Congratulations on your new car! Just look at your new baby, she is beautiful. Her color is fresh and vibrant, her lines are perfectly smooth all around, and the gloss is deep with a mirror-like shine. Nary a scratch anywhere, even on the closest inspection. All as it should be for something right out of the factory. She’s perfect.
And of course, you want to keep her that way as long as possible. But how do you? We will go through all the things you can do to keep your car looking good as new. We’ll confirm some of the usual car care practices as well as suggesting a few other tips that you may have not know yet. So let’s dive in!
Before we answer how you could protect your paint, understand first what you’re taking care of, which is the painted exterior of your car. If we take a cross-section of your car’s surface, you’ll see layers. The base is the metal sheeting of your car’s body – usually made of steel. Most manufacturers pre-treat the car body using a galvanic process that bonds a thin layer of zinc – the first layer of anti-corrosion protection.
Next is a layer of primer which helps bind the metal surface to the following layer, the top coat. The top coat gives your car its individual color. The last and thickest layer is the clear coat. It’s easily twice as thick as the layers below and it not only protects everything underneath but also gives your surface that covetous shine. Being at the top, it’s also the layer that gets the most abuse, so you need to do what you can to keep the clear coat intact.
Here’s what you’re up against. Firstly, dirt is a lot of things. Normal air itself is never pure and depending on where you are, carries an amount of dry particular matter that settles over surfaces, called dust. It’s a mix of organic and inorganic matter too fine for the naked eye to distinguish. We’re talking about biological byproducts, microbes, chemical aerosols, and silicon dioxide. Add water and you got the more familiar dirt. Gross.
Take silicon dioxide which is just a nerdy way to call sand (or to be more accurate, silicon dioxide is the mineral component of sand). This crystalline compound is both hard and sharp-edged. Sand is a naturally abrasive material and it’s why sandpaper is called as such.
You also have salt which hastens metal oxidation. If you’ve seen bare metal structures by the sea, you’ll know how rusty they can get. Then you have pollutants like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. They react to moisture which results in acids. Speaking of acids, bird droppings are known to contain high levels of digestive enzymes that make them particularly corrosive to paint.
Paranoid enough? We’re not yet done. You have UV rays from the sun. Without getting too scientific about it, UV is great at breaking down long strings of organic molecules, be it DNA or hydrocarbons like paint. That’s how UV causes colors of old pictures to wash out. Also skin cancer. Sunshine can be quite the downer at times.
You’ll never avoid getting dust, dirt or muck on your car, that’s just the way it is. So cleaning your car is just part and parcel of car ownership. Here’ the first tip: Never dry wipe dust and dirt off your car. Remember our old friend silicon dioxide? Dry wiping, or even using a damp towel or a feather duster, will just rub the particles against the clear coat, creating micro-scratches, pits, and swirl marks. Even brand new cars would collect enough contaminants on its surface as it traveled from the factory to the dealers, so even at this point, avoid wiping.
To remove dirt without damaging, hose it off with water. The fluid will carry away the loose dirt. Then lather-up with a clear-coat-safe wash-foam or wash-cloth. The combination of water and detergent is the safest way to lift the contamination from your car’s surface. Then rinse off the suds thoroughly.
Pro-tip 1: Use two buckets of water, one for pre-wash and another for soapy water. As you soap your car panel-by-panel, frequently wash your foam or cloth in the pre-wash before dunking in the soapy one. This keeps the dirt from accumulating on your wash-cloth or foam’s surface, reducing the risk of scratches while “scrubbing” your paint.
Pro-tip 2: Remove jewelry and other metal accessories on your body while you’re washing because you may inadvertently scratch your car with those. Also: remove all sewn-in labels on your wash-cloth. Labels are usually made of tougher materials like polyester, acetate or nylon which can also be abrasive to your car’s surface.
Do not air dry. A new layer of dust could form during the wait time which will cause watermarks on your car’s surface. Use a chamois, micro fiber cloth or similarly-purposed material to wick away water from your car’s surface.
Now that your car’s “clean” and dry, it’s time to clay bar it. As the name implies, a clay bar is a semi-soft putty-like product which you rub across the surface of your car. What it does is pick-up the remaining contaminants that are embedded on the clear coat which has not come-off by washing.
Clay barring sounds like a lot of work (it is!) but you don’t have to do it every after wash. Most automotive detailers would recommend clay barring your car about 3 to 4 times a year, or once you feel particles when you run your fingers across your car’s freshly washed surface.
Even without clay barring, cleaning your car still sounds like a lot of work. So can you just take your car to an automated car wash instead? No. Avoid automated car washes if you’re trying to preserve your paint. Understand that those giant brushes in an automated car wash are made of tough materials design to withstand repeated use and they also collect dirt from other cars. Both of which means they’ll scuff the surface of your car as much as they’d clean it. Nothing beats the care of hand-washing your own car.
Pro-tip 4: Living up north? Spray-wash your under-body once a week, especially in the winters. This is to wash-off the salts used to treat roads as these will aggressively corrode the underside and lower panels of your car. The same goes if you live next to the sea as the sea-borne moisture carries a lot of salt.
Now that your car’s exterior is squeaky clean, next is applying products that will protect and enhance that surface. But there so many car care products in the market, which one is right for you?
It depends on what you need. If you have hairline scratches, swirl marks or a dull clear coat to begin with, then starting with polishing is a good idea. Polishes are pour-on liquid products that often have a soft “cutting” or micro-abrasive quality. They are great for smoothing out the hard-edges of very fine scratches to the clear-coat or buffing out microscopic surface imperfections. Additionally, you may want to apply a sealant which fills the tiny pits and gaps of fine scratches, making them even less noticeable.
Areas with more pronounced scratches and imperfections may require professional attention as the fix may involve re-application of a new clear coat layer, sanding, compounding, and polishing, often using an electric buffing machine or polisher. Sure, you can DIY this very involved process as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort while tempering your expectations with less than professional results, particularly on your initial attempts.
Next step is waxing. Waxing not only enhances the shine of your top coat but also protects it by keeping the surface flexible and supple as well as making the surface hydrophobic or waterproof, which keeps water and dirt from clinging on the surface. Waxes can be a blend of natural waxes, primarily Carnauba, and synthetic petroleum-based waxes. They come either in an easy-to-apply liquid form or paste which usually stays-on longer. Apply the wax sparingly but evenly then hand-buff to shine. Once applied, your future car washes will require special “wax-friendly” shampoo which will help avoid stripping-off all that hard work. The good thing is that many car owners will attest that waxing and buffing your car is a very rewarding experience.
But if you don’t like the prospect of washing your car every weekend and waxing every few months then there’s a new alternative to keeping your paint looking new with the least maintenance effort: ceramic coatings. Ceramic coatings, sometimes called nano-coatings, are clear liquid polymers which chemically bonds to the surface of your car. Once applied and dried, it forms a hard but wet-looking glossy protective surface with little to no buffing.
The ceramic coating works better at repelling dust, dirt, water, and grime than wax and sealants can. Its relative hardness makes it better at resisting scratches. It’s also semi-permanent, so a single application usually lasts for years. You’ll only need to rinse your car every so often. Note that ceramic coatings don’t repair or conceal imperfections. So unless your car paint is totally new, you’ll need to do address paint damage beforehand.
Getting a protective coating to keep sand and dirt from rubbing into your paint is nice but if you want to take it one step further consider using protective films. These are special clear elastic sheets that you wrap around your car’s body panels. Kind of like Cling-wrap. The film will catch the scratches instead of the paint underneath. It also has a “healing” property. Scratches disappear back into the film by blasting them with a heat gun, blow dryer or even hot water. If the material itself shows tears then the film could be peeled off and a fresh sheet re-applied again.
The furthest you can do to provide passive protection for your paint is to put specially made rubber guards for frequently scratched areas like bumper corners, door edges, side moldings, and wheel arch liners, that is, if you don’t mind making your car look more like a sleek iPhone in a tacky (but rugged) phone case.
But alas even with all these levels of protection, your car is not bulletproof. Defensive driving and defensive parking play a huge role in keeping your car’s original look intact. Strides should be taken to avoid even the most minor accidents. Driving carefully goes without question. Using gadgets and technology to add awareness to your surroundings while driving will help. Installing blindspot mirrors, back-up cameras, and proximity sensors are just a few examples. Plus, newer cars are also coming with more advanced safety technologies built-in, all the better to avoid run-ins.
But what if you’re not behind the wheel like when you’re parked in a public space? Door dings, side scratches, and corner scrapes happen too often in car parks. That’s where defensive parking comes into play. If you don’t mind the long walk to and from your car, isolate your car by parking in the furthest spaces. The inconvenience of distance usually turns off other car owners from parking close to your car. If you don’t like parking your car too far, choose the end space in a parking row, or one that’s next to a concrete pillar. These spots expose only one side of your car, instead of both sides.
If you have to squeeze in between two cars (or spaces), avoid narrow parking slots or parking your car between two larger vehicles. The limited space and/or visibility will increase the likelihood of the other car scraping yours (or you scraping theirs). And finally, choose to park next to cars that are parked perfectly in-lined and centered on their parking slots. These signs tell you that the drivers of those cars are skilled, careful and considerate of other cars.
If you can, park in the shade to avoid UV sun damage on your paint. Go for paid parking if you can afford it as these areas are segregated off the general public, come with security personnel, and are usually monitored by closed circuit tv cameras. If you have to park in public, choose a well-lit area or in close proximity to an establishments gate security. These places make your car less of a target from vandals.
Avoid valet parking services, especially if you don’t know the people of a place. If your car gets scratched during valet parking, it’s easy for the valet to say that the damage was already there when you handed them your keys. Can’t avoid valet? Better be ready to video or picture your car all around before handing your keys to the valet so you’ll have proof that your car was in pristine condition beforehand.
Between a vehicle with a perfectly running engine but with obvious cosmetic flaws and another that looks pristine but with flawed mechanicals, most casual buyers would put more money on the looker. That’s just the way it is, the value of a car holds better if its body and paint are preserved well. Hopefully, all these tips will help you to achieve just that.