In this post, I’m going to share some ways you could be scratching your paint without knowing it. Some of these might be obvious to you and others might be downright shocking. Whether you just purchased a new vehicle and want to keep it in good condition or you’re already crazy about caring for your paint and looking for new things to obsess over, this is one you won’t want to miss.
I hear it all the time. People brag to me about all the precautions they take to avoid scratching their car. They avoid automated car washes, park in the back corner of the parking lot and only use microfiber towels. They keep their vehicles clean and waxed. Their kid isn’t allowed to ride their bike near it.
And yet with one quick glance in the sunlight and my critical eye, guess what I see?
Scratches. In their defense, the general population doesn’t typically see what I see. But once you’ve stared at enough paint jobs with a spotlight and a buffer in your hand for hours, it’s hard not to notice even the slightest defects.
Different types of scratches
When I refer to “scratches”, there’s actually a few different variations. Some, or all of these combined, can completely ruin the finish of your paint. Modern multi-stage base/clear paint jobs don’t magically get “dull” over time. They get scratched. Thousands of micro scratches will give the illusion of dull or oxidized paint. The good news is that most of these can be repaired with a proper paint correction.
Random Isolated Deep Scratches (RIDS)
The most common defect of all when people refer to their paint being scratched. These are large, deep, and in random places rather than a uniform pattern. Sometimes they’ll be lighter and barely dig into the clear coat, while other times they’ll go right through to the base (color) coat.
The worst ones cut right to the primer or even bare metal! Every random scratch is different. Some can be polished out, some can be minimized, and others are just too deep to fix without a trip to the body shop.
Examples of RIDS are: vandalism from a key, animal claw marks, impact from a shopping cart or car door, collision damage, and scratches from jewelry, zippers or buckles.
Swirl marks, otherwise known as spider webbing, cobwebs, or love marks is something I see in 9 out of 10 cars on the street.
The only vehicles out there that don’t have swirl marks are either owned by someone who got lucky with their brand new car (many new vehicles leave the dealership with swirl marks already present!) or someone with a passion for detailing. I can always tell when someone has put in the time to learn how to properly care for their paint job.
Swirl marks are small, circular scratches that are only noticeable under direct sunlight or a spotlight. They appear to be circular, but they actually aren’t. They’re thousands of tiny scratches that reflect in the shape of the light that’s pointed at the paint. In most cases that light is the sun or a round spotlight, so they’ve picked up the popular term “swirls”.
Most of the time these are caused by improper washing and drying techniques.
This is the one that often gets confused with a vehicle’s paint being dull or oxidized. While oxidizing does still exist in modern times, it was much more common with old single stage paint jobs.
Remember when you’d see a pink car that used to be red or a grey car that used to be black? That was the top layer of paint being oxidized from the sun. We don’t see this as much today thanks to the UV protection of the clear coat. When you do see it on a modern vehicle, it’s highly likely that the clear coat has failed and needs to be repainted.
When an abrasive rubs against the surface, it makes it look dull or grayish. This is considered marring. Marring is actually a pattern of millions of microscopic scratches. An extreme example would be sanding marks from sandpaper.
A more mild instance would be a t-shirt rubbing against the paint. These dull patches are actually groups of scratches that affect the way your eye sees the light’s reflection.
Holograms are the least common of the bunch. They’re typically caused by improper buffing with a rotary polisher and a wool pad. This is very common to see on cars that have been repainted at body shops.
To save time during the final sanding and buffing stage, they’ll end it a bit early and use a filler wax to cover up any remaining imperfections. As detailers, we know that one more refinement stage of polishing is required to achieve the perfect finish.
Many people will confuse a hologram with swirl marks. They do look quite similar when you’re standing still. The way to identify a hologram is to move the light across the panel. Do circular marks keep spawning in a uniform pattern as it moves? Those are swirl marks. If the marks dance around up and down, back and forth in ghost-like fashion when you move the light, those are holograms.
Which vehicles are easier to scratch?
Some paint jobs are easier to scratch, or easier to see scratches than others. Paint hardness and color are the main variables here.
Some people are alarmed when they hear that they have soft paint. This doesn’t necessarily mean the vehicle was painted improperly, it’s just the characteristic of certain types of paint. The bad news is that soft paint is easier to scratch. The good news is that for the same reason, it’s easier to remove scratches.
Common examples of vehicles with soft paint are some (not all) Japanese cars from the 90s.
Today’s modern paint jobs are usually on the harder side. This is great for preventing scratches but can make polishing them out more difficult.
Many higher end German cars will actually use an extra-hard ceramic clear coat.
Regardless of whether a paint job is easy to scratch or not, certain colors will reveal more than others. Since scratches tend to show up to the human eye as a lighter spot, light colors like white and silver will hide them the most.
Conversely, darker colors like black and navy blue will show much more contrast between the color and the scratch, making them more visible. Metallic flake will also help to hide scratches better than a straight gloss color.
The worst combination to have when it comes to scratch vulnerability is a non-metallic car with soft black paint. It’s easier to scratch and shows every single one that’s there.
Now that we’re on the same page as far as scratches go, let’s take a look at the 12 ways you could be scratching your car without knowing it. First off, the common ones:
1. Washing; both properly and improperly
Yes, I meant to say that. Even if you follow the perfect wash procedures, eventually it will cause marring. It’s just the nature of the beast. We can try to minimize damage, but no matter what fancy product we choose or how many buckets we use, we’re applying friction to the surface when it’s dirty.
This is why many of us will perform a light “maintenance polish” on our vehicles every year or two, just to keep the gloss looking fresh. Ever-improving technology has helped a lot, but it hasn’t completely eliminated wash marring.
That’s all just a minor concern for people that want to maintain a perfect finish though. The real reason why I mention washing is because of the mistakes people make when doing it.
By now everyone knows about the “2 bucket” method but let me tell you something: you could use 100 buckets to wash your car but if you don’t pay attention to contamination, you’ll still scratch your paint.
Contamination is a way bigger deal than people make it out to be.
Using a separate wash and rinse bucket will do nothing to save your paint if you’re re-using one of them for your wheels. “But Tim, I save my wheels till the end so the contaminants won’t touch my paint!” Ok, that makes sense. But did you buy a brand new bucket for the next time you wash your car? Hmmmm. Those same metal brake dust particles that stick to your wheels will stick to your bucket.
Rinsing it out after is not equal to hitting a reset button. Technically you need 3 buckets – wash, rinse and wheels. That wheel bucket should also have a separate wash mitt and brushes that stay away from everything else but the engine bay.
Contamination doesn’t just apply to wheel cleaning. You have to be constantly thinking “what could this mitt have possibly picked up?” with every single wipe of your wash mitt. Maybe it touched the ground. Maybe it swung from a fender and tapped the sidewall of a tire.
Or worst of all, you store it in a dirty area like a workbench! Once you train your mind to think like this, your detailing results will skyrocket.
The drying stage actually causes more scratches than improper washing. A chamois, “absorber”, and water blade are not acceptable things to dry your car with. They might be very effective at removing water, but they’re also a surefire way to scratch your paint. Why, you might ask?
It’s simple really. Any dust or dirt that may have fallen on your car will be trapped between the surface of the paint, and whatever you’re using to dry it. Then you drag it across the surface. All it takes is one grain of sand to scratch your car.
There are only 2 safe ways to dry your car: with a microfiber towel or compressed air.
Using a soft microfiber towel along with a spray wax, detail spray or specific drying aid will minimize the risk of scratching. The microfiber towel will actually pull any dirt or dust off the surface and hide it deep in the fibers if the situation arises. That’s why they’re safer than a chamois. The added lubrication from a drying aid will further reduce friction and the risk of damage.
Tip: Trying to dry your car with a dry microfiber towel will drive you insane. Spray it with water first, then wring it out until it’s damp. Microfiber towels only like to absorb water when they’re already wet.
Compressed air is the only guaranteed way to dry your car without scratches. That’s because you don’t have to touch the paint at all! You can use a vehicle specific dryer like the MetroVac, or a leaf blower. You can read all about my favorite leaf blower here.
3. Snow removal
This one boggles my mind a bit. I see people do this all the time. They take great care of their paint in the warmer months, then as soon as winter comes along they wipe the snow off their paint with a brush or the sleeve of their coat.
This completely negates all of their efforts throughout the rest of the year! If we’re technically scratching our paint just from washing it, can you imagine what the bristles of that brush are doing!?
4. Touching the paint any time it’s not perfectly clean
This goes further than just writing “clean me” on a dirty car. We all know that will create scratches. I’m referring to any contact with your paint with any object, at any time that it’s not perfectly clean. This could mean brushing against it when walking past it in the garage, or leaning on it even if you’ve only driven it once since you washed it.
One of the most common mistakes I see people make is to close their doors by touching the paint instead of the handle. This seemingly innocent motion can have big consequences over time. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the gloss black B Pillars of a new Ford and tell me you don’t see scratches, swirl marks and fingerprints all over them! Always close your door by the handle.
Those of us that care deeply about the finish of our paint need to subscribe to the “no contact is good contact” way of thinking. The easy way to put it: act like your car always has wet paint, and never touch it unless you absolutely have to.
Now for the less common ways:
5. Using detail spray for a quick touch up
I see this all the time at outdoor car shows. People are more concerned with keeping their cars dust free than avoiding scratches. While detail sprays do offer some lubrication, they weren’t designed for you to clean your whole car on the spot. They’re best kept for using as a drying aid or touching up water drops after washing.
I once had an older man at a car show brag to me about how his 5 year old Mustang had never seen water. At first, I thought he meant he’d never driven it in the rain, which is certainly commendable. But he went on to explain to me that it had never gotten wet since the day it left the factory.
As I tried my best to mask my look of horror, I glanced over and noticed the Mustang was clean and shiny. That could only mean it’s seen nothing but detail spray (waterless washes hadn’t hit the market yet at that time). I didn’t take a close look at it but we all know what I would have found.
6. The California Duster
I’m sure there’s plenty of old school guys that still swear by this. The fact is, the only way that this won’t scratch your paint is if it’s brand new and your vehicle hasn’t been outside since it was last washed. Unfortunately, neither of these are the case the majority of the time these dusters are used.
These things will pick up anything – not just dust. Every time I see someone bring out a duster that clearly hasn’t been washed in 20 years to dust off a car, I cringe. Inflicting damage to the paint to remove a light layer of dust is not a tradeoff worth making! This goes for the detail spray users as well: if your car is dusty, leave it dusty! Wait until you’re able to wash it safely, or you’ll risk scratching it.
7. Your vacuum hose
This one might surprise you. Most of us use wet/dry style vacuums to clean out our interior. Take a look at the ribs on the hose. Now look at where the hose lands on the door sill when you reach in towards the carpet. As we scrub back and forth with the vacuum, we’re grinding the hose across that small section of paint.
That area has very thin paint to begin with (all edges and body lines do), so it’s very easy to wear right through it. Given its proximity to the ground and spinning wheels, road grime and salt can get in there and eventually lead to your rocker panels rusting. Who would have thought that this could be caused by something as simple as vacuuming your carpet?
Tip: When vacuuming your car, hold the hose between your legs and pinch it with your knees. This will keep it away from the door sill so you can scrub all you want.
8. Car covers
Using a car cover outdoors is generally a no-no. Yes, they will protect your vehicle from the sun and keep it clean, but as soon as the wind picks up they can do some serious damage. A flapping car cover on a windy day can cut through your paint like a hot knife through butter.
You may have noticed something in the garage photos of my car on this site. If you look closely, the MR2 is covered in dust. Normally I would cover it when I put it away for the winter. This season I chose not to cover my car or my bike. Why?
Because I would rather fix a dusty car than a scratched car.
Keeping swirl marks out of the soft paint of the MR2 has been an ongoing battle for me. Now that the paint is super thin, I can’t afford to keep polishing them out. I’ve had to change the way I wash it and quit using a cover to avoid having to repaint it.
This will buy me a few more years before the inevitable happens. Dust washes off easily. Removing scratches in thin paint is a much more serious issue.
9. Microfiber towels
I know what you’re thinking. “The whole reason we use microfiber towels is because they don’t scratch the paint!” That’s both true and false.
“Microfiber” is not a magic word that means it is immune from scratching your paint.
There are hundreds of different types of microfiber towels on the market. They range from soft, fluffy expensive ones to the thin ones you can find at any auto parts store. Each one serves a purpose and not all of them are safe on every type of paint.
Using even the highest quality microfiber towel improperly can and will scratch your paint. Rubbing too hard, dropping them on the ground, or using them on a dirty surface are all ways that can quickly turn your friend into your enemy. Microfiber technology is designed to grab and hold whatever they pick up. This is great for removing wax. This is terrible if they touch the ground!
10. Doing mechanical work
Everyone knows that dropping a wrench or bolt on your paint will scratch it. That’s not what I’m referring to.
At times we can be so focused on reaching something or breaking a bolt loose that we don’t realize what the rest of our body is doing. This could be as simple as leaning on a fender or even letting an air hose or extension chord rub on the paint. Being aware of your surroundings at all times can go a long way when it comes to avoiding scratches.
Sometimes there’s just no way around leaning on your paint to work on your car. After all, not all of us are 6’10” tall. Many people will use specific mats to cover up the fender they’re forced to lean on. In theory, these will protect the paint from scratches. In reality, they could be doing more harm than good.
If the paint isn’t perfectly clean, you risk scratching it anytime you touch it (see #4). Because of this, putting a cover on a dirty fender is a bad idea. On the other hand, even a clean fender can be scratched if the cover itself has been contaminated. These are only safe to use if they’re brand new, thoroughly cleaned, or have never touched a dirty car.
11. Using a clay bar
The clay bar is a great tool when it comes to removing contaminants from your paint, but it comes at a cost. Even the finest grade of clay is still considered an abrasive. Applying pressure or not using enough lubrication are common mistakes people make that can result in scratching or marring their paint.
Even with a perfect technique, soft paint will usually suffer from some type of micro-marring from a clay bar. This is why I try to avoid using a clay bar unless I’ll be following it up with a polishing step (in which case I always use a clay bar first).
12. Improper buffing
Paint correction is not something you can watch a Youtube video on and get perfect results your first time. It takes a lot of skill, knowledge, and experience to achieve great results safely.
I already touched on how rotary buffers and wool pads will produce holograms in your paint. This gets even worse when people don’t clean the pad often enough (or at all, eek!).
Just like in #9, the fact that a buffer is “dual action” doesn’t mean it’s impossible to overheat the paint or burn through it. Bad technique can cause damage no matter what machine you use.
Certain pad and polish combinations will leave the surface less than perfect. For example, a heavy cut compound and a microfiber pad will do a great job of removing scratches but often will leave behind some marring or “DA haze”. This is the side effect of using such an aggressive combination, but many times it’s a necessary evil to remove deeper defects.
Stopping after this stage will leave somewhat of a marred finish, and maybe even pigtail marks. Much like holograms from a rotary buffer, this needs to be followed up with a polishing step to remove the remaining marring from the paint.
How to protect your vehicle from scratches:
Many of the above ways to scratch your paint simply can’t be avoided. After all, we need to be able to wash and work on our vehicles. Scratches are inevitable but there are ways to minimize the risk:
Waxes and Sealants
Keeping your paint clean will help to prevent scratches. Waxes and sealants make the surface slicker and easier to clean without having to scrub hard.
To take it a step further, ceramic coatings produce a harder, slicker surface on your paint. Contrary to what some people think, these will not protect against deeper scratches. Their hardness does help to prevent wash marring and swirl marks though. These coatings also make it possible to clean your vehicle with even less effort than with a wax or sealant. Less effort = less scratches.
For more on my favorite waxes, sealants, and ceramic coatings, make sure to check out my Recommended Products page:
Paint Protection Film
This is truly the only way to prevent scratches in your paint. Wrapping your entire car in a clear vinyl film adds a replaceable cushion on top of your paint. Some of these are even self-healing with the use of heat.
Should the situation arise, these can be sacrificed to save the life of your paint by removing a portion and replacing it. While technically objects can still pierce through paint protection film, it would take a very deep scratch to do it.
A good example of a vehicle that would benefit from a paint protection film is an exotic car that has lots of people walking around it at car shows. Wrapping your entire car with this will cost you thousands of dollars, but that’s the price you pay for the ultimate protection.
Choosing a lighter color
If you just can’t handle the thought of seeing scratches in your paint, do yourself a favor and buy a light metallic colored car. These colors show the least amount of scratches so you’ll be able to sleep better at night.
How to repair scratches
There are only two legitimate ways to fix scratches in your paint: paint correction by a detailer or repainting at a body shop. There are no shortcuts to fix them properly.
Covering them up with a filler wax will result in them reappearing after only a few washes. Using old school rubbing compound or even toothpaste will mar the surface and look awful under bright light. Spraying WD40 or bug spray on your paint is even more ridiculous. If you’re going to fix it, fix it right.
A knowledgeable detailer will be able to tell you right away whether they can fix a scratch or at least minimize it so it’s not as noticeable. They know from experience exactly what can be buffed out and what needs to be repainted. In general, holograms, marring, swirl marks and light scratches can be completely removed with a proper paint correction as long as there’s enough paint left to work with.
When all else fails, you’ll unfortunately have to make a trip to the body shop. The popular rule of thumb is that if a scratch is deep enough to catch your fingernail, it’s too deep to buff out. There are however exceptions to this rule, and mild cases of this can often be minimized with a paint correction.
The use of touch up paint will likely not produce the results you’re after – it works fine on round stone chips but it will leave a noticeable mark when used in a straight line. At some point, you just have to throw in the towel and have a panel repainted.
There’s really no such thing as being too careful when trying to avoid scratching your car. Where to draw the line is totally up to you and how you want to live your life. If you want to do everything you can to protect your paint, then follow all 12 of these tips.
The average person won’t be able to justify these, so feel free to pick and choose what matters to you. Always remember though: when it comes to your paint, no contact is good contact!
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: