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how to protect car clear coat in winter picture of car covered in ice

Ice covering a car in winter. Freeze and thaw from ice mixed with salt damages car paint. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

How to Protect Car Clear Coat in Winter

Winter weather is upon us. Anybody who lives in the northern half of the United States is well acquainted with the many environmental factors that will damage car exteriors.

In this article, we will cover the types of environmental contaminants that are constantly attacking your car, namely acid rain, road salt, and extreme winter weather conditions. And then we give you the knowledge and show you how to use the tools necessary to protect your car clear in the winter weather.

What is Acid Rain?

Acid rain is a form of precipitation that is more acidic than normal rain. The main component of acid rain is sulfuric acid, which forms when coal or oil is burned. Acid rain can also contain nitric acid and other harmful chemicals.

Industrial pollution is a contributor to forming acid rain which damages car clearcoat. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

What Causes Acid Rain?

Acid rain is caused by industrial pollution and vehicle exhaust, which releases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere. These gases react with water vapor in the air to form acids.

How Does Acid Rain Affect Cars?

Acid rain can corrode metal surfaces, which is essentially an entire car. It can also cause rubber and plastic parts to deteriorate

How Does Acid Rain Damage Car Paint?

Acid rain can cause serious damage to a car. The acid in the rain strips away the protective wax and polish on a car, leaving the paint vulnerable to corrosion.

How to Protect a Car from Acid Rain?

There are several things you can do:

  1. GOOD – Apply Wax to your car regularly. A good coat of wax will provide a barrier between the acid rain and your paint.
  2. BETTER – Frequent car washes are great for cars. A good car wash will clean off acid rain and also help remove other corrosive substances like dirt, grime, or salt that has accumulated on your paint.
  3. BEST – Apply nano ceramic polymer coatings. This will create an extra layer of protection for your paint. These coatings form an invisible barrier that repels water and dirt.

What is Road Salt?

In the Northern cold states, road salt is used to de-ice roads in the winter. The most common road salt is sodium chloride, which is a compound made up of sodium and chlorine. The big salt trucks usually have the sodium chloride version of road salt to make the roadways safer. In the extremely cold areas of the US, they use other variations including potassium chloride and magnesium chloride.

How Does Road Salt Damage a Car?

The main problem with road salt is that it creates a corrosive environment. Salt and water create a brine solution that can corrode metal surfaces. When this solution comes into contact with painted surfaces on your car, it can cause the outer clear coating to break down, delaminate, and peel off. The problem is compounded in winter because there are more vehicles on the road kicking up salt, and the temperature difference between the air and pavement creates a moisture-rich environment that speeds up corrosion.

How Do I Protect My Car from Road Salt?

The easiest way to protect clear coat from road salt is to simply wash it during the winter. A good car wash will remove the most corrosive elements from a car exterior. It sounds simple but it’s true.

Many people don’t bother with this because they need to run it through a car wash unless they have a heated garage in their house.

I’m in Pittsburgh and our winters are brutal. If you don’t have a heated garage, there’s the added problem of frozen doors and door locks the next morning after we wash our cars. It just gets so cold so fast that the door jambs and locks don’t have time to dry before they ice up after a car wash.

One of the best ways to protect your car from road salt is regular car washes. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

Another very effective way to protect your car from road salt is to apply wax. This forms a protective barrier between the paint and the environment. Wax also tends to be a catch-all phrase for any type of protective coating or sealant that you apply to your car paint. So let’s briefly expand on this.

What is a Polymer Sealant?

A polymer sealant is a clear coating that is applied to the car’s paint. The polymer sealant bonds with the paint and creates a barrier between the environment and the paint. This type of sealant will last for several months but will need to be reapplied after each wash.

What is a Nano Coating?

A nano coating is a type of sealant that uses nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the science of creating materials and devices at the atomic and molecular levels. In this case, nanoparticles are used to create a protective barrier on the car’s paint. The nanoparticles are so small that they form an invisible barrier on the car.

What is a Ceramic Coating?

Ceramic coatings are liquid polymers that bond to the car’s paint and become a durable, clear layer of protection. It can last for several years and is applied by a professional.

These types of coatings are basically upgraded polymer sealants. It’s a newer technology created by blending a polymer sealant with a nanoparticle or nanomaterial that makes it stronger and more versatile.

For example, scientists have combined graphene into a polymer sealant that provided incredible anti-corrosive properties. This is the basis for nano-ceramic polymer coatings.

Can I Apply a Ceramic Coating Myself?

Yes, but we don’t recommend it. The process is very technical and requires a lot of experience to do it correctly. If you don’t have the experience, we suggest finding a professional who can apply the coating for you.

Polymer coatings and sealants will help protect car clear coats for long periods of time. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

How Do I Apply a Ceramic Polymer Coating to a Car?

Nano-Ceramic Polymer Coatings are applied in a similar way to polymer sealants, but the process is usually done by a professional. The coating is applied in very thin layers and needs to be cured under UV light or infrared light.

What are the Benefits of Ceramic Coatings?

Ceramic polymer coatings provide an extra layer of protection for your paint. They form an invisible barrier that repels water and dirt. Ceramic polymer coatings also make it easier to wash your car because the dirt and grime will not bond as strongly to the paint.

These types of nano-enhanced polymer sealants and coatings can also last for several years with proper care. This is much longer than a standard polymer sealant.

This type of coating is applied to the paint and creates an invisible hydrophobic barrier, which is highly effective at repelling water, dirt, and road salt making it easier to wash your car, whether it’s at home or at a car wash. Ceramic polymer coatings can last for several years, but they are more expensive than polymer sealants.

How Do Ceramic Coatings Protect Cars?

Car waxes, polymer sealants, nano-ceramic polymer coatings are fantastic ways to protect your car’s paint and increase scratch resistance. Ceramic and nano types of coatings are also an option for cars that are frequently exposed to road salts. These coatings form a thick barrier that protects the paint from corrosion. They are also hydrophobic, meaning they repel water. This is a key feature because it prevents the formation of salt brine on the paint surface.

Another cool aspect of ceramic coatings is snow easily pushes right off the car. So you don’t need to do a lot of work cleaning snow off your vehicle.

Keep in mind that none of this is an excuse to not take your car to a car wash during the winter.

The great thing about this type of car coating is the tiny nanoparticles form an extremely tough barrier on the surface of the paint. And increasing your car’s scratch resistance is always a good thing.

One downside to nano ceramic polymer coatings is they can be expensive. But, if you’re looking for the best protection available, it’s definitely the way to go.

Are Ceramic Coatings Better Than Wax?

There is no question that ceramic coatings are better than wax. One of the main reasons is the hydrophobic barrier that it creates. The thicker barrier protects against corrosion from salt damage and increases scratch resistance much better than wax alone.

The hard coat layer formed by the coating provides some protection from light scratches. It’s similar to paint protection film, but not as durable or long-lasting. It is also resistant to paint color fading from damaging UV rays, repels dry dirt particles, oils, and water through the hydrophobic barrier.

Your car will look great for a longer period of time with this type of paint protection.

Protect Your Car from Road Salt Damage

At the end of the day, it’s up to you which option you choose. But if you’re looking for the best way to protect your car from road salt damage, acidic tannins from wet leaves, rock chips, light scratches from automated car washes, and other winter weather hazards, then a nano coating is the way to go.

You can also protect your car’s paint from road salt with wax or a polymer sealant – both of which are much less expensive options.

So, which is better to protect your car?

Ultimately, the best way to protect your car year-round, but especially in the winter months, is to use a combination of methods.

Paint Protection Film for Cars

Another much more expensive option is to add a car paint protection film to specific parts of your car that experience road salt damage. This includes side rocker panels, front and rear bumper, front hood, etc. These are also the same exterior surface areas that experience damage from rock chips, snow, ice, and UV rays, along with the usual dirt and grime from driving.

The film is a clear urethane or vinyl and installs on the car much like window tinting. It’s usually applied by a professional installer and can last for several years, but does need to be replaced when it starts to show signs of wear.

One downside to this option is that not all parts of the car are protected – just the areas where the film is applied.

Another downside is that it can be expensive to have installed, depending on how much surface area you’re covering.

A final consideration is that some paint protection films for cars can yellow over time from exposure to UV rays. But the sun, while still strong in the cold weather winter season, is nothing compared to the rust spots created by harsh chemicals in road salt being dumped on winter roads by salt trucks. So protection films are better than nothing at all.

Waxing Your Car

Waxing your car is probably the most common method people use to protect their car’s paint. It’s a simple process and can be done at home by following these steps:

– Make sure the surface is clean and dry

– Apply a thin coat of wax using a soft cloth

– Wait for the wax to dry completely (usually takes about 15 minutes)

– Buff the waxed surface with a clean, soft cloth

– Repeat the process if necessary

Waxing your car will protect the paint from UV rays, water, and dirt. It’s also relatively inexpensive and easy to do. However, it doesn’t last nearly as long as some of the other options on this list.

Hand Waxing

Hand waxing is the most common way to protect your car’s clear coat paint finish from the rainy season and acid rain. You can find wax in different degrees of hardness depending on how much protection you want for your vehicle, whether it be just a light coating or an extremely durable one.

PRO TIP: The liquid form of wax will last longer than traditional paste. It’s also much easier to apply. That link is for Chemical Guys Butter Wet Wax, which is by far my favorite liquid hand wax. It goes on easily and smoothly. And your car looks amazing after you’re done.

Tools needed for applying car wax by hand are a microfiber cloth or cheesecloth and an applicator of some sort, like cotton balls, old (but clean) t-shirts, sponges, or even household rubber gloves.

What are Microfiber Towels?

I love microfiber towels so much that I wrote an entire article about what kinds to use, how to wash and care for them, and how to manage your microfiber supply.

And don’t think just because you are using them at home instead of a detailing business that you shouldn’t worry about managing your towel supply. The first time your spouse uses one of your car window cleaning only microfibers to dust furniture with Pledge, you will learn to put your microfibers in their own labeled bin.

Removing Wax Residue

Wax residue is hard, crusty, leftover wax. It happens with waxing by hand or high-speed buffer, so there’s no magic method to getting rid of it other than not using as much wax or protective coating.

You will find wax residue in hard-to-reach areas on vehicles. Like where the car door metal meets the rest of the car. Or door handles and windows. And around headlights or brake lights. It’s a pain in the rear.

There are many ways to remove the wax residue. And most of the methods that actually work are old school.

One such method is simply laying out aluminum foil or a sheet of wax paper on the ground while you work and then scraping off any leftover residue with your fingernail.

What are Plastic Razor Blades?

Plastic razor blades are another very useful tool when waxing a car. The wax residue in hard-to-reach places quickly becomes an ordeal without these cheap, little, plastic pieces. If you don’t have them, definitely buy some. They look like razor blades in shape only. In reality, they are simple pieces of plastic with a fat edge to hold it and a thinner flat edge to scrape.

I use this scraper that I found on Amazon a while back (picture below). It comes with both plastic and metal blades and the top portion extends to get into those hard-to-reach places. And it’s less than $10, so win-win.

A good rule of thumb is to wax your car every few months to keep the paint looking fresh.

Hand Waxing Your Car is Difficult

If you insist on hand waxing your vehicle, just be aware that you are embarking on a very long, arduous, all-around difficult task.

People who do this generally look at it as a relaxing several-hour process. They turn on some music or whatever game is on the TV, and they start working. It’s not something you do in a hurry. Take your time and get it done right.

Before I discovered high-speed buffers, I would spend an entire Sunday afternoon waxing my vehicle.

The application of car wax is the same today as it has always been. Either by hand or with a powered high-speed buffer. These two methods are also known as the hard way and easy way.

The easy way is always better.

There are two types of carnauba wax: natural and synthetic. Synthetic is better because it lasts longer, but both will give your car’s paint a deep shine.

The high-speed buffer will take off the wax much faster than you can by hand. And it will do a better job, too.

It’s not that difficult to use a buffer. Just be careful not to apply too much pressure and go over the same spot too many times in the same place. You don’t want to burn the paint off your car.

The best buffers have a speed control so you can adjust the speed according to the condition of the surface you’re working on.

High Speed Buffing Your Car Clear Coat

So how is high-speed buffing better? Well, mainly because it’s not physically possible to move your hand as fast as a high-speed buffer going a few thousand RPM (revolutions per minute).

A high-speed buffer will remove defects in paint and clear coats like swirls, water spots, and oxidation as well as apply car wax.

The surface of your clear coat is left completely clean after buffing because the machine rotates at speeds up to 2000 rpm in a circular motion over its entire surface.

After doing this for about 20 minutes with different types of buffing pads, your car will look amazing.

How to Avoid Circular Swirls from High-Speed Buffing

What about circular swirls in the clear coat from the high-speed buffer?

These can occur if your skills need improving on the wheel (that’s what pro detailers call the high-speed buffer).

You need to make sure the surface is clean and dry before starting. Second, use a light touch when buffing. And finally, use the appropriate type of buffing pad for the job.

If you are using a high-speed buffer for the first time on your car, there’s an even better way to protect your car’s paint and clear coat.

A High-speed Orbital Buffer is the Best Way to Buff a Car

As the name suggests, an orbital buffer moves in a random orbit around the surface it is polishing instead of rotating in one spot like a high-speed buffer.

This prevents swirls from forming on your car’s clear coat and gives you a smooth finish.

I use a Porter-Cable High-Speed Orbital Buffer that I’ve had for years.

Just like the high-speed buffer, it removes swirls but because of its orbital motion (it rotates in a circle with an ellipse), you can control the buffing by using your hand. But pay attention to paint temperature and use gloves for protection from heat.

Good Car Care is a Great Habit for Car Owners

Car care is a good habit to start any time of the year. Not just the winter months. Keeping your car clean will benefit you in the long run.

My goal in this article was to teach you a few ways to protect your car in the winter season and throughout the year. Car washes might not be the best way to wash your car, but the alternative is to leave it exposed to the elements. And that is much worse.

Wash it regularly with a good car wash soap and dry it completely.

Apply wax every few months or so using good quality wax to protect car paint. Especially in cold weather and winter months.

Use a polymer sealant or professionally installed nano ceramic polymer coating to provide an extra level of protection.

If you live in an area with high levels of road salt, it might be a good idea to consider using all three methods for the ultimate winter paint protection.

No matter which option you choose, remember that prevention is always better than trying to fix road salt damage after the fact.

And, if you can afford it, have a nano-ceramic polymer protective coating applied to your car paint. This will give you the best protection against all the big bads of winter.