Swirl Marks

What Causes Swirl Marks in My Car’s Paint?

Swirl marks are super fine scratches on the surface of your car’s paint. They are most commonly caused by wiping your car with a dry towel when it’s dusty, or buy improper washing and drying techniques. Every time you wash and dry your car, you mar the paint surface with microscopic scratches (micro marring). The severity of the scratches that create the appearance we call “swirl marks” has a lot to do with your wash tools.

You might have noticed that swirl marks prominently show on black and other dark colored cars. This is because the sides of the scratches reflect light. Black being the biggest contrast to white causes the reflections to be more prominent.

This diagram shows an example of what severe micro marring might look like in a cross section of paint.

Swirl Mark Diagram

Cross section diagram of a swirl mark.

Here are the top 10 causes of swirl marks:

  1. Polishers/buffers with the incorrect pad or an untrained operator.
  2. Harsh polishing compounds and paint cleaners.
  3. Towels and applicators containing polyester threads.
  4. A dirty chamois or a chamois that has not been properly maintained.
  5. Wiping down a dusty or dirty car with a dry towel.
  6. A dirty car duster or a car duster used on a car with too much dirt on the surface.
  7. Not keeping your wash mitt or sponge properly rinsed.
  8. Automated car washes with brushes and other wipers.
  9. Not rinsing your car completely before washing, or not washing your car thoroughly before drying.
  10. Using a car cover when the car or the cover is not clean.
Swirl marks are most noticeable on flat surfaces, like the hood and trunk. On dark-colored cars, they will also appear on doors and fenders. Light colors, like white and silver, do not show swirl marks as much because they reflect more light.

That doesn’t mean they don’t get swirl marks; the marks just show up more readily on dark colors.

This picture, taken prior to polishing the truck, clearly shows buffing marks and other micro marring created by an inexperienced detailer.

Severe swirl marks on black truck

The severe swirl marks on this black truck make the whole vehicle look bad.

What is the Best Way to Remove Swirl Marks?

The only way to remove swirl marks is to polish the paint. There are products that will temporarily hide or mask swirl marks, but the results are minimal and brief.

You can easily remove swirl marks from your car yourself using a car polish. In fact, there are many car polishes specifically designed for this use, such as Meguiar’s Swirl X. If your swirl marks are very heavy, as seen in the picture above, you should first apply a cutting polish like Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound to remove the heavy damage. Follow with Meguiar’s Swirl X to restore full gloss.

After proper polishing the swirl marks and hazing seen in the picture above are no longer visible, and the paint surface has a deep, wet look.

Car paint after polishing out swirl marks

After machine polishing, the Ford truck’s paint looks new again.

How Do I Prevent Swirl Marks?

To a certain extent, swirl marks are a simple fact of life with your car. You can’t completely prevent them, but you can reduce the severity my choosing the highest quality wash tools and by following good wash practices. When you try to save a few dollars with inexpensive wash products, you will pay for it later. Learn more about removing swirl marks here.

For more information on how to properly wash your car, including selecting the right wash tools, see Washing and Drying Your Car.