/quality you want. I should also mention that a ceramic coating will not stop a scratch or rock chip from happening. If you are looking to be resistant to that then I would recommend a PPF wrap.
When do you recommend ceramic coating?
Over the years I have come to like the DIY serum coatings for my cars. Mainly because I enjoy polishing and detailing as a hobby. So for my level of expectation I use the DIY coatings on my daily driver with the spray ceramic coatings periodically. The higher end cars I recommend being professionally coated or PPF wrapped. For classic cars I use a DIY ceramic coating followed by a wax.
On a side note here PPF coatings are great for daily drivers as well. They are expensive but you can just wrap the high exposure areas for rocks such as the front bumper, hood and such.
If you enjoyed this article and are looking to continue your automotive detail exploration then check out this guide on cleaning your windshield.
Also here is another article on testing different spray waxes for vinyl wrapped cars.