A Complete Guide To Protecting Your Car’s Paint In 2023

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Wax, sealant, ceramic coating, PPF

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Wax, Sealant, Ceramic coatings – if you’re new to the detailing world, your head is probably already spinning trying to understand how all of these paint protection products compare. Add in PPF and spray-on coatings, and things can get really overwhelming!

With all the options available it’s easy to find yourself looking for a good car wash soap online and 3 hours later wondering if graphene coatings are a miracle cure for 25-year-old neglected paint. The endless rabbit hole can strike at any time.

It’s my goal to make this the most comprehensive article for all the different choices in paint protection. I’ll be breaking down the differences and pros/cons between wax, paint sealant, and coatings. We’ll discuss the differences and benefits of PPF and vinyl wrap along with a few wild card topics. Here is your one-stop shop for all things paint protection. 

Threats to your paint job (things that can and will damage it)

Your paint is vulnerable and it seems like there is a new threat around every corner just waiting to leap out and attack it. The average drive can be enough to send just about any enthusiast into a panic attack.

A car passing from the other direction could send a stone into the front bumper leaving a massive paint chip. A line painter could be around a blind corner just waiting to add a pinstripe you didn’t order.

Hot asphalt from a road patch gets spattered down the entire rocker panel. A cloud of bugs is drawn to your headlights at dusk turning your white sports car into a Dalmatian. Not to mention getting sandblasted on a country road because it’s planting season and a John Deere and tiller has atomized every field across two county lines. 

If you can just get the tank topped off and back at home your baby will be safe, except that the gas just dripped down the left rear quarter panel as you pulled the nozzle out of the filler neck. Then just as you pull into the driveway the neighbor’s cat jumps onto the hood looking for a warm spot to cozy into.

A bird the size of a 747 decides to unload across the entire roof and the pine tree two doors down shot pine needles and sap at the trunk. 

It’s not likely your car will be attacked by every one of those threats at the same time, but it can feel possible at times. Your car’s clear coat is exposed to all these and more in its lifetime. Dust and dirt can leave fine scratches, the UV rays from the sun can degrade it over time, and water left to dry will leave behind heavy minerals which will etch into the paint.

Just how thin is your car’s clear coat?

Modern automotive paint is much thinner than most people realize. It wasn’t always this way, however – thinning the layers was an attempt to reduce pollution during the manufacturing process. Manufacturers were able to reduce VOCs by making the layers thinner. With thinner layers, clear coats also needed to become harder to do the same job as the older thicker paints. 

The average vehicle’s clear coat is roughly 2 mils thin. To put that into perspective, I measured the thickness of a sandwich bag with my paint depth gauge and the result is shocking – 2.07 mils! Now you understand why there are so many products aimed to protect your paint. Yes, scratches can be polished out of it – but once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Clear coat’s main job is to protect the base color and keep it looking good over the long term. If it isn’t maintained and is in abusive environments it won’t take long for the clear coat to fail, become sun damaged, or develop deep scratches. After a certain point, a clear coat can’t be fixed and the vehicle will have to be repainted. 

The differences between wax, sealant, coatings, PPF, and vinyl

Luckily in today’s market, there are a plethora of products to protect every surface of a car, albeit to varying degrees. We can put these into two basic categories. You have liquid protection, which is where wax, sealant, and coatings sit. Then there is solid protection – this category contains PPF (paint protection film) and vinyl. 

Liquid ProtectionSolid Protection
WaxPaint protection film
SealantVinyl wraps
Ceramic coatings

You may want to use one or both of these categories in combination with each other. It’s important to understand the limitations and benefits of each product in these categories along with how they can be used together to meet your needs. 

Wax, paint sealant, and ceramic coatings are all great products in their own unique way. From protecting against ultraviolet rays to adding slickness and therefore keeping your paint cleaner longer, liquid protection is ubiquitous in car care today. 

ProductPrice rangeApplication difficulty
(10 being most difficult)
Protection
(10 being best protection)
Carnauba wax$16.99 – $3251/102/10
Synthetic sealant$19.99 – $39.993/104/10
Ceramic coating$54.99 (DIY) – $2500+ (Pro install)6/107/10
Ceramic spray coating$17.99 – $953/105/10
Paint protection film$5000+ (Pro install, whole car)10/1010/10
Vinyl wrap$2000+ (Pro install, whole car)9/109/10
Prices are rough estimates. Difficulty and protection ratings are based on my own experience with these products.

No matter how slick a surface you’re able to achieve all of the liquid protection choices range of protection ends when soft paint comes into contact with solid objects. In other words, no coating is ever going to be hard enough to prevent a stone from chipping the paint. This is where solid protection comes in.  

Paint protection film is the obvious choice when protecting against stone chips and other damage is the goal. It is even applied to certain areas on some cars where the paint is most susceptible to gravel spray. Vinyl wrap will offer some protection from stone chips but is mostly used as an affordable way to change the color of a vehicle or to add graphics to promote a business or sponsors with a racing livery. 

Wax, sealant, ceramic coating, PPF

Carnauba wax

Carnauba wax is made from wax that naturally forms on the leaves of the carnauba palm tree.   Carnauba wax has been around since 1910 when George Simons first introduced his legendary paste wax. Wax has been the go-to and frankly only option for quite some time. 

There’s something therapeutic about spending an hour on a Saturday morning washing and waxing your pride and joy. There’s nothing quite like it. Waxes typically go on easily and don’t require much pressure to wipe away leaving a glossy finish behind. 

It’s a simple process and can be done often and with little effort, which is a good thing since it doesn’t last all that long. You can expect wax to last a few weeks before losing its luster and slickness. Strong car wash soaps may even be enough to remove wax from the paint since the bond is very temporary compared to the other options. 

Wax offers incredible depth and shine and is still the number one choice for those competing in car shows because of the wet look it adds to the paint. In terms of protection, however, wax is a weak choice. It will protect your paint from UV rays and will make it easier to wash your car by not allowing bugs and the like to stick to the paint quite as much. 

ProsCons
Enjoyable experienceMinimal protection
Easy to applyAbsurd price for some products
Deepest reflectionNo scratch resistance
Wax, sealant, ceramic coating, PPF

Synthetic paint sealant

Paint sealant is made up of petroleum derivatives, polymers, and resins.  Paint sealant is applied similarly to wax, however, it is slightly harder to work with. Sealant is typically quite thick which makes applying it more difficult and requires some extra effort to remove it from the surface. This is a worthy trade-off though since it can last 2 to 3 times as long before losing its slickness and shine. 

Sealant is more resistant to chemicals than wax which is why it last longer. Your results with sealant may not be as wet looking as wax but most sealants can also be topped with wax giving more durability on the base layer while still providing that dripping wet look we all love from wax.  

ProsCons
Easy to applyCan mute deep reflections
Better protection than waxMedium protection at best
Cost-effective – a bottle will last many applicationsNo scratch resistance
Wax, sealant, ceramic coating, PPF

Ceramic coating

Ceramic coatings are becoming increasingly popular with today’s automotive enthusiasts and for good reason. A ceramic coating is semi-permanent with some products claiming 5+ years of protection. A few of those have a warranty to back up their claims as well. This makes it a great option for those of us that can’t dedicate every Saturday to dialing in our cars. 

There are a few drawbacks to having your car ceramic coated though. For one, unless your paint is flawless, (even on brand-new cars this is rarely the case) you will have to perform a paint correction. This is going to cost a lot of time or a lot of money – only you can make that choice for yourself. 

If a warranty is something that helps you sleep at night and makes you feel all warm and tingly inside, you’re going to have to hire a certified installer. This further adds to the expenses of getting your car ceramic coated, however, hiring a professional is cheaper than hiring a professional to fix your attempt at a coating application. 

Ceramic coatings are difficult to apply any mistakes made during the application will have to be machine polished due to the semi-permanence of ceramic coatings. If you’re confident in your ability there are a lot of options to choose from. 

Most people online can agree that the three best coatings for consumers are CQuartz UK 3.0 from Carpro, Crystal Serum Light from Gtechniq, and Q2 Mohs from Gyeon. I also like to use Reflex Pro from AMMO NYC, but it’s expensive to bring it into Canada.

A lot of detailing product companies have jumped on the graphene-infused ceramic coating bandwagon. I wrote another article all about what those graphene products provide but the TLDR version is that they’re mostly marketing hype. This isn’t to say graphene coatings are bad, they just don’t provide substantial benefits over most ceramic coatings. 

ProsCons
Great protection against chemicals and UVExpensive
Exciting water behavior (beading and sheeting)Lengthy prep work required
Some coatings offer fantastic glossWater beading can cause issues with water spots
No need to use wax for yearsDifficult to apply

Ceramic spray coating

One product that has come out in more recent years combines the ease of a spray wax with the durability of a ceramic coating. I’m obviously talking about ceramic spray coatings here. 

Though they are made with some of the same ingredients as ceramic coatings, namely silicone dioxide (or SiO2 if you fancy yourself a chemist), due to their application method they don’t last as long or provide the same level of protection. 

Their ease of application is a big enough selling point for a large group of automotive enthusiasts. I have to remember not everyone enjoys breaking their back for 2-3 days correcting and coating their paintwork. 

Ceramic spray coatings are also a great maintenance product for a vehicle that has already been ceramic coated. After a wash, a quick once around the car with a spray bottle and microfibre towel really makes the paint pop and restores the characteristics of the coating on the vehicle. 

ProsCons
Cost-effective way to gain some characteristics of an Si-02 coatingCan still be finicky to apply
1 bottle will last for many applicationsProtection is not much better than sealant

PPF (Paint Protection Film)

Paint protection film offers the most protection you could possibly add to your car’s paint. The products we’ve discussed up to this point were all geared toward UV protection, water, and dirt repellant as well as some self-cleaning properties. 

PPF differs greatly from these other forms of protection as PPF is mainly used to prevent paint chips and scratches. PPF also has superb chemical resistance properties. On top of the product’s built-in chemical resistance, you can add your liquid protection of choice. Many films are compatible with several waxes, sealants, and coatings on the market. Some of these are developed specifically for PPF. 

Since this is such a great product for protection you might wonder why it isn’t applied to vehicles straight from the factory. The answer to that question is that it actually is applied to vehicles at the factory for many models. However, due to the cost and installation time, it is usually only applied to key areas and in small sections. 

The biggest downside to PPF is the cost and complexity of the installation. It requires an extremely skilled and talented installer to perform the job properly. On top of that, PPF isn’t permanent – most films have a 5-year warranty on the low end all the way to a 10-year warranty. 

The removal process is painstaking as well. It requires a lot of boiling water or steam and will leave your or your detailer’s fingertips raw.  The latter option will keep your fingers feeling good but your wallet a little light. 

There aren’t many options when choosing a PPF. You can choose the brand you prefer then the thickness and matte or gloss finish. Some products are beginning to offer color-infused PPF, I’m expecting this market to explode in the next few years.

Most modern films offer self-healing characteristics which means you can actually remove scratches by parking them in the sun or using a heat gun! How cool is that?

ProsCons
Best protection against scratchesVery expensive
Can be peeled off and replaced if damagedDulls the look of the paint
Can be combined with ceramic coating for best of both worldsEdges get dirty over time

 Vinyl Wrap

Another solid protection product is called vinyl wrap, sometimes referred to simply as vinyl or wrap. Vinyl is typically between 3 and 4 mils thick. This is much thinner than PPF which is usually about 8 mils thick.

You can expect then that vinyl won’t offer nearly the same level of protection against stone chips or scratches because it simply doesn’t have the thickness to cushion the impact.

Vinyl is typically used when someone wants to change the color of their car or promote a business or brand. The Bens from the Gears and Gasoline Youtube page have made a few videos showing the process of getting a livery done up in vinyl for their time attack cars. 

If your main desire is to change the color of your car or to promote some sort of message vinyl is perfect for you, and if your car hardly leaves the city it may provide enough protection for your needs. I wouldn’t recommend vinyl as a method of protection for an off-road vehicle or one that sees a lot of highway miles or track time. 

Vinyl costs about the same as PPF to have installed. If a color change is your biggest motivator this is a much more affordable option versus painting your car. If you’re looking for a cheaper, DIY-friendly alternative to vinyl, Plasti-Dip or sprayable vinyl might be right for you. 

DipYourCar.com sells kits that include everything you need to tackle this project, and with hundreds of videos on their YouTube channel, you’re sure to find the answer to any questions you might have. 

Sprayable vinyl can last several months to a year or more depending on how well it is maintained. When you want to go back to the original color or it starts to lose its luster, it can simply be peeled off and you have a clean slate once more. 

ProsCons
Sacrificial protection that can be peeled offMuch thinner than PPF (less protection)
Easier to apply than PPFNo self healing properties or fancy water beading
Can completely change the look of your carExpensive

Protecting Wheels and Brake Calipers

The biggest threat to your wheels and painted brake calipers is easily all the brake dust your pads generate as they are ground down over time. If left to its own devices brake dust can stain and even pit your wheels and calipers. It’s important to stay on top of cleaning your wheels and brakes frequently. 

You can also take preventative measures by applying wheel wax or ceramic wheel coatings to painted calipers and wheels. These products are similar to their counterparts used on other painted surfaces, however, they have been developed to resist breaking down due to high heat generated by the vehicle’s brakes. 

Crimson Red Toyota MR2

Best Practices to Keep Your Paint in Good Condition Long Term

The best way to keep your car’s paint in good condition, regardless of the protection you choose for your vehicle and your budget, is to stay on top of maintenance and follow some best practices. Keeping your car parked in a shaded area where pine needles and other falling debris won’t land on it, goes a long way in protecting it from UV degradation and scratches. 

Try to avoid parking garages where water is dripping from the ceiling, this water is often carrying rust and heavy minerals that are sure to stain the clear coat. Clean bird droppings and bugs off as quickly as possible to avoid etching, and always be sure to use a gentle approach rather than grabbing the closest rag to wipe it off. 

The method you use to wash your car can make a huge difference in your clear coat’s longevity. If you like to use a wash mitt make sure it’s clean and use the two-bucket washing method, one bucket is filled with clean soapy water while the other is filled with clean water to rinse the wash mitt in after every pass you make on the paint. 

I personally like to use one bucket with 3-5 microfibre towels in the wash bucket. Fold them in half twice and this gives you 8 clean sides to wash with. After a pass, switch to a fresh side of the towel and toss it in the dirty towel bucket when all 8 sides have been used. This method ensures you don’t transfer dirt from one section of the car to another and introduce marring or scratches. 

Protecting Windshield

I know windshields aren’t a painted surface, but I felt it was worth mentioning here since it’s such a large portion of the front of the vehicle. With modern vehicles and driver assistance features replacing a windshield is more expensive than ever. 

Not only are windshields themselves expensive, but with lane keep assist cameras being mounted in the windshield there is also a costly calibration procedure that will need to be performed after a new windshield is installed. 

The replacement of the windshield and the calibration can easily add three zeros to your bill. With that in mind, companies have started developing protection films for windshields. Think of it as a screen protector for your windshield. 

You might not be surprised to hear that you can also add a coating to your windshield to aid in removing bugs and road film during a wash. It also repels water allowing you to use your wipers less when driving in the rain and aiding in visibility in wet conditions. 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, most of us have to make compromises when it comes to protecting our cars. Most car owners don’t exactly have an unlimited budget. This might mean only having the front end covered in PPF or you may choose to use wax and sealant over ceramic coatings. A car that is maintained properly might look better than a car with a coating that’s neglected and abused. 

All you can do is make the best choices for your schedule and budget. Whatever route you choose, remember that cars are meant to be driven and enjoyed. So maybe a scratch or two and a few stone chips aren’t the end of the world but rather a sign that you’re getting every ounce of pleasure out of your ownership experience!

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