More people are caring for their cars than ever before, and advancements in technology, production, and distribution are giving us access to the best products the industry has ever had to offer. With these improved products, professionals and driveway detailers alike are furthering their quest for one of the quintessential traits of any car enthusiast’s ride – a beautiful finish.
What’s the most common product that’s allowing us to do that? Ceramic coatings. Nowadays, it’s hard to dive into a social media scroll-hole without seeing someone showing off their ceramic coating, how it beads like crazy, sheds water by the sheet, and that oh-so-sought after mirror finish. And while this may have come at the chagrin of the carnauba-loving, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” traditionalists…well, sorry boomer! Waxes are dead, ceramics are in, and we’re about to dive into exactly why.
Waxing your car and applying a ceramic coating share one thing in common, which is applying something to the painted surfaces to protect them and improve gloss, but that’s where the commonality ends. The two are vastly different from each other in composition and functionality, so to get to where we are today with these advanced nanocoatings, let’s first set some context about where we came from when waxes were all the rage.
Traditional carnauba waxes used an extract from carnauba palms, grown in specific areas of Brazil. Once the leaves were dry and the wax was extracted, it would go through a refining process before being packaged as a paste that you could apply to your car. That’s a very simplified introduction, but the long story short of wax is that it was easy to apply by hand, could be buffed off with a towel, and left a beautiful, warm glow on the paint that drivers cherished for decades. Waxes came onto the scene when automobiles had single stage paint, meaning that there was no separate, sacrificial layer of clear coat on top of the base coat (what actually gives the car its color), so waxing your car regularly was vital to preserving the color and keep it looking great.
The biggest drawback to wax was its durability or lack thereof. Because it’s the by-product of something natural like a plant, it can’t stand up to mother nature and chemicals the same way a synthetic product could. As a result, it would only last a few weeks or months and then needed to be reapplied again. Not to mention, it still required the same considerable amount of effort to clean a waxed car versus one without wax. In the end, all of that combined is what killed waxes. Now before I switch gears here, let me say that there are definitely some great waxes out there. In fact, I keep some AMMO Crème on hand for the off chance that one of my customers specifically asks for a traditional wax. Plus, you’ve still got brands like Pinnacle and Collinite cranking out some of the most popular waxes among Concours finishes at the most prestigious car shows. Nonetheless, waxes have fallen from grace as the number one choice of enthusiasts and professionals in the modern era.
The first thing you’ll notice when comparing coatings to waxes is the packaging and delivery are completely different. Instead of a tub about the size of your hand containing a semi-hardened paste, ceramic coatings often come in tiny bottles only holding 50mL. Inside, companies have bottled a liquid carrier of silica-based nanoparticles that are applied by drops to a micro suede cloth or microfiber applicator. A single bottle of one of these coatings will cover 4-6 cars on average, depending on their size (not including applications on the wheels and glass).
The nanotechnology in ceramic coatings uses silicon dioxide (SiO2) as the active ingredient to replace and improve upon what carnauba once had to offer. These coatings are applied as a thin layer and given some time to flash (or bond with the pores of your clear coat) before being buffed off to a high shine. Within a few days, after exposure to sun and air, the coating will cure completely and form a semi-permanent bond with the clear coat.
When all is said and done, the average person won’t know the difference between a waxed and coated car just by looking at them. They’re both going to look great with amazing gloss, but once you start to expose the vehicles to the elements of nature or the chemicals in your cleaning regimen, the difference becomes crystal clear. Unlike the soft composition of carnauba wax, ceramic coatings form a hardened glass-like shell on top of your clear coat, so the protection that it has to offer is going to be there for a few years instead of just weeks or months at best. Ceramic coatings leave a much slicker surface behind, which reduces friction (more commonly referred to in this context as surface tension). As a result, water beads up incredibly tight and dirt will not stick to the surface as easily when compared to wax. In fact, if you’d take a close look at a dirty car on a rainy day, you’ll notice that the beads actually encapsulate the dirt and carry it away from the coated surface if you blow on it (imagine driving away in your car), which gives ceramic coatings their self-cleaning properties.
“Self-cleaning” has been the big sticking point for hype in the auto detailing world, and many have confused this for an exclamation of, “I never have to wash my car again!” That couldn’t be any farther from the truth. Paint, clear coat, or anything you’ll protect it with still needs to be taken care of just the same as you take care of your own skin. After all, this is your car’s skin we’re talking about here. But with a ceramic coating, that care is as easy as humanly possible. Any pH-neutral soap will do, since they’re designed specifically as gentle cleaners that won’t degrade any wax, sealants, or coatings, but rather just provide the gentle lubrication and cleaning power needed to release dirt and create a safe wash experience. Once washed, you can simply dry the vehicle and get on with your life. There’s no reapplying the coating after a wash which is exactly what you would do with wax. However, most manufacturers recommend keeping a ceramic spray sealant or “topper” on hand, which rejuvenates the coating every so often by simply misting it onto the surface and buffing it off with a microfiber towel.
Now it would be negligent of me to get to this point and not address the reality that everything good has its bad side, even ceramic coatings. The gloss is outstanding, they shed water easier than anything before, chemical resistance is top-notch, and no one can argue that a ceramic coating isn’t worth the money for the benefits it provides, but there is a clear gap in cost when compared to waxes. A 50mL bottle of a ceramic coating is going to cost between $150 – $200 on average, which is easily twice as much or more than the average wax. Factor in a professional to apply the coating for you, and prices will usually start around $500 for cars and go up from there.
Preparation before applying a coating needs to be mentioned too. Remember, this coating is forming a semi-permanent bond that’s going to be there for years. If there are any swirls or defects in the paint, they must be polished out before applying the coating. Otherwise, you’re just going to lock those defects in without the ability to correct them. The polishing process is time-consuming, and often requires hours to complete between finishing the wash and decontamination, and then starting the application of the coating. Leaving your vehicle in the hands of a professional detailer for a correction and coating will often get you near or above the $1,000 range, but that’s a long term investment in the protection and maintenance of a vehicle with a sticker price anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. And so to many, that has become at least a fair price to pay.
This industry has come so far and continues to advance at a blistering pace. It seems like ceramic coatings just started to really blow up in the past few years, and we’re already seeing their own evolution. Now there are sprayable forms, easy-to-use coatings that put the power in the hand of the DIYer, and most recently the introduction of graphene. None of us know what will come next, but I do know we’ll all still be chasing that perfect finish, no matter what product is allowing us to do it. Don’t forget to share your shine with us by tagging @SyneryWorxUSA on Instagram!
See you guys out on the road,
Owner, Island Aesthetics Mobile Detailing