Despite often being advertised as “permanent” protection for your vehicle’s paint, no ceramic coating will last forever. With that said, there are times where you might believe your ceramic coating failed when in reality, it’s actually just playing dead.
There are a lot of variables that come into play when it comes to how long your coating will last. The climate/conditions you drive in and the way you wash it are the biggest contributing factors. This is why I don’t put a lot of weight behind the coating manufacturers’ claims regarding longevity, at least not by itself.
It’s possible for a “7 year” coating to only last 1 year if it isn’t cared for properly. On the other hand, I’ve seen protective products on well cared for garage queens last for 4 times as long as they were supposed to. Don’t underestimate the difference proper maintenance can make.
How to tell if your ceramic coating failed
The first time you wash your freshly ceramic coated vehicle is an enjoyable experience. The high gloss, ability to pressure wash most of the dirt off, fancy water beading and even being able to blow it dry all add to the excitement. But as time goes on, you might start to notice your coating behaving differently.
The biggest sign of ceramic coating failure is a change in water behavior. The actual water beading or sheeting isn’t what’s important here – you’re looking for a noticeable change from when it was first applied to how it performs now.
Different ceramic coatings perform differently so it’s unfair to compare them with each other. Some will offer tight water beads while others allow the water to sheet off the surface rapidly.
I’ve seen people recommend online that the only way to know for sure if a ceramic coating is still on the surface is to use a paint depth gauge. I suppose there might be a few high end coatings that go on thick, but the reality is that 90% of readily available ceramic coatings are so thin, they can’t be measured.
Another sign that your coating may have failed is a noticeable drop in gloss. Again, this can only be compared to how your specific car and coating looked when it was fresh.
If it begins to look dull, combined with a noticeable drop in self-cleaning and hydrophobic properties, it’s possible that your coating has failed.
This is where the manufacturers’ longevity claims can be useful. Taking all of that into account, then comparing it with how long the company claims the product should last will give you a better idea of where you stand.
Reasons a ceramic coating might appear to have failed but hasn’t
It’s entirely possible that your coating isn’t dead even though it’s showing all of the above signs. Here are a few things to question before you completely give up on it:
What products you’ve been using to maintain it
It’s common knowledge (hopefully) that we are supposed to avoid using any type of waxes or polymer sealants on our ceramic coated vehicles. There is a big misconception about why this is though.
It’s not because they will harm your coating. Your coating is both scratch and chemical resistant, and quite literally forms a physical bond to your paint. Keep in mind that most ceramic coatings will require at least a machine polish (abrasion) in order to remove them on purpose and in the case of higher end professional coatings, wet sanding might be the only way to do it.
So how on earth could a natural product like carnauba wax damage it? It can’t. Neither can spray wax, polymer sealant, or “wash n wax” soaps. Your coating is much, much stronger than that.
What happens when you use waxes on top of your coating is they’ll cover up its fancy properties. You’ll no longer see the water behavior of the coating – you’ll see the properties of the wax that’s on top instead. This doesn’t mean your coating is diminished. It’s just hiding underneath the wax.
It’s important to use maintenance products that are intended to be used on ceramic coatings or at least confirmed to play nice with them. This means sticking with a soap that doesn’t contain any waxes or weird polymers and replacing your spray wax or detail spray with a topper that works on coatings (often SI02 based, just like your coating).
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and buy the most expensive products. Meguiar’s Gold Class car wash is cheap and can be found at most part stores. Optimum No Rinse is another great product that won’t affect your coating (it’s what I use on my personal vehicles most of the time).
A topper like P&S Beadmaker has been proven to work well on both coated and non-coated cars. None of these will break the bank but they will keep your coating performing properly.
Certain soaps will alter water behavior while washing
Yes, even soaps that don’t contain wax can change the way your coating beads water. This isn’t a cause for concern though – it’s actually meant to do that.
Some manufacturers purposely want their soap to leave a residue causing water to sheet off the surface rather than form tiny beads. They do this in an effort to minimize water spots after washing.
Despite looking cool, beads of water can actually act like tiny magnifying glasses allowing the sunlight to dry the water (and any minerals in it) on the surface quicker – especially when washing in direct sun.
The best case scenario is to have the water evacuate off the surface as quickly as possible to avoid it drying and turning into water spots. This is why sheeting is desirable.
Some soaps will leave a residue on the surface on purpose to promote this behavior. It might look like your coating has worn off – but it’s possible that after wiping the surface dry and respraying the water, you’ll see your fancy water beading again.
Your coating could be contaminated
Ceramic coatings don’t like to be neglected. Allowing things like dirt, road grime, pollen, and road salt to build up on the surface can definitely change the way it looks and behaves. It’s important to stay on top of maintenance and keep your vehicle clean.
Sometimes it’s worth trying a thorough wash with a stronger soap and even a fallout remover like IronX. I personally wouldn’t recommend using a clay bar even though it will help remove contaminants from the surface. The downside is that it could mar your paint’s finish, which would require polishing to fix (likely removing the coating).
Some ceramic coating manufacturers even have their own cleaners that they recommend using for this exact purpose. For example, Gtechniq tells people to wash their car with their citrus all purpose cleaner before deciding whether their coating is actually worn out or not.
Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations though because strong cleaners can diminish certain hydrophobic coatings.
If all else fails, your coating might be on the ropes
If you’ve tried everything above and your coating still seems to be worn out, there’s a chance that you can save it – kind of. Many ceramic coatings are applied in 2 different layers – a base coat that is responsible for the majority of the protection and a separate topcoat that adds gloss and hydrophobicity.
That base coat is tough. If your coating is rated to last 5 years and it’s only been 2, it’s more than likely still there (unless you’ve done something crazy). The top coating is weaker and usually rated to last for a shorter period of time. There is a good chance that the topcoat has failed but the base layer of your coating is still alive and well.
It’s important to note that water beading does not prove whether a surface is protected or not. Just because water isn’t acting the way it used to doesn’t mean that your coating isn’t still providing gloss, UV/scratch/chemical protection and self-cleaning abilities. You just need to bring some of the water beading back. There are a couple of options to do just that:
Reapply the top layer of the coating
If all signs point to the base of your coating still being healthy, you should be able to wipe the car down with an IPA based product and reapply the topcoat. In the case of Gtechniq coatings, Crystal Serum Light is rated for 5 years and its topcoat, Exo, is only rated for 2. That means the manufacturer intends for you to reapply the topcoat at some point.
Use an SI02 based topper or ceramic wax
There are a lot of spray waxes and detail sprays on the market that are meant to work on ceramic coatings. Using one of these at least every other wash can boost any remaining hydrophobicity of the coating and buy you time until you reapply it. These products won’t work as well or last as long, but they can be used to bridge the gap before having your car redone.
When your ceramic coating fails
At this point, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that your coating has officially tapped out and will need to be completely reapplied. The good news is at this point, you have nothing to lose.
It’s perfectly ok to go back to using any waxes or sealants just like you did before you had your car coated. There’s nothing wrong with doing this until you can afford to start over again with a new coating. The paint will need to be completely stripped during the next application anyways so feel free to use any products you want on there.
Remember that your paint isn’t unprotected just because it isn’t beading water anymore. A good way to test to see if the coating is still present is to simply feel it after washing. If it still feels slick when you slide your hand across it, the coating is probably still there. If that’s the case, one of the tips in this post might just save your coating’s life.
This post is part of our series on the truth behind ceramic coatings.
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: