Clay Bar vs. Paint Cleanser

Clay Bar in Tin

With Spring quickly perking up, the time has come to witness the condition of your car’s post-winter (or post-storage) paint finish. Chances are you’re looking at a cloudy, splotchy, just plain unsightly surface – am I right? Some have it worse than others, but one thing’s for sure… when spring comes around it’s time to think about reinstating some luster to that paint job of yours. Before you do that, you have a choice to make – clay or cleanse? Both properly prepare the surface for rejuvenation, but there are very specific situations that warrant the use for one paint cleaning technique over the other. Here’s what you need to know…

Clay Bar (Polishing)

Clay bars are used on paint for one reason: to remove embedded debris from your paint’s clear coat. Using a lubricant, you glide the clay across the (pre-washed) surface – from here, the clay is picking up tiny particles of dirt, dust, and debris from your paint. Then you knead, and so forth (I suggest you read our Clay Bar Guide). The whole reason you are removing the debris is to clean up your finish before you polish. Otherwise, that embedded crap turns into swirl marks and scratches, and trust me, it’s not fun. So the rule here? Always clay before you polish. Always. Of course, maybe you’re just claying to remove some gunk (sap, hardened bird droppings) from your car. In this case, we’re not going to tell you that you absolutely have to polish your car after claying. You can always wax after claying your car, but because claying is lightly abrasive (that’s why we use lubricant), it’s always recommended that you check if you should give your car a once over with a smoothing polish or glaze before protecting.

Paint Cleanser (Waxing)

Automotive paint cleaning products are just that, paint cleaners. They do not have the ability to lift and remove debris like clay does, which is why paint cleansers are usually used as “pre-wax” products. They’re great for preparing the surface for a wax, and actually can extend the durability and life of the application by removing contaminants from the paint. Here it’s all about removing dirt, staining, and any minor blemishes that might not be skin-deep. The rule this time? Use paint cleansers before waxing. You might even find cleaner waxes on the market – while these essentially do the same thing, it’s better for your paint to clean with a separate product and then apply your sealant afterward (cleaner waxes tend to have acidic pH levels, making them less durable).

That’s it. Often times you hear about cleaner waxes and paint cleaners replacing the need for clay – that will never happen. Claying is a lot like waxing with carnauba – maybe there are better ways of cleaning (or protecting) paint, but no product can do quite what claying (or carnauba) does. So you see, it’s not really about clay bar OR paint cleanser… it’s about clay bar AND paint cleanser, and how they can be used to benefit the overall health and appearance of your car’s paint.

  • Peter Karpouzas

    I definitely agree with the posted comment. However as far as claybars go in my line of business I don’t always find a claybar is necessary. I generally like to feel surfaces for texture. If I find that surfaces somewhat feel rough, then definitely I will have to use a clay bar. No point trying to grind dirt with a buffer into paintwork. If on the other hand surfaces feel smooth, then a general purpose paint cleaner suited to cleaning before paint is more than enough. I always find that cleaning paint before polishing will yield the finest possible results in a professional finish