How to Restore Faded Car Paint: Get Your Car Looking Its Best Again!

Unless you keep your car unused in a plastic bubble, it will age. Engine components will pick up wear and tear from daily use, even if they’re being perfectly maintained.

The exterior of your vehicle will take the brunt of the damage. Scratches, dents, and dings can happen due to carelessness or misfortune, and your paint surface will surely lose its luster over the years.

It isn’t possible to entirely prevent or predict every potential threat your vehicle is exposed to, but what you can do is take prompt action to control the situation and prevent further deterioration.

Where paintwork is concerned, an early response is almost always going to be the best strategy. The more time it takes you to be aware of the problem and address it, the more difficult it’s going to be to deal with.

Close up on red colored car with faded and damaged paint on door that needs restoring

In this article, we’re going to discuss how to restore faded car paint and why you shouldn’t leave it alone. You’ll learn when it can be repaired, and under what circumstances it’s beyond saving, so that you don’t waste your time, effort and money on a hopeless case.

We’ll list common culprits behind car paint fading that you should be aware of, and will explain how to protect against them in the future. We’ll also discuss hiring a professional for the job, in case you’re not up to doing this yourself.

Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated of a DIY operation as you might think it is now!

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What Causes Car Paint to Fade?

The majority of cars spend a considerable amount of time outdoors. Your paint job is exposed to everything the outside world has to throw at it, unless you have it sit idle in an indoor garage for years on end.

Nowadays, modern automotive coatings are reinforced with additives. These compounds extend both lifespan and overall durability. They can inhibit corrosion, promote resistance to extreme temperatures, and more.

Additives help your exterior to withstand the elements and daily wear and tear. Sadly, though, they won’t make your vehicle invincible.

If you own an older automobile, it may not have the benefit of an additive-enhanced coating.

There are several factors that can provoke or speed up a car’s paint fading:

  • Natural paint oxidation.
  • Exposure to UV light from the sun.
  • Air pollution and other contaminants.
  • Acid rain and other extreme weather conditions.

Let’s have a closer and more detailed look at each of these factors.

Natural Oxidation

In simple terms, oxidation is when a material or chemical reacts with oxygen. The oxygen breaks down the material, which – in this scenario – is your car’s paint.

This doesn’t happen instantaneously, it takes years. Still, the fact remains that your vehicle starts to oxidize as soon as it rolls out of the factory.

Fading is the first visible sign of oxidation.

UV Light (Sunshine)

If you’ve ever suffered from nasty sunburn, you know UV rays can be harsh. Vehicles can (and do often get) sun damaged.

Direct sunlight can destroy chemical bonds in automotive coatings that can strip them of shine and color. Restoring shine on a car’s exterior is very possible, but it would be best to prevent stripping of their perfect shine in the first place.

Pollution and Contaminants

If air gets polluted enough, it can cause atmospheric corrosion. Sulfur and nitrogen dioxide are usually responsible for this.

These types of pollutants can stick to your paint and really wear it down. A standard wash may not be enough to remove them – and the longer they stay on, the stronger the bond tends to be.

Non-chemical contaminants aren’t safe, either. Bird poop, pollen, and tree sap can all have corrosive effects if left on.

Extreme Weather Conditions

Heavy, ongoing humidity and sweltering temperatures are tough on your car’s exterior. So is acid rain, which can occur at any time of the year in polluted areas.

Any form of precipitation, from hail and snow to fog and dust, can include acid deposits.

Can Faded Car Paint Always Be Restored?

Fixing faded car paint is only an option up to a certain point.

Whether or not you’ll have success with this will depend on the answer to two questions: First of all, the level of oxidation. Is it only slightly faded, or badly peeling? The second question is whether or not your car has a clear coat.

Let’s have a closer look at each of these two factors and how they can come into play.

How Badly Oxidized Is It?

Not all oxidized paint is equal.

Oxidation can be broadly classified into three grades. See which description best fits the state of your car:

Mild Oxidation

Mild oxidation manifests as dull-looking patches. The affected areas may have begun to look slightly discolored.

In this case, car paint restoration shouldn’t be much of a challenge.

Moderate Oxidation

At this stage, the clear coat has started to peel or flake away. On surfaces where it has peeled away entirely, the surface will be dull.

You’ll be able to restore it if you have some car detailing experience. On the other hand, novices might find restoration and clear coat repair above their current skill level.

Severe Oxidation

In this case, the layer of color above the primer has worn away, exposing it as a result. The primer may have started to degrade, too.

To deal with this situation, you’ll have to sand down to the bare metal and apply fresh paint.

Repairing severe oxidation goes beyond restoration. It’s a long and complex process that’s best left to the professionals who have previous experience with this and know exactly what it needs for the best possible results.

Do You Have a Clear Coat?

The clear coat shields the layers underneath from damage. If this is the only layer that has faded away, restoration could be possible.

Without it, the paint itself is oxidized. If that layer is flaking or peeling off, it’s categorized as severe oxidation.

Why Should You Restore Faded Car Paint?

Restoration may seem like a pointless effort to you. It’s not as if your engine will stop working if you don’t do anything about it, right?

That may be the case, but you’ll still want to restore your car’s paint as soon as possible, since there are still benefits to taking action (and risks that come with neglecting it).

You should consider the following reasons:

  • The fading can get more serious and eventually spread.
  • Repainting your car is expensive.
  • Your vehicle’s value will decrease if not treated.
  • Faded areas are unattractive to look at.

Fading Can Spread and Worsen

If left untended, it will only escalate with time.

The elements will continue to fade and oxidize your paint job until the damage is serious. Peeling layers of clear coat can expand, taking more off in surrounding areas.

Repainting Isn’t Cheap

If it reaches a point where the bare metal is exposed, you can’t ignore it any longer. Rust can begin to form, eating away at the metal itself.

Rust-fighting products may keep the corrosion at bay. To get your vehicle looking new again, you’ll have to have it repainted, which is a costly service.

Resale Value Declines

There are many things people look at and many factors they consider when buying a secondhand vehicle – with its exterior usually being the first thing a potential buyer will see.

One or more oxidized and fading patches or spots (such as water spots) could lower the value of your car. The worse it is, the more your asking price will plummet.

Unappealing Aesthetics

A small blotch may not be unsightly at first, but it can grow bigger over time.

Do you want to have to look at it progressing every time you go for a drive? I’m sure your answer to that is an astounding no.

A Note About Your Supplies: Choose Quality Brands

You’ll probably notice that we didn’t recommend specific brands for certain items.

You can choose whichever rubbing compound, clay bar and polishing liquid that you like, especially if you’re already tried some of these before and know one or a few products that have worked out quite well for you.

Still, we do suggest that you invest in quality products. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for (for the most part).

These three items will be doing the bulk of the restoration, and cheaper ones might not be as effective.

How to Restore Mildly Faded Car Paint

You’ve made the right decision to tackle the coat failure area early on. When the oxidation is mild, you have an improved chance of a near-complete restoration.

Equipment Needed

  • Gloves (optional).
  • Car shampoo.
  • Car-safe sponge or wash mitt.
  • Bucket.
  • Microfiber cloths.
  • Access to a water source.
  • Detailing clay bar (light grade) and appropriate lubricant.
  • Restorative rubbing compound.
  • Polishing product.
  • Motorized polisher (You can rent one if you don’t need polishing machines for anything other than this task).
  • Buffing pad (preferably wool or foam).
  • Polishing pad (your material of choice).

Work Indoors or in the Shade

Keep your car out of the sunshine and heat while you’re working. If you don’t have a garage to work in, choose a shady spot.

Wash the Area

Start off by washing your car, focusing on washing the surface you want to treat. Dilute the car shampoo as needed with water in your bucket.

Use your wash mitt or sponge to carefully wash the car area. Avoid scrubbing too hard, but be thorough.

Rinse and Dry

Use a hose or a bucket of water to rinse the surface. Dry it off with a microfiber cloth.

Spray Clay Bar Lubricant

Coat the faded area with clay bar lubricant. You want to ensure there aren’t any dry patches, even tiny ones.

The paint is already vulnerable as it is, and grating against it with a dry clay bar will only do more harm.

Clay Bar the Surface

Prepare your clay bar by softening it with your hands. You’re welcome to wear gloves if you have them handy. Spray it with lubricant. Remember, dryness is the enemy here.

Lightly pass the bar over the fading surface in a side-to-side motion. Don’t rub it in circular or random motions, as this can be abrasive.

Repeat Until No More Contaminants Remain

Check your clay bar after you’ve worked the whole surface. Chances are you’ll probably find that it’s picked up a fair amount of filth.

Reshape it and work the area over again, while keeping in mind the need to be gentle. Don’t forget to spray the lubricant beforehand.

Once you see that the bar is coming back clean, you can proceed to the next step.

Wash Away Excess Lubricant

Using a small amount of car soap mixed with water, wash the area again. Use the sponge’s soft side.

Rinse Off the Area and Dry

Rinse the area off and wipe it dry with a fresh microfiber cloth.

Prepare Motorized Polisher

Next, you want to buff your car in the affected area. Set your car polisher to the lowest setting and attach the buffing pad to it. Plug it in so it’s ready.

Apply Restorative Rubbing Compound and Start Buffing

Apply the required quantity of restorative rubbing compound as per the instructions. Switch on your polisher and start to buff the surface.

You shouldn’t apply too much pressure to avoid burning the paint. Run the buffing pad slowly over the area.

The guidelines on the rubbing compound will tell you how long you should buff it for.

Wipe Down Surface

Switch off the polisher and get out a clean microfiber cloth. The paint should have a nicer look to it already.

Wipe off any remaining rubbing compound with your cloth. As with everything else you’ve done so far, keep a light but steady hand.

Replace Buffing Pad with Polishing Pad and Finishing Polish

Change out your buffing pad for the polishing one. Apply your polishing product, as directed, to the surface.

Keep the setting low on your polisher. Running the pad over the surface, polish until the product is absorbed.

One Final Wipe Down

Once you’re done polishing, wipe away any excess product. Evidence of the mild oxidation should have all but disappeared.

How to Restore Moderately Faded Car Paint

Moderate oxidation can be restored by repairing your clear coat. As long as the paint hasn’t worn down to the primer, you may have a shot at fixing it.

If you’re already familiar with the steps but need a refresher, the below guidelines should suffice.

Equipment Needed:

  • Face mask.
  • Goggles.
  • Gloves.
  • Overalls.
  • Microfiber cloths.
  • Car shampoo.
  • Access to a water source.
  • Car-safe sponge or wash mitt.
  • Clay bar (light grade) and appropriate lubricant.
  • 1,000 to 1,200-grit scratchpad or sandpaper.
  • Suitable clear coat for your vehicle.
  • Pre-paint prep.
  • Tack cloth.
  • Restorative rubbing compound.
  • Motorized polisher (you can rent one if you don’t have one).
  • Buffing pad (preferably wool).

Choose a Workspace with Ventilation

As you’ll be sanding down your vehicle more than once, you’ll want to work in a well-ventilated space.

The fumes from fresh clear coat spray shouldn’t be inhaled either.

Wash Surface

Wash the oxidizing surface with your car shampoo and water. Keep the pressure on your sponge or car wash mitt light.

Rinse and Dry

Rinse thoroughly with water and dry the area off with a cloth.

Remove Contaminants with Clay Bar

Apply clay bar lubricant to the surface you’re treating. Putting on your gloves (if you want to, it would probably be best to do so), mold and squeeze the bar to prepare it.

Be careful as you pass your clay bar over the area from side to side. Keep working the clay until the bar isn’t collecting debris and dirt any longer.

Wash, Rinse and Dry Surface Again

As in the beginning, clean the faded paint with your car shampoo and water. Get rid of any remaining clay bar lubricant, and then rinse and dry.

Prep Your Sandpaper or Scratchpad

Dip your sandpaper or scratchpad in water with a dash of soap in it. Your bucket should be big enough to ensure that the scratchpad or sandpaper is submerged.

Leave it in the bucket for approximately 5 minutes.

Wet Sand the Surface

Wet sand the affected area and a little into the surrounding area on all sides. This is very important to do, as you’ll have to blend it later.

A few inches beyond the fading paint should be enough. Keep sanding, applying firm but light pressure, until the surface is smooth and dull.

Clean Area and Apply Pre-Paint Prep

Wipe off residual dust with a damp microfiber cloth or sponge. Spray your pre-paint prep onto the surface and wipe meticulously with a clean cloth.

Cover Surrounding Surfaces

Cover the unaffected areas around the faded area with masking tape.

Put On Safety Accessories

Get all your gear on. This means your overalls, mask, gloves, goggles and face mask.

One More Clean-Up, Then Spray Clear Coat

Rub your tack cloth over the sanded surface to clear away fine debris. Apply your clear coat as the product instructs.

Don’t spray in random directions or circular motions. Instead, go side to side in the same direction.

Let the coat dry as needed. Repeat the application one or two more times, sticking to the same pattern as you did initially.

Remove Masking and Allow Cure Time

Take all the masking tape off your vehicle when the final coat is dry. Wait for 1–3 days to ensure the fresh coat bonds strongly.

Wash and Blend the New Coating with the Old

Clean the fresh clear coat with a wet sponge. Prepare your scratchpad or sandpaper for wet-sanding.

Start wet-sanding, blending the clear coat that you just applied into the surrounding areas. Keep going until you can’t distinguish between the old and the new.

Wipe, Buff and Polish

Wipe away grit with a microfiber cloth. There’s no need to wet it. Then, apply your restorative rubbing compound and buff the area.

Polish your car for a final touch. It should look as good as new.

How to Restore Severely Faded Car Paint

With severe oxidation, we’re crossing the line from restoration into repainting. This is not something that novices or inexperienced detailers should attempt to do on their own.

If you’re not sure of what you’re doing, you could damage your car’s body, or finish with a shoddy paint job that will oxidize again.

We strongly advise you to go to a professional detailer for this if you’re not familiar with the restoration process. If you want to attempt it on your own, be sure that you know what you’re doing.

If you do decide to do this, you’ll need to have quite a few specialized tools handy. For example, an air compressor and air spray gun will need to be at the ready.

Ideally, you should have a well-equipped home garage or at least an available workspace to use.

Also take note that this job will very likely take up a substantial amount of time to complete: a couple of days to a week, or maybe even longer in certain situations.

Going To a Professional to Restore Oxidized Paintwork: What to Expect

The cost of restoring the paint job at a professional detailing shop can vary. Prices may be higher at one business than another, sometimes substantially.

For one, the size and condition of the fading area will impact price considerably. Repainting a whole section of your vehicle can go well over $1,000, while a smaller area will cost less.

Paint repair can cost several hundred dollars or more. If you have multiple patches, the expense will be greater.

Removing minor oxidation or a minor scratch with a professional detailing could begin at $100.

If you’re worried about being in for unpleasant surprises and ending up paying more than you could afford, don’t be. You can always get a quote for restoring your faded car paint before you commit to anything.

How to Prevent Your Car’s Paint from Fading

Preventative measures can go a long way.

Restoration isn’t something you want to be doing once or twice a year, and as they say: Prevention is the best medicine!

Use Protective Products

Those of you who don’t mind repeat applications can go with waxing your car. Otherwise, you can buy a car paint sealant to shield your exterior for months at a time.

There’s many different car paint protection products out there for you to choose from, so you shouldn’t have any shortage of options to consider.

Park Indoors Whenever Possible

Take advantage of your garage if you have one.

See if there are indoor parking lots near places you spend a lot of time, such as your office.

Buy a Car Cover

If indoor parking isn’t feasible, purchase a car cover for your vehicle.

The extra minute or two it takes to put on and take off is more than worth it to lower the risk of oxidation.

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, then congratulations! You now know way more than the average car owner about how to restore faded car paint.

We hope that the oxidation on your vehicle isn’t past the point of restoration, and that you can take care of this problem on your own. If not, then always remember that it’s best off to leave it to a professional who has previous experience doing this kind of thing.

Bear in mind that prevention should always be your strategy of choice. This doesn’t only concern the paint job, but your entire car, inside and out. Any problem you can prevent from happening in the first place is always the best way to go.

Practicing good maintenance and car care habits can save you time, trouble and money in the future.

You can’t entirely stop your automobile’s exterior from oxidizing, but you can certainly slow it down significantly!

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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