Detailing Expert Answers: Does Polishing Remove Scratches?

A laceration on your car, no matter how minuscule, can ruin your day or week, especially when you consider the potential costs to repair.

Even DIY scratch removal is sometimes costly or time consuming.

As you know, polishing is a great way to make your car’s exterior look fantastic, but does it remove the scratches in the process?

Quick Answer

Polishing can remove car scratches that are affecting the clear coat of your car. Polishing can’t remove a scratch that extends beyond the clear coat and into the base coat. A vehicle with deep scratches needs to be repainted. 

Below, I explain the effectiveness of polishing as a scratch-removal option.

I will look at how different types of scratches respond to polishing and offer alternatives to polishing. 

Does Polishing Remove Scratches?

In some corners of the auto-detailing world, polishing is said to possess mythical powers that eliminate all types of scratches.

While polishing can remove scratches, it isn’t the all-conquering remedy to the problem. 

Modern cars come with four paint layers

  • E-coat: It prevents corrosion and promotes paint adhesion.
  • Primer: It provides UV radiation resistance and an adhesive layer for the basecoat. 
  • Basecoat: It gives the car its color.
  • Clearcoat: This transparent layer protects the base coat against damage and gives the car a shiny finish. 

The top clear coat is the thickest layer of your car’s paint job. It can be five times thicker than the color-rich basecoat. 

The clear coat has no color pigment but scratches still appear as light catches the groove created by the scratch.

Try to imagine the clear coat as a piece of entirely flat earth. A scratch creates a sharp valley immediately noticeable on the flat surface. 

To get rid of the valley, you smooth it out by collapsing the valley’s edges until the bottom lies level with surrounding areas of land.

You’ll create a bowl-like depression around the area, but the crack will no longer exist. 

Polishing works in a similar manner – it smooths out the scratch into a depression that no longer catches light, making the scratch disappear. 

The extra thickness of the clear coat allows you to take out a layer and remain with a significant coating to protect your car.

Polishing also sharpens the glow provided by the clear coat. 

By removing the edges of the sharp valley and creating a bowl-like depression, the earth is no longer completely flat, but the glaring valley goes away.

Similarly, by polishing out a crack, you create an uneven section of the clear coat. 

However, as the clear coat is transparent, it’ll be extremely difficult to notice a depression of the clear coat.

You’ll need a paint thickness gauge to spot the difference in paint thickness between polished and unpolished car panels. 

Some car owners refuse to leave the paint shop knowing that a section of the clear coat lies lower than another, even when the imperfection is nearly invisible to the human eye. 

Leveling the paint to create a perfectly flat surface is referred to as 100% correction – the technician cuts away at the clear coat until all panels have similar clear coat thickness. 

This process is unnecessary as polishing the scratch removes the unbearable sight from view. You need not level the car’s entire clear coat. 

By doing so, you’ll significantly reduce the longevity of the oh-so-important clear coat. 

Furthermore, scratches will inevitably appear on your car, especially if you use it often.

By leveling the clear coat every time you polish out a scratch, you’ll manually remove the clear coat in record time. 

A simple test to determine the depth of a scratch: if your fingernail catches on the scratch, it’s too deep to be remedied by polishing. 

If your nail glides on the scratch, continuing along unobstructed, you are looking at a superficial scratch compliant to polishing. 

These two types of polishing can remove scratches: hand polishing and machine polishing.

Hand Polishing

Hand polishing will remove light scratches on your clear coat with minimal effort.

You’ll need an applicator pad or microfiber cloth, buffing compound or scratch removal product, and a buffing microfiber cloth. 

To remove a scratch by hand polishing, follow these steps:

  • Start by washing your car or the panel that needs polishing 
  • Give the car plenty of time to dry
  • Park the car in a cool area 
  • Apply the buffing compound on the microfiber cloth
  • Use moderate pressure and circular motions to apply
  • Allow 30 seconds before wiping the panel dry 

If you can still see the scratch, repeat the process above. 

Keep repeating until the scratch clears.

If it fails to clear after five rounds of application and wiping, the scratch requires machine polishing. 

Machine Polishing

You’ll need a buffing machine or a cordless drill with an applicator pad to machine polish a scratch.

To polish out a scratch using one of these appliances, follow these steps:

  • Clean the affected area and give time to dry
  • Spread rubbing compound on the area with a cloth
  • Attach applicator pad to machine or drill
  • Dab some polishing compound on the applicator pad
  • Apply light pressure to the machine and polish the area

Make sure not to press too hard on the machine to prevent excessive abrasion of the clear coat. 

Chemical Guys Polishing Kit

This polishing kit from Chemical Guys has all you need! It comes with an orbital polishing machine, different polishing pads, and polishing compounds.

Click the link below to get it for yourself. Your car will thank you!

Machine polishing can be a DIY task, but only when using slow-speed orbital buffers. You are less likely to remove a significant chunk of the clear coat using an orbital buffer. 

However, leave high-speed buffing to the professionals as it removes the clear coat quickly and can cause paint damage. 

Professionals know how to use it to do swift scratch repairs. However, if you, an unskilled DIY fanatic, try using a high-speed buffer on your car, you’ll likely mess up. 

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Can Car Polishing Remove Deep Scratches?

As mentioned, deep scratches penetrate the thick layer coat and into the paint and primer.

You can identify a deep scratch quickly as they look hideous on a car’s exterior.

However, if unsure, run your nail across the blemish; if your nail catches on the scratch, you are dealing with a deep scratch. 

Quick Answer

Polishing can’t remove deep scratches as it is solely effective on scratches and swirl marks in the clear coat. If the scratch penetrates past the clear coat, polishing isn’t effective. A scratch penetrating the clear coat usually requires repainting. 

The clear coat is the only paint layer that you can reduce to clear imperfections. The base coat layer is so thin that the only way to restore a scratch on it is to repaint it. 

It’s a shame that a simple fix like polishing can’t fix deep scratches. 

I don’t recommend driving your car with a deep scratch.

A shallow scratch is a superficial blemish that you can ignore, but a deep scratch exposes the sensitive areas of your car’s body. 

A study on the evolution of car paint found that the primer coating provides protection against corrosion and is essential for chip resistance. 

Therefore, a deep scratch that goes beyond the clear coat and into the primer exposes the vehicle to rust.

Rust forms and spreads fast in damp environments, so a small but deep enough scratch can cause huge damage. 

The likelihood of a scratch sparking corrosion increases if the scratch exposes the bare metal. 

An annoying characteristic about car scratches is that they are rarely of even depth. One part of the scratch can be superficial; another part can extend into the primer. 

Therefore, it’s essential to meticulously study the nature of a scratch before deciding to run with it. 

My advice is to consult a paint technician for any scratch that catches your nail. Polishing won’t correct the issue, so you’ll need to explore other solutions. 

How To Remove Deep Car Scratches

You should let a professional handle deep car scratches as there’s a risk of doing more damage to your vehicle as you attempt to repair it. 

You’ll need the following to remove deep car scratches:

  • 2000-grit sandpaper
  • Primer
  • Matching paint
  • Clearcoat
  • Buffer (optional)

To deep scratches at home, you would follow these basic steps:

  • Sand the affected area in the direction of the scratch
  • Clean the sanded area
  • Use masking tape to isolate the area you need to repaint
  • Spray primer on the affected area and let it dry
  • Spray same color paint onto the area
  • Allow each layer of paint to dry before adding another
  • Apply multiple layers of clear coat

When applying multiple coats of paint or clear coat, allow each coat to dry fully before adding another. You can also make the painted panel pop by polishing it. 

Executing the steps above might require some skill.

Many errors can happen if you attempt to remove deep scratches at home, none more annoying than failing to match the paint color to your car’s factory-spec color. 

You’ve seen cars with different body panels having different shades of the same color, and you can agree with me that it isn’t a pretty sight.

It also reduces the car’s resale value as it appears neglected by the owner. 

After noticing a scratch, make your way to the paint shop and let the professionals handle the problem. 

Fill the Scratch Will Glazing Putty to Avoid Sanding

This option is for people who believe that sanding is too aggressive an option to repair a deep scratch.

It involves filling the crack with glazing putty to restore the car’s original structure. 

Start by cleaning the scratch before spreading putty on it until you achieve a smooth finish.

Allow it to harden before wiping off the excess putty. 

Complete the process by painting the repaired area. Remember to use a color similar to the one on your car. 

This method of deep scratch repair is relatively common, but I don’t recommend it as putty has a limited life span.

It usually cracks after a while, reexposing the damage you intended to conceal.  

How Does Polishing Fix Scratches?

Polishing is the magic remedy to fixing superficial scratches on your car. Except, it’s not really magic: it’s an art perfected by paint shop technicians over the years.

Also, polishing is easy enough to learn through the myriad of DIY videos available online. 

Quick Answer

Polishing fixes scratches by cutting down the surrounding clear coat until it’s level with the scratch, essentially making the scratch invisible. The polish also restores the shine to make the affected area even less noticeable. 

A scratch on your car’s clear coat layer becomes visible when light catches the side of the groove.

It produces a strong reflection that can make the scratch appear worse, especially on cars with dark-colored paint. 

An inspection with your nail will reveal that it’s just a superficial blemish that polishing can fix. 

Polishing flattens the scratch to prevent it from being visible. It levels the V-shaped crack on the clear coat to form a shallow valley. 

This shallow valley doesn’t catch light like the V-shaped groove of a scratch.

It isn’t visible – the only way to know that polishing has happened is by using a paint thickness gauge. 

The rubbing compound used during polishing cuts tiny layers of the clear coat until you can no longer see the crack.

It usually takes longer to cut through the clear coat by hand than with a machine. 

The drawback to using a buffer is that you risk taking away too much of the clear coat than is necessary.

The chance of removing an unnecessarily massive chunk of the clear coat increases when using a high-speed buffer. 

After leveling out the crack, the rubbing compound leaves behind a rather dull spot. Enter the polishing compound. 

The polishing compound restores the shine on the area you’ve just cut. It provides a clean finish that makes the paint and the smile on your face pop out. 

Key Takeaways

  • Polishing removes superficial scratches on the car’s clear coat. 
  • It involves using an abrasive compound to level the scratch and a polishing compound to restore the paint’s shine. 
  • Polishing cannot remove deep scratches that extend beyond the clear coat. 
  • Deep scratches can expose the metalwork to corrosion, so fixing them quickly is essential.
  • The recommended way to fix deep scratches involves sanding and repainting. 
  • Let professionals fix deep scratches on your car to minimize the risk of further paint damage. 


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WIRED: ‘Tis But a Scratch: Misadventures in Automotive Scratch Repair

DeFelsko: How to Use Paint Thickness Gauges for Better Automotive Detailing

Supercheap: How to remove scratches and swirl marks

Merton Auto Body: Why buff your car

Quora: How does polishing remove scratches?

MDPI: Evolution of the Automotive Body Coating Process – A Review

GoMechanic: Types of car scratches and repair explained

Family Handyman: 3 Easy Ways to Remove Scratches from a Car

J.D. Power: How to Fix Deep Scratches on A Car Pros and Cons of Plastic Car Body Filler

Jan-Lucas Ganssauge
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge