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  • Writer's pictureAutowash

Thin-Skinned: A Lesson in Clear Coat Thickness

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

As car lovers, we appreciate the sleek and glossy finish of a well-maintained car. The love of glossy, clean paint is at the core of why Autowash was created… Because you love your car! What a lot of people don’t realize is that beautiful, lustrous shine is your car’s clear coat. Like a crystal clear candy shell on the outside of the base coat (where the color comes from) clear coat is why modern cars have such an incredible gloss when they’re maintained properly. However, despite its crucial role in your vehicle’s appearance, it is surprisingly thin and delicate which makes it susceptible to various forms of damage. But why should you care? Read on and we’ll explain . . .


First, let’s learn a little bit more about clear coat.

Infographic showing the difference between clearcoat, basecoat, and primer. Depicting different scratch depths.

Automotive clear coat is made from a blend of acrylic and polyurethane. In basic terms, it is paint without the pigment to give it color. This layer acts as a shield, protecting the underlying paint from harmful UV rays, oxidation, and environmental factors. Prior to clear coat, cars were finished with single-stage paint, commonly referred to as lacquer. While single-stage paints can have a very rich look, they age very rapidly. If you’ve ever seen a red car from the 1970s or earlier, before clear coat was commonly used, the paint would slowly begin to look chalky or pink. These paint jobs required constant maintenance to prevent them from fading. The introduction of clear coat meant that the color would be locked in under a protective layer, preserving that color for much longer, in spite of exposure to the sun and elements.


If clear coat is so much better, what’s the catch?

Severely oxidized clear coat that is failing due to neglect and/or improper care
Severely oxidized clear coat that is failing due to neglect and/or improper care

Clear coat does have tremendous benefit to the longevity of your car's exterior appearance, but it comes with challenges of it's own. Primarily, clear coat is incredibly thin. How thin? The average new vehicle coming from the factory at the time of this article has approximately 3-4 mils of clear coat applied, sometimes less. To put that into perspective, the average sheet of printer paper is about 4 mils thick, meaning your car’s clear coat is only about as thick as a sheet of paper! That thin acrylic and polyurethane barrier is all that stands between your beautiful paint color and the elements! What’s worse is the average cost to refinish just a single panel of a car to OEM standards can cost thousands of dollars!


Prevention is the best medicine.

All is not lost, however. There are things you can do as an enthusiastic car owner to prevent damage, keep your clear coat intact, and preserve the look of your vehicle for years to come.


Make sure to protect your clear coat! Regardless of whether you choose to use paint protection film (clear bra), a ceramic coating, or a regular wax to seal your clear coat, having a sacrificial barrier on the surface not only enhances the look, but it provides another layer of protection from the elements. These layers of protection also make your car much easier to clean when it does become dirty by providing a surface that dirt and contamination are less prone to cling to.


In-bay automatic touchless carwash applying Stamina Ceramic Spray to the exterior of a vehicle.

Besides protection, regular cleaning to remove dirt, harmful residues, airborne pollutants, bird bombs, and bug guts is essential. The longer these contaminants are allowed to dwell on the surface the more likely degradation to the clear coat becomes. But not just any cleaning method will do. Surface contamination is abrasive, so car washes or washing methods that use direct contact with the paint can cause scratches and micro-swirls. The choice of soap is also important. Cheap household cleaners can be bad for your clear coat, and many car washes use low-quality acid-based soaps that strip the finish and cause it to fade over time. At Autowash we use our own proprietary non-corrosive soaps and exclusive touchless equipment to avoid scratching or causing chemical damage to your clear coat!


In summary, automotive clear coat is a fragile yet vital component in preserving the beauty and value of your vehicle's paintwork. Despite its thinness, it plays a crucial role in safeguarding the underlying paint from the harsh elements it encounters daily. By understanding the vulnerabilities of automotive clear coat and taking proactive steps to protect it, you can maintain a showroom-worthy finish that will turn heads for years to come. Remember, a little care goes a long way in preserving the delicate beauty of your beloved car and Autowash can be an integral part of that process.


Maintain your car's clear coat with an Autowash Membership! It pays for itself in as few as two visits to the car wash each month.

You don't have to be a member to enjoy Autowash! Download our app now and start saving on every wash with exclusive in-app discounts!

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