Cleaning Guides

Polishing vs Waxing vs Buffing – What’s the difference?

Paint is applied to a car in many layers, firstly primer is used to protect the bodywork, then colour is applied in one or several coats. Above the colour layers, a clear protective coat is used to protect the softer paint beneath.

Polishing, waxing and buffing are all important techniques in car paintwork maintenance. They serve different functions. Broadly speaking, it’s all about the depth of the problem you want to resolve. Polishing removes scratches in the top clear coat layers of the paint finish, buffing smooths out imperfections in the colour layers, waxing is used to add a protective finish.

This article is for you if:

  • You’re a new car owner and want to learn more about looking after paintwork
  • You’re dealing with scratches, discolouration or a dull looking car 
  • You need to know if you should be, polishing, buffing or waxing

Car wax or polish

You could be forgiven for thinking that car wax and polish are much the same things. They’re not. So what is the difference between wax and polish for a car? The major difference is that car polish, unlike the polish you use to make furniture shiny, is abrasive. If your vehicle’s paintwork is looking dimpled, faded, oxidised or showing small scratches, it’s time to get the polish out. Car polish is a liquid compound available in various levels of abrasiveness (think of this as being like different grades of sandpaper, though much finer of course).

What is car polish and what does it do

When you use a car polish you will actually remove a very fine layer of the topcoat of the paintwork, in the process, you’ll remove dull oxidized paint, reduce or eliminate scratches and create a smooth surface that catches the light, making the car look brighter. Polishing a car can be done by hand at home. Take your car to a professional valeting or grooming service and they’ll probably use a machine, which is much quicker. Saving time is great of course but there is the danger that working faster could lead to more paint being removed than is necessary to restore the paintwork.

What is car wax and what does it do

While car polish is an abrasive, car wax is a filler. Wax is used to even out tiny imperfections in the top surface, it also adds a layer of waterproof protection and creates a smooth finish that reflects light evenly making the paintwork shine. There are lots of different wax brands available for cars, most are a combination of natural waxes and solvents which smooth out imperfections in the paintwork. At home, you’ll generally apply car wax with a soft cloth, leave it for a few minutes then remove wax that hasn’t bonded to the paintwork using a fresh soft cloth. Waxing a car by hand will take several hours. It’s also possible to apply wax by machine which speeds the process up.

Wax should be applied to a clean surface so always wash a car before waxing it. Wait for it to dry before you start to apply the wax as oils and water don’t mix well. Ideally, you’ll wax your car in a clean, dust-free environment. If you must work outside, do it on a calm day so that there’s no risk of wind blowing dirt onto the paintwork as you’re working.

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When to use wax and polish together

Professional car valets are often asked if it is necessary to polish a car before waxing. The answer is no, not always. If you’re happy with the condition of the paintwork and there are no imperfections you want to remove it’s perfectly acceptable to wash your car then wax it without polishing. You can also take advantage of a mobile car wash service to save you some time. If on the other hand, you need to eliminate or reduce the appearance of scratches and then reapply a layer of protection you should both polish and wax the vehicle. It has to be that way round, first polish then wax. You can check out our guide on how to wax your car.

To recap: If you’re happy with the condition of the paintwork – clean then wax. If the paintwork looks oxidised or scratched, clean, polish and wax. You should always wax after polishing to reapply protection removed by the abrasives in the polish compound.

What is car buffing?

Car buffing is used to remove imperfections in the colour layer of a vehicle’s paintwork. The process is always completed by machine. It’s something you can do at home if you choose to invest in a buffing machine but it’s a slow and painstaking process. Incorrect use of a buffing machine can cause damage to the finish of the paintwork in the form of thousands of tiny scratches all pointing in the same direction. These are known as swirl marks.

Do you need your car buffed? Check our interior and exterior valeting options and pick the one that best suits your needs.

The difference between polishing and buffing

Polishing a car removes tiny imperfections and scratches in the uppermost clear coat of the paint finish. Buffing works more deeply and is used to treat deeper scratches in the colour layers. Polishing can be completed by hand or by machine. Buffing is always done by machine. While it is possible to damage paintwork through incorrect or overly vigorous polishing this is really quite rare, especially if the work is done by hand. Paintwork damage as the result of incorrect buffing is a far more common occurrence.

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Do you need your car’s exterior taken care of professionally?

If you are lacking the time to make your vehicle shiny again and return the exterior of your vehicle to its former glory, you can always book a mobile professional car care service and save yourself all the hassle. You can choose only the mobile car valet or the comprehensive mobile car detailing service to give your car the showroom look back. Enjoy your afternoon tea from the comfort of your own living room or spend more time with your kids while the car specialists do their magic. The Fantastic Services car care experts will come fully equipped so you wouldn’t need to provide them with anything other than access to your car.


  • Polishing, waxing and buffing are all processes required for paintwork maintenance
  • The different techniques serve different functions and it’s important to use the right one to address the issue you wish to correct
  • Polishing and waxing can both be done by hand at home, buffing is completed by machine and is more usually a professional’s job


Has that answered your question about the error your Miele appliance is displaying?

Do you have any tips for home polishing or waxing? Please share!

Img Source: Shutterstock/Nor Gal

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