This story was updated on March 22, 2022 to include new products and information.
What's the best car wax? That depends on what you want for you and your vehicle. And that depends on the product attributes that you value in a car wax—and also on the age of your vehicle and the condition of its paint job. There are things car wax can do, and there are things car wax can’t do to improve your machine's gleam. Read on for, ahem, reflections on automotive shine—our thoughts on the best car wax for your ride.
Wax is a protective coating applied on to the top layer of paint, which on virtually all vehicles today is a clear coat. (Clear coat is exactly what the name implies: a coat of clear, hard paint.) A modern vehicle's finish is composed of three parts: base primer, a color coat, and clear coat. The quality of a vehicle's shine depends on the smoothness of the clear coat; the smoother the top layer of paint, the more it's like a mirror. The thin layer of car wax you apply helps fill tiny crevices in the paint that are caused by exposure to the elements and the spinning brushes at car washes. The best car waxes can also protect the clear coat from hazing, smears, stains, tiny scratches, tree sap, and bird droppings. But to be effective and long-lasting, car wax must be applied only on a perfectly clean vehicle.
Your Wax Choice Makes a Difference
There are three main kinds of car wax: spray-ons, liquids, and pastes. (We'll save popular ceramic coatings for another story; our friends at Road & Track explored it here.) The critical attributes of car wax to consider are gloss improvement, durability, ease of application, ease of removal, how well it cleans the paint surface, protection from UV rays, compatibility with plastics, and price.
Spray-on car wax is the easiest to apply and remove. However, spray-on car waxes do not clean deeply, are less weather-resistant, and generally have the poorest durability. That makes them best for new-car finishes, for quickie wax jobs, or detailing on vehicles that are washed and waxed frequently.
Liquid car waxes are better for older, higher-mileage cars that require more aggressive cleaning and sealing. (Some liquid car waxes also clean the finish.) These are usually good for gloss and durability. A number of liquids use carnauba wax, well-known for its high gloss and durability.
The last group is the paste waxes. We’ve found that they take more elbow grease to apply. Despite that, they don’t outperform the liquid car waxes in all attributes. As a group, they do have a reputation for slightly better durability; the shine lasts a little longer. A good rule of thumb is that protection provided by most waxes starts to wane after about five weeks. And most should be reapplied after two to three months.
(Note: We'll take a moment here to bring up ceramic coatings once again because they're very popular these days. While the ease of application and the resulting shine is undeniable, we haven't yet had the opportunity to test and review many ceramic coatings on our own. Stay tuned for that; in the meantime, you can read up on ceramics from our colleagues at Road & Track.)
What about cost? Our research indicates that that premium-price car waxes do not generally hold up any better than the lower-priced alternatives. And in some cases, the medium-price products outperform the more expensive brands, though the differences are not huge.
Our suggestion for the best car wax? Find a mid-priced, brand-name liquid car wax. We've assembled several of them below and included a good spray wax as well. If you want the ultimate show-car finish—especially if your vehicle is several years old and has been through many car washes—you should consider investing in a dual-action orbital buffer and applying polishing compound before waxing. Polishing out the swirl marks and tiny scratches before you wax—no matter what kind of car wax you choose—will deliver a more glossy show-car shine than any wax alone can generate. And using a buffer is simple and safe enough that even amateur detailers can get great results with one.
Preparation, patience, a sharp eye, and thoroughness are the most important factors in achieving a bright and lasting shine. Here are some prep tips for getting the best results from your chosen car wax:
- Do not wash the vehicle or apply car wax in direct sunlight if you can avoid it.
- Wash your car carefully from top to bottom with a soft cloth, soap, and lots of water.
- Decontaminate the paint with a chemical cleaner that removes road tar or stuck-on gunk.
- Use one of the brand-name clay-bar products to gently remove stains and smaller particles, leaving the paint surface smooth to the touch.
- If you're really particular, consider using an isopropyl alcohol (IPA) cleaner to remove any surface fillers or polishing oil. (It's a mix of 50 percent alcohol and 50 percent distilled water.)
- Your choice of wax can now be applied on the clean clear coat.
For most of us, a great wash and wax will be more than enough. But if you seek longer-life paint protection for your ride, you'll need to go beyond normal car waxes and investigate the latest ceramic coatings. These products chemically bond to your paint for unrivaled wax-like protection. With the proper application and care, your car can stay glossy and protected for 12-24 months. While the spray-on ceramic coatings are convenient, you want to use the hand-applied stuff for the best results. However, there is a lot of prep involved with ceramic coatings, so if you don't feel comfortable applying it yourself, contact a detailing pro.
Ready to wax your car? Here are some of the top-rated car waxes on the market, in a variety of forms.