If you want to give your car that showroom-fresh look, simply cleaning it is not enough. You need to polish it too, using a dedicated automotive product. This removes the ground-in grime from the paintwork, sharpens the paint colour, and also gets rids of scratches. There are hundreds of products on the market, so we’ve put together a guide to help you pick out some of the best.
Is car polish the same as car wax?
The terms are used interchangeably but they in fact polar opposites.
Polish is an abrasive product that works by removing the top layer, or layers, of paint protection on a car in order to get a shine. It doesn't sound great but don't be put off. A good polish is very gentle in the way it works, they have extremely fine abrasives that don't damage your car's precious paint but polish effectively. The abrasive nature of a proper polish makes it useful as a scratch-remover too. But equally, you won't want to use it too often.
Wax meanwhile, is a protectant and therefore fundamentally opposite to polish. It adds a protective layer to your paint but isn't as shiny. Wax is used in this way because it's hardy and doesn't really come off even when wet and has fairly high heat tolerance too. Carnauba for example, the most common car wax, has a melting point of over 80°C.
Polish and wax are quite different but compliment each other wonderfully. Add polish for paint restoration and shine, then add the protective wax layer to shield your work.
Will car polish remove scratches?
Yes, but with a caveat. Car polishes have varying degrees of aggressiveness, that is, some are more abrasive than others. The popular car polishes favoured by causal users are only mildly abrasive and will therefore only deal to minor scratches and swirls in paintwork. And that is all most of us need.
But for more serious paint restoration jobs, you can acquire medium and heavy duty cutting compounds. These are best used with a polishing machine in order to achieve even coverage and application. In these scenarios you use a heavy compound, followed by a medium compound, followed by a light one; same as you do with sanding jobs.
There products that can be used for headlight restoration. These are a little different to paint polish - our favourite of these is the kit from Holts.
Which car polish is best?
Enthusiasts take the subject of car polish extremely seriously. Mention it to a group of petrolheads and you’ll receive no end of suggestions and advice. Sometimes, you’ll be steered towards products with breathtaking three-figure price tags, sold in posh packages you normally associate with engagement rings. It’s enough to put you off completely, but don’t worry. Your chums at CAR know of great, affordable car polish products.
We have included a range of products here, from spray on cheat polish to some more hard core stuff for nerds.
In any case, we strip away the intimidating mystery of the world of car polish and point you to some of the best products available. There’s also a guide on how best to polish your car at the end.
CAR's favourite polishing products:
SONAX Car Polish
In pursuit of generating great colour from your car's paint, look no further. This product from SONAX is only mildly abrasive to remove light scratches while delivering a high-gloss finish to paintwork. Personal tip: get extra enjoyment by taking before and after pictures.
Autoglym Super Resin Polish Complete Kit
Your classic car polish. UK brand Autoglym deliver top notch car care products loved by everyone because they simply work. This set complete with a polish applicator and finishing cloth works an all paint types and colours. A thin film will give a great shine, and extra pressure applied to scratches and marks will help get rid of them.
Meguiar's Ultimate Car Polish
Best for dark colours
Meguiar's knows what it's doing and its polish is proven, which is why we recommend it rather than simply because it's popular. The conditioning oils in this concoction give richness of colour, especially to darker colours.
CarPlan Demon Shine
Best cheat polish
For those who lust after car shine but consider the task of polishing absolute tedium, then this is for you. Spray on and wipe off one body panel at a time and you're done. It gives a good shine, but you do get through the litre quite quickly. It's not going to fix any scratches either.
Turtle Wax Hybrid Ceramic Polish & Wax
Best double act
In an ambitious attempt to cover both ends of the spectrum, Turtle Wax has pulled it off, remarkably. While the hybrid Turtle Wax has the usual mildly abrasive polishing agents, it also uses a synthetic wax to get the shine. It's a hydrophobic formula too, helping to bead water that falls on the paintwork. Make no mistake, applying separate polish and wax layers is more effective but this 2-in-1 is a fairly effective time-saver for those who desire such a thing.
Autoglym Ultra High Definition Polishing Compound
Serious stuff for use with a machine
This is an example of a more serious polish aimed at serious people. It's formulated to effectively cut and polish even the finest of paint - that's what you pay for. It is still a mild polish, but meant specifically for use with a polishing machine, which is why you get the pads with it.
Menzerna Medium Cutting Compound
For heavier scratches
If it's more serious compound you're after, the Menzerna Medium Cut is what you want. Menzerna has a good reputation here, and this slightly heavier cutting compound is excellent at dealing with more serious scratches and paint restoration. Make sure you have the correct polishing pads to match.
Should I use a polishing tool?
The easiest and cheapest way to apply polish is by hand with a microfibre cloth or applicator pad. However, polishing power tools can speed up the process and can give a better application in the right hands (in the wrong hands, run).
If you want to start using a polishing tool, by all means do, and read our guide on them. But we also suggest an oscillating orbital sander with a polishing pad. Reason being is that they polish very well but can be used for other things too. Our favourite is the 125mm Bosch Green Orbit Sander. Bosch Green tools are the best home tools you can get. They aren't expensive like trade-level tools, yet are brilliant quality. If you have an orbital sander already, grab a polishing sponge and away you go.
Bosch PEX 300 AE Random Orbit Sander
A tremendous little 125mm sander of excellent quality and value. Variable speed, ergonomic grip, low vibration make it wonderfully versatile. It's light weight makes it great for polishing cars. There is an 18-volt battery-powered equivalent too if you wish to go cordless.
Bosch 125mm Polishing Sponge
The sponge to go with it.
How to use car polish (by hand)
Eager to get stuck in and polish your car? Hold on! Unless you’re using a dedicated waterless product, you’ll need to clean the car first. And even waterless products are best reserved for cars that have recently been polished; they won’t be able to restore a dull car back to its as-new lustre.
If you’re using polish, you’ll probably be a whizz at cleaning cars. So you’ll know you need first rinse the bodywork with plenty of water, fill up two buckets with water and add a dedicated car shampoo to one of them (no need to use a ‘wash and wax’ product as you’re going to be polishing the car separately).
Using plenty of water and a bespoke car wash mitt, start from the top of the car and clean the upper surfaces first. Before you dip the mitt back into the soapy water, give it a rinse in the bucket of clean water: this will remove any grit that may damage the paintwork. Move down and, when you get to the bottom, maybe consider using a separate sponge. Whatever you do, never clean the wheels with the same sponge you use for the paint. Then rinse well, and dry with a dedicated cloth or chamois, again working from the top downwards.
Now the fun part. Make sure the car is in the shade, or at least not in direct sunlight (try to avoid windy days, too: they cause the paintwork to get dusty again). Ideally you’ll use a dedicated applicator pad, which may be supplied with the car polish. Apply a pea-sized amount of the product and then work in a gentle, circular motion. Once you’ve done this, go over once again in an up-down and left-right motion, just to make sure you’ve fully covered the surface. You don’t need to press too hard.
Read the instructions and see how long you need to leave the product for. Usually, it’s not too long. Using a fresh microfibre cloth, wipe away the polish and buff the surface to a shine. Again, be gentle here, and keep shaking and rotating the cloth so you don’t get any build-up. This will also help remove any fine residue from the paint, for a clean and gleaming surface.
A good tip is to only work on one panel at a time. This means the polish won’t dry to a hard glaze by the time you get round to it again. When you’re not using the applicator pad or buffing cloth, keep them safe and away from dirt: we like to use clean jiffy bags. You might also want to leave the roof until later, as this is the biggest and most awkward area to clean. We also like to leave the lower surfaces of the car until the very end. These are the areas most likely to get dirty and built up with contaminants, so it’s best to clean the rest of the car before spoiling the applicator pad with this residue.
Motoring enthusiasts love polishing cars, as the rewards at the end are, we promise, magnificent, and hugely satisfying. Buy the right product and you’ll enjoy it, too.
What to consider when choosing a car polish
Buy smart: some car polishes can cost over £100
Do you want a quick and easy solution for minimal effort?
Do you have several hours to commit to a more involved product?
Does your car have swirl marks you’d like to remove?