When to Polish a Car

When asking this question it is vitally important to understand exactly what the act of “Polishing”  IS to enable you to get the deep shine you are looking for?

Some people say:

“I’m going to polish my car”

others will say

“I’m waxing my car”

Both will think they are using the correct products at the right time. But there are large differences in what happens during each process.

Read on to know the differences.

The preparation and polishing process

Knowing the correct order of actions is the only way to ensure you gain the deepest shine on your car since leaving the showroom. And knowing where POLISHING fits in is vital to your success. So here it is.

  1. Foam and wash
  2. Clay Bar (If needed)
  3. Compound (If needed)
  4. Polish
  5. Wax or ceramic coat

Foam and Wash

Snow foam running off car. to show washing before polishing

In this stage of the process, we are attempting to remove the dirt and grime particles with the minimum amount of human contact.

A good coat of quality foam will remove most of the surface grit. The heavy foam soap formula moves slowly down the body. Gently lifting and carrying the debris off the body, without producing any scratches.

This could not be said if you use a sponge and bucket for the initial stage. You would be simply dragging the dirt particles across the bodywork creating more scratches and swirls.

Give the foam time to “dwell” on the surface and then hose it down before washing the with good car shampoo and a microfiber wash mitt. Use the two bucket method to again minimize the chances of scratching.

Two bucket method means to use two buckets. One filled with clean water a second filled with water and shampoo. Use the shampoo bucket first then rinse the mitt in the clean water bucket to remove the grit before dipping it back in the shampoo bucket. This minimises chances of scratches yet again.

Clay Bar

Once the foam and wash stage is over then it is time to assess IF the car needs to be clay barred.

The purpose of clay barring is to remove embedded surface contaminants. These include brake dust, bugs, and sap.

Clay barring car before knowing when to polish car

A simple test to establish if the car needs clay barring is to gently drag a microfiber cloth of the surface and note if it snags on any particles. If its a clean no snag pass then you can skip this stage.

However, if you get numerous snags then equip yourself with a good quality clay bar such as Mothers Clay Bar System , a generous supply of clay bar lubricant, and using a back and forth action, not circular work the clay bar all over the car.


We are now nearing your “Polishing” phase so just hang in there!

Compounding is a form of polishing but is has more abrasive qualities. You will need to use a Compound Polish IF there are scratches and swirls in the paintwork.

These imperfections may not be immediately visible. Therefore, you need to look at various angles in good light or even use an ultra-violet detailing light to make a good appraisal. If there are many swirls visible then Compound polishing is essential as a normal polish will not be abrasive enough to remove the imperfections.

Some typical Compounds are:

Meguiars Mirror Glaze Diamond Cutting Compound

Compound polish to be used before polishing car

Fenyx Compound Scratch and Swirl Remover

AS a more in-depth look into why we compound before we polish I have created a diagram to show the layers of primer, paint, and clear coats on a vehicle surface.

This will enable you to appreciate how the very abrasive compound will cut away a layer of the clear coat to eliminate the swirl scratches.

However, once the compound has cut away the scratches it leaves a “hazy maze” on the surface similar to that left by the sandpaper. and this is where POLISH comes into use.

If there were no scratches or swirls then you could go straight to the polish stage if there were just hairline imperfections.


Finally, we arrive at the POLISH stage to answer the question you are asking! We hope you now understand the differences between the products that have got us this stage. If not please leave us a message in the comments below, we will be only too pleased to help.

Recap on stage so far

Let’s just traceback for a moment to the completion of the wash stage. It is then we can decide when to polish the car. By running the following checks we can make decisions on when to polish the car.

  1. Gently pulled a microfiber cloth over the car to check for surface embedded contaminants. If there are embedded contaminants then the microfiber cloth will snag on them. If nothing detected then you could POLISH and not CLAY
  2. Next, inspect the surface in various light angles to assess if there are major scratches or swirls that need removing. If there are then you will need to use a Compound polish first. If not then you could POLISH and not COMPOUND
  3. If no surface embedded contaminants and no scratches or swirls present but just dull paintwork due to oxidation etc then you could just POLISH.

Types of Polish

Knowing when to polish a car is one thing. Knowing what type of polish to choose is just as important. If as mentioned in the previous section the car just needs oxidation removing to bring the shine through. You could opt for a non-abrasive cleaner type of polish.

This type of polish has very little abrasive qualities. It simply removes the oxidation film from the clear coat surface to allow the true paint color to shine through. It will not remove even hairline scratches simply clean the surface.

Two of these type of polishes are:

Collinite Liquid Sapphire

Super product from the classic car detailer marque Collinite. A really easy on easy off polish that gives an element of protection too.

Black Fire Pro Detailer

This product has a touch more abrasive qualities than its counterpart in this section but still comes in as a finisher polish to simply remove oxidation. This maybe an option if very few swirls are present but not enough to justify a full abrasive polish.

Next, if the paintwork needs rejuvenating but there are some hairline blemishes that are not swirls or scratches then you would need the next level of abrasive polish.

These contain fine abrasive particles similar to polishes used for jewellery. They will enhance the surface clarity and give a gentle correction to all slight surface imperfections.

Two of these type are:

Chemical Guys Optical Polish

This silicone-free high gloss final polish gives tremendous results on any color car. It is engineered to perform on a normal clear coat or ceramic coatings.

Dodo Juice Super Natural Polish

One of if not the best cleanser/polish on the market, produced by a name synonymous with quality car polish products. It uses the finest polish medium available enabling anyone, amateur or professional to obtain fast results.

There are more abrasive polishes on the market but we consider these to be entering the compound scratch and swirl remover products which we have covered in another post.

Once the polishing is completed then the final task is to seal and protect the now perfect bodywork with a coat of wax to allow your work to be shown but also protected.

We cover that process in our How To Wax Your Car Guide which we hope you will find as useful as our post to help you know when to polish a car.