We cut through the jargon and spill the beans on what the differences really are.
When it comes to protecting your car’s paintwork, you’re already spoiled for choice. But whilst there may be a dizzying array of offerings down at your local auto parts store, the options available fall into one of three main categories: natural waxes, synthetic sealants or hybrid spray ceramic sealants.
There’s a fourth category, which is ceramic coatings, but these are traditionally recommended for professional or advanced-level detailer application, and we’ll cover those in a future article.
So, what are the differences between each, and what will suit your needs best? Read on and find out!
Comparison Table: Wax vs Sealant vs Spray Coatings
Ease of application
Paste waxes require effort to apply and remove. Liquid and spray forms are easier, but not always as effective.
Fairly easy to apply, and mostly found in liquid form.
The easiest to apply by virtue of being spray-bottle based. Some can be sprayed and rinsed without buffing.
Depth of Gloss
Most preferred by the industry: deep, warm and “natural” gloss.
Has a cooler glow to it. Gloss depth can be outstanding depending on the brand.
Very deep and long-lasting gloss, but lacks warmth.
Compatibility with other products
Great as a standalone coat, and can be layered.
Can be used as a protective base before a layer of natural wax is applied.
Only compatible as either a standalone application or on top of an existing ceramic coating.
Least durable—natural waxes will often last up to three months or less.
Can offer up to six months of protection.
The most durable without being a full-grade ceramic coating. Up to 12 months of protection.
The Traditional Way: Waxes
Traditional waxes are your go-to option for paint protection. They’re plant-based, using carnauba wax. Some modern waxes have been engineering with synthetic additions which aim to boost longevity and increase gloss, but regardless, they’re still the first product that comes to your mind when shopping for paint protection.
Available in both liquid and paste forms, you apply wax to a panel at a time, before buffing it off. This will leave a thin layer of waxy protection on top of your car’s clear coat. Carnauba waxes have excellent properties of UV blocking, can protect against road salt, and offer superior water repulsion.
But detailers who use wax love it for one main reason: its glow. Considered to give a “warm” finish, the unique glow given to a car after a coat of natural wax is difficult to replicate with synthetic options. It’s a more organic finish and is preferred amongst those in the detailing industry—not to mention it is a key point of appreciation when it comes to car shows.
Waxes also offer superior water-beading properties. Water beading is when water comes in to contact with a panel, it beads up into marble-like balls or droplets. These are easy to wipe away and will sheet off a car naturally while being driven. Water beading can also be pleasing aesthetically, although this is more of personal preference.
A drawback of traditional car waxes though is their durability. A carnauba wax is only going to last you up to around 3 months. You’re likely to have to reapply it more often and may find yourself spending extra on materials if that’s the case. But despite this, automotive wax remains one of the most popular items in the aisles of your local auto store. Its tried and tested abilities at paint protection have gone some way in ensuring its continued popularity.
The Middle-Ground: Paint Sealants
Paint sealants are considered somewhat of a middle ground for detailers. They’re synthetically composed and can be manufactured to carry differentiating attributes. They're applied in the same manner as traditional waxes but are usually easier to spread thanks to their consistency. Sealants come in both liquid and spray forms, and are generally easier to buff off than natural wax too.
By far the largest benefit that sealants have over traditional car waxes is longevity. Once applied, you can expect a sealant to last you as long as six months.
Sealants also have the added benefit of displaying stronger water sheeting qualities. Rather than water beading (as you’d find with natural wax), sealants increase the contact angle with water. What this means is that water will run off the paintwork, sheeting, similar as to the process in which water leaves a duck’s back.
The negatives of sealants are the lack of warmth they bring to the paintwork. They instead have a slightly cooler look, and professionals can quickly tell the difference between a car coated in sealant and a car coated with wax.
There is a solution to this though. Many detailers recommend a two-step process of paint protection, by first applying a layer of sealant. Then, on top of this layer (once buffed away of course), you’re free to add a layer of natural wax. This affords you the long-lasting protection of a sealant, combined with the depth and warm gloss of natural wax!
The New Kid On The Block: Ceramic Spray Sealants
We spoke earlier about ceramic sealants, but they don’t quite come into the territory of consumer-grade products for your average detailing enthusiast. This is because they’re expensive, and require a bit more attention to your preparatory work to ensure a successful application.
However, in the last five years or so, a new challenger has entered the paint protection ring. It intends to bridge the gap between sealants and full-on ceramic coatings. These are known widely as ceramic spray sealants. As the name implies, they come in spray form and are incredibly easy to apply to the paintwork—many being as conventional as spraying and rinsing.
Ceramic spray waxes bridge the gap between sealants and ceramic coatings and share a lot of attributes with the two. While not being as long-lasting as a ceramic coating (most ceramic coatings are quoted to last for a minimum of two years), they offer greater durability than sealants; ceramic spray waxes are generally quoted to last up to 12 months after application.
If using a ceramic spray sealant that requires you to buff it off with a microfiber towel, do not let the towel try out. Wash and rinse out the residue immediately, as the nature of ceramic spray sealants can result in the properties of the microfiber cloth changing permanently.
So, Which One is For Me?
It will boil down to many things, including how much you’re willing to spend on products, and how much time you want to spend detailing your car. With even the least durable of natural waxes, you can expect at least two months of protection, which might be worth it for the soft and warm glow.
If you're a fan of longer durability with a deep gloss, you might want to look at sealants. And, if you prefer to not have to worry about reapplying protectant semi-regularly, you would be best suited with a ceramic spray sealant.