Clay Bar vs. Paint Cleaner: What's the Difference?

March 11, 2020

For anyone new to detailing and paint care, there may be some confusion about the differences between clay bar paint products and paint cleaners such as cleaner waxes. While both have their place in the exterior detailing of your car, they go about cleaning your paint in different ways and have specific roles in the protection of your car.

Clay Bars
No matter how clean your paint looks, there are almost always contaminants such as industrial fallout, road tar, dirt and metal particles embedded or trapped in your clear coat and beneath the surface of your paint. By running your hand along a clean paint surface, these contaminants can be felt as bumps or imperfections. In the case of metal particles, these tiny fragments can lead to rust contamination if left over prolonged periods of time. In order to properly clean and protect your paint, you need to first remove these contaminants in order to give your paint a clean and smooth surface.

Clay is not a replacement for polishing compounds but rather a malleable clay-like plastic that removes contaminants by shearing them away from the paint and enveloping them inside the clay bar material where it is prevented from doing any further damage to the paint. Properly used, a clay bar will leave behind an ultra smooth and slick paint surface that can allow paint protection products such as wax to better adhere to the paint, which in turn can improve their durability and ability to protect.

Many manufacturers sell clay bars that are color coded for varying abrasive strengths. Each strength level is used for increasingly stubborn types of contaminants. It is important to use a detailer or lubricant while working with a clay bar, as working with a dry clay bar can cause scratching and damage to your paint and clear coat, especially if using heavier abrasive strengths for stubborn contaminants such as bugs and road tar.

While clay bars work to remove particles and contaminants trapped in and below the surface of your clear coat and paint, cleaners only work on the surface of your paint. A cleaner polishes away contaminants, rather than simply grabbing them and removing them like a clay bar. It should be noted however that cleaner waxes are not a substitute for proper waxing. While they can do a good job of cleaning the surface of the paint, they offer very little in the way of surface protection.

While cleaners and clay bars both work to remove contaminants from your paint, they do it in different ways. While cleaners can do a great job of removing stubborn contaminants from the surface of your paint, a clay bar works to actually grab and remove contaminants embedded in and below the surface of your paint. One is not better than the other, and for the best cleaning possible, both should be used to ensure a paint surface is clean inside and out.

Related Questions and Answers

What are some of the Best Car Wash Products to Use?

With new brands and varieties of car washes entering the market every year, consumers want to know the best car wash products. The offerings from manufacturers are numerous, but some of the best stand out. Meguiar's has consistently stood at the top of the line with their offerings such as NXT GENERATION CAR WASH, which advertises a non-detergent formula that doesn't harm paint. Meguiar's produces DEEP CRYSTAL® CAR WASH as well. Chemical Guys makes highly-rated products including MAXI SUDS II with a pleasant cherry scent. The Emerald Series Advanced Car Wash and T472 ICE Car Wash from Turtle Wax are excellent products from this well-known company. ARMOR ALL produces Car Wash Concentrate that receives excellent reviews. EAGLE ONE receives acclaim for its Car Wash and NanoWash & Wax containing Carnauba. 3M, notable for its engineering research and development, produces Car Wash Shampoo 39000 and Body Shop Clean-Up Car Wash with proven effectiveness.

When is the Best Time to Apply Car Cleaning Wax?

You can use car cleaning wax as a complement to regular waxing of your vehicle's body enamel. TOP SECRET advises their cleaning wax customers to apply it every 8 to 10 weeks depending on driving conditions. The season can impact the ideal time for application. NO-WET WATERLESS CONCEPTS recommends applying their Waterless Car Wash and Wax product in the shade to keep it "from drying too fast" and to "allow the surfactants to penetrate, lift and emulsify the dirt and grime from the surface". During the summer, the days are longer so you can take advantage of the relative coolness in the morning and evening. In winter, the best time is probably around mid-day because it will be a little warmer and more comfortable for yourself. Weather conditions have an impact on the ideal time too. RGS Labs recommend using its FW1 Cleaning Wax with Carnauba in dry conditions, mentioning that it is possible to apply it when the car is wet, but that it makes it more difficult to remove. ARMORALL recommends using their Ultra Shine Wash & Wax on a cool car to avoid sun spotting.

What are the Most Popular Car Wax Brands that People Use?

Consumers can find the most popular car wax brands available by looking in auto part stores, grocery stores and on the Internet among other places. Smart marketing, innovative product development and name recognition make several brands most popular. Meguiar's, since 1901, stands out as a popular and widespread brand as does Turtle WAX. Blue Coral Wash & Wax is another that stands out as a "combination" product of cleaners and wax. MOTHERS features Carnauba, a substance from Palm leaves, in California Gold PURE Carnauba Wax, as part of its 3-step wax process. P21s Carnauba Wax is made in Germany and one can find it on RIM WAX by SMARTWAX, 3M products and ARMORALL sell well too.

How often should You Use a Clay Bar for Auto Paint Detailing?

How often to apply a clay bar for paint depends on the conditions of the environment and driving habits. Clay helps remove the grit and particles from pollution, break dust, gravel, bird droppings and other contaminants. One manufacturer recommends testing the need for a clay bar treatment by putting your fingers in a plastic bag and rubbing it on the paint, feeling for a "sandpaper" sensation. Drivers in snowy climates where road salt and gravel may accumulate quickly on vehicles can apply a clay bar treatment monthly. DETAILED IMAGE recommends using a clay bar roughly twice a year, or before details that include polishing the paint. Of course, if the car is garage-kept. The grime accumulates slowly so you can apply clay bars on an as-needed basis.

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