How to Remove Swirl Marks from Cars: A Step by Step Guide

Deep scratches and massive dents aren’t the only types of damage your vehicle can sustain. Subtle flaws are just as bad; drawing your eye every time you approach your car.

You might be bewildered as to why these unsightly swirl marks have appeared. You might wash your vehicle regularly and take particular care to keep it sparkling clean, so why isn’t your paint job all smooth and glossy?

In this article, we’ll let you in on everything you need to know about swirl marks.

Man wiping his car's surface with a towel after finishing removing swirl marks

As well as learning what causes them, you’ll discover how to remove swirl marks in a step by step process, and what equipment you need to use to get this done.

We’ll also talk about what you’ll need to do in severe cases, and how a professional can help you if you can’t handle the situation on your own.

Last but certainly not least, we’ll talk about some very important tips to prevent swirl marks from appearing on your vehicle again in the future.

So, read on! Your car might not look its best right now, but don’t worry, this won’t be the case for long.

What Are Swirl Marks?

These defects are the result of micro-marring. Fine scratches on your car paintwork appear as swirls that range from faint to deep.

Black cars or dark-colored paints get the shorter end of the stick here. Faults are more apparent on dark colored vehicles than on ones with lighter and brighter colors.

Modern automotive paint is a far cry from the simple pigments of the past. Modern-day formulations are made to resist everyday menaces like heat, corrosion and scratches.

Coatings are getting stronger all the time. People keep their vehicles for longer, prompting the need for paint that won’t deteriorate after only a few years.

Unfortunately, innovations so far aren’t all-encompassing, though. They shield against the occasional rough car wash or sharp branch, but an active attack on your exterior will still leave some clear evidence.

What Causes Swirl Marks?

We have some potentially shocking news (or not): The primary cause of these unpleasant blemishes is probably you. Or, whoever is responsible for washing and caring for your vehicle.

These are the habits that usually leave swirl marks behind:

  • Rough sponges or cloths.
  • Frequent trips through the car wash.
  • Incorrect use of a motorized buffer or car polisher.
  • An abrasive or dirty car cover.
  • Inappropriate detergents or non-automotive products.

Rough Sponges, Brushes or Cloths

What have you been using to wash and dry your vehicle as of late? Kitchen sponges, ancient dried-out towels and rigid brushes aren’t suitable for paint.

These items are all too rough, and each time you subject your exterior to such items, you micro-mar it.

Now imagine unknowingly doing this for years on end … It shouldn’t be a surprise that whole sections of your vehicle are awash with swirls!

Frequent Trips Through the Car Wash

If performed too frequently, the downside of car washes can outweigh the benefits.

Putting your car through a wash more than once or twice a month can start to wear on your paint.

Incorrect Use of Motorized Polisher

Polishers and buffers are great tools, as long as they’re used the way they were meant to be operated. On the other hand, people who don’t know what they’re doing can do a lot of damage to their vehicles.

These machines can burn through your paint if misused. Applying an abrasive compound incorrectly (e.g., rough, random motions) will scratch the exterior.

You aren’t doing your vehicle any favors by over-doing it and using an excessive amount of polisher. Each time, you’re wearing down a thin layer of paint. Once or twice a year is sufficient.

Abrasive or Dirty Car Cover

Don’t think you’re doing yourself any services by using a makeshift cover to save money. Car covers are designed with soft, paint-safe interiors. A tarp or another piece of cloth won’t have the same feature.

Do you own an actual cover? How often is it washed? The inside may have collected grime and dirt that mar your vehicle every time it’s dragged off.

Inappropriate Detergents or Non-Automotive Products

There’s a good reason why automotive-specific soaps and shampoos exist. Household detergents and non-automotive solutions can be corrosive.

Many such products contain sodium hydroxide. In high enough quantities, this chemical is corrosive.

Equipment Needed to Remove Swirl Marks from Cars

In the following sections, we’ll be explaining why choosing the right supplies when trying to remove swirl marks from your car’s exterior is crucial.

The following is a list of items and tools you need to remove swirl marks:

Tool of Choice—Pad or Machine

The choice entirely depends on you. Detailing novices may be better off using applicator pads on swirls by hand, even though it may take longer.

Motorized polishers take some practice to get used to. If you’re already familiar with these tools, or have one at home, take advantage of it.

Note that high-speed orbital polishers are more powerful than dual action types. They’re also less user-friendly for inexperienced detailers.

Since the rubbing compound you’ll be using will be abrasive, it’s best if you pick a softer pad. An aggressive pad with a harsh compound will make the scratches and swirls worse than they already are.

Access to a Water Source and Bucket

Ideally, you should have a hose nearby. If not, you need access to a water source to refill your bucket for rinsing.

Safety Gear

When handling these substances, it’s better to be as safe as possible and wear gloves.

Those of you with asthma or respiratory sensitivities may want to put a mask on, too. Some chemicals can trigger an episode or attack!

Car-Safe Shampoo and Sponge or Wash Mitt

Buy a shampoo that’s made to be used on cars.

You may not see a clear difference right off the bat, but your paint job will be grateful for it, and anyone who’s ever tried to use a shampoo that hasn’t been specifically designed to be used on vehicles will have learned this lesson the hard way.

Car wash mitts and sponges are fabricated to be non-abrasive. Pick one that you’re comfortable using and buy it.

Microfiber Cloths

Those crusty hard towels or rags are fit for drying tires, but not the body of your car. Invest in quality microfiber cloths for polishing the car, wiping and drying.

Not only are they soft, but they catch oils and dirt better than conventional towels.

The alternative is wasting rolls of paper towels, which isn’t eco-friendly.

Light-Grade Clay Bar and Lubricant

Clay bars come in grades ranging from mild to severe. The harder it is, the more aggressive it will be.

Since your car’s paint is already swirled, opt for a lighter grade.

Swirl Mark Remover or Polishing Compound

If you were to search online for swirl mark removers, and you’ll come up with a whole lot of results and different options to choose from.

You can choose any polishing product (such as paint cleaners) if you don’t want to buy a specific swirl mark remover, but be warned that it may not be as effective.

Paint Sealant or Wax

This is optional, but highly recommended. Wax or a sealant will add a glossy shine and protect your car’s paint too.

Preparing Your Vehicle for Swirl Mark Removal

First things first, the surface of the car you’re going to treat has to be prepared.

Grime will interfere with the product you apply. If you use a motorized polisher, dirt will grind further into your paint job, and that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve here.

Preparation involves these easy steps:

  1. Park in a suitable area.
  2. Mix car shampoo with water.
  3. Scrub down your vehicle.
  4. Rinse off soap and dry.
  5. Clay bar your car.
  6. Perform one final rinse.

Step 1: Park in a Suitable Area

Detailing work and subjecting your car to direct sunlight don’t go hand in hand.

Instead, choose a shady place where you can park for a few hours. Make sure you have good visibility, too—if it’s too gloomy, you won’t see the swirls disappearing, and you might end up working on this more than you need to.

Note that certain products aren’t affected by UV light. Still, why make things hotter for yourself?

Step 2: Mix Car Shampoo with Water

Set your bucket down and mix the shampoo with water, as directed. Make sure it’s nice and frothy.

Step 3: Scrub Down Your Vehicle

Dunk your wash mitt or sponge in the bucket to get it sudsy. Start washing your car from the top down (roof to tires) until it’s spotless.

Step 4: Rinse Car Off and Dry

Rinse the entire vehicle off until it’s free of soap. You can either let the air dry it, or wipe it down with your microfiber cloths to get it to dry faster.

Step 5: Time to Clay Bar

It’s your decision if you want to clay bar only the swirled sections or the whole car. If you are applying sealant later, you need to do this to the entire car.

Spray your lubricant on the bar and squeeze it to soften it. Next, coat small sections of the exterior in lubricant and start treating them one at a time.

Don’t push down too hard or rub it violently, though. Drag the bar using smooth motions, repeating until it stops collecting contaminants.

Step 6: One Final Wash and Rinse, Then Dry

Wash and rinse your vehicle by repeating steps one to four. After you’re done, you can leave it to dry naturally or help it along with microfiber towels.

How to Remove Swirl Marks from Cars by Hand

Working on removing swirl marks by hand will give you a greater measure of control over what you’re doing. If using a machine sounds intimidating to you, this method is preferable.

Now that the vehicle is spotless, here’s what you’ll need to do:

  1. Apply your product of choice to your pad.
  2. Treat affected areas.
  3. Wipe off excess product.
  4. Polish your car with a microfiber cloth.

Step 1: Apply Product to Pad or Car Surface

Read the label of your swirl mark remover or polishing product, and apply it to your pad or the surface of your car as directed.

As you would usually do with washing, begin with the upper sections first.

Step 2: Treat Affected Areas

Rub your pad in circular motions until no more product remains. Keep the pressure even on the whole pad; don’t favor one side more than the other.

Remember to work on small sections and not to be too rough while doing this. Also, try not to let the substance dry on your car, as it will be harder to distribute this way.

Step 3: Wipe Off Excess Product

Once the area is swirl-free, wipe off any residual product with a clean cloth.

Step 4: Polish with Microfiber Cloth

Polish the section you just treated. The surface is now ready for you to apply the wax or sealant to it.

How to Remove Swirl Marks from Cars with a Motorized Polisher

Using a polisher machine will shorten the time you spend restoring your car’s exterior. There isn’t much difference between what you do here and a standard polishing job.

Here’s a list of the steps you’ll need to take:

  1. Set up the abrasive polisher.
  2. Put on fresh gloves and mask if needed.
  3. Apply your product to the pad or your car’s surface.
  4. Switch on the machine and begin polishing.
  5. Use wax or paint sealant.

Step 1: Set Up Polisher

Plug in your polisher and attach the pad to it.

Keep it at a low setting: since you’re performing restorative work, it’s important to be gentle.

Step 2: Put on Fresh Gloves and Mask if Needed

If you were using latex gloves, grab a fresh pair. Reusable gloves need to be dry before you start, so that they don’t drip on your vehicle.

Put a mask on if the brand of polisher or swirl remover you’re working with recommends it.

Step 3: Apply Product of Choice to Your Pad or Car’s Surface

As specified by your product’s guidelines, apply it to your pad or the car’s surface. Distribute it evenly with your fingers.

Work section-by-section, top to bottom. The result will look better than trying to tackle larger sections and missing spots.

Step 4: Switch on Machine and Begin Polishing

Switch it on and start to apply the polisher. Run the machine over the affected surface using slow, circular motions.

Try not to linger on any one spot for too long. After a couple of minutes, the product should be fully distributed. Repeat with all the sections of your car.

Step 5: Use Wax or Paint Sealant

Once you’ve finished polishing, you can preserve the glossy, unmarred shine by adding a layer of car paint sealant or wax.

What if the Swirl Marks are Too Deep?

Earlier, we talked about how the depth of swirl marks on cars can vary. A motorized polisher or polishing pad will remove light to moderate swirling.

If you don’t manage to eradicate all traces of the marks, at least they’ll be significantly reduced. If they’ve penetrated through to the primer or paint through the clear coat, car detailing products won’t be effective.

In this instance, you’ll need to repaint or perform a clear coat repair. Remember that the coatings on your vehicle serve to shield the metal underbody from corrosion. Your exterior is vulnerable to rust if it has deep swirls and scratches.

Can I Go to a Professional?

In this scenario, the professional you go to for help is an auto detailer.

If you don’t have a local business you know and frequently go to for car needs like this, do some research, get some quotes back and look at online reviews to choose one that won’t disappoint.

One thing to keep in mind is that most shops probably won’t agree to treat just one section of your car’s exterior. You’ll have to pay for the whole vehicle to be polished, which can cost anywhere from $200 to $500, based on the size of your vehicle.

Severe scratches warrant serious measures, too. Polishing won’t be enough in these cases, and the detailer may recommend getting a clear coat repair or repainting. This can cost upwards of several hundred dollars, depending on the size of the swirly area.

How to Prevent Swirl Marks in the Future

We have good news for you: Since human error is the prime cause of swirl marks appearing on vehicles, prevention is very possible (and straightforward).

Follow these tips to prevent micro-marring from downgrading your paint job:

  • Only use products and tools that were specifically designed to be used on vehicles.
  • Don’t be too aggressive with care. Overdoing something can be equally as damaging as neglecting maintenance tasks in the first place.
  • Buy a quality car cover and keep it clean.

Use Automotive Products and Tools

This is non-negotiable, and can go a long way towards limiting owner-inflicted damage.

Household sponges and detergents should stay inside your home, and you should only use ones that were specifically designed to be used on vehicles.

Keep all your automotive products in the garage.

If your mitt or sponge gets too old, don’t resort to a standard kitchen sponge just because you don’t have an adequate replacement.

Instead, plan for all of this stuff ahead and make sure you’re stocked up on new replacements in place for when you’ll need them. This way, you’ll never find yourself in such a sticky situation.

It’s better to let your vehicle stay dirty for the time-being (or take it to a car wash) instead of using unsuitable tools and chemicals on it.

Don’t Be Too Aggressive with Care

Over-doing anything when it comes to car care is usually just as bad as not doing it in the first place, and the same holds true for car washing.

Hand-washing once a week is fine, but cut down on trips to the car wash if they’re not really needed.

Remember that those big brushes go over your car with a lot of force. They’re great for muddy cars or washing off thick dust, but not all that constantly.

Buy a Quality Cover and Keep a Clean Car

Using a car cover is a fantastic and cheap way to preserve your paint’s integrity. It’s a simple way to protect your automobile from the elements and acidic threats that might come its way on a daily basis, such as bird poop.

Cheaper models may have rougher interiors or abrasive stitching, so be sure to choose a quality car cover with a soft material on the interior.

Also be sure to check it every so often (such as once a month) to see how clean it is. Every so often, the inside may develop a build-up of grime, which can drag against your vehicle’s surface.

Conclusion

Congratulations! You’re now a fully qualified member of the swirl mark removal club. Alright, just kidding, but you get the point!

The important thing here is to remember that your car’s paint is not invincible, so you’ll need to treat it with care.

Even if you’re wary of motorized polishers, we suggest trying the manual repair route first.

Detailing shops will charge high prices for services like this, so you might be able to save yourself a couple of hundred dollars if the job goes well and you manage to pull off a fix on your own.

As long as the marks aren’t too serious, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem doing that yourself anyways!

Kyle Palmer

From childhood go karting and motocross, to collecting and obsessing over scalextric, matchbox and radio controlled cars, I've always had an obsession with cars. Learning through manuals, books, trial and error, and more knowledgeable family members, I've also enjoyed tinkering with the mechanics and electronics of any vehicles I've owned. Now, over 3 decades later, I've started this site as a place for me to share my knowledge, to teach others how to care for and maintain their vehicles themselves, at home, so they can get the most of their vehicles and save a pretty penny compared to always seeking out professional help.

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