How-To Restore Faded & Oxidized Paint

If your car isn’t garaged or covered when parked, the paint and trim will fade away under the brutal UV rays of the sun. If you don’t provide proper care with regular polishing and waxing, the paint will oxidize as well, accelerating the damage.

This is what clear coat failure caused by UV exposure and oxidation looks like. It cannot be fixed by polishing.

Faded and heavily oxidized paint can be restored up to a point. That point is largely based on the type of paint system (clear coat or non-clear coat) and the color.

On a vehicle with a clear coat you can restore the finish up to the point that clear coat failure begins (blotchy white areas). On a traditional paint finish without a clear coat, you can restore the finish up to the point that the color coat weathers away and exposes the primer. When either of these two situations occurs, the affected panels or the entire car will need to be repainted.

NOTE: If you must park your vehicle outside, you can avoid sun fade and oxidation damage with regular polishing and waxing, and by using a car cover.

Not long ago I saw my neighbor washing her Mazda Miata. I looked at the trunk and was horrified to see the level of oxidation that had set in since I had last looked at her car. As you can see, the paint was very dull (not yet chalky) and covered with water spot stains. I invited her over to my place for a quick lesson in polishing.

Left unprotected and out in the elements, your car’s paint will quickly oxidize. You won’t notice the damage over a period of a month or two, but it’s there. After a year in the elements without protection, your paint will be noticeably dull and rough.

Paint oxidation is not the kiss of death. Light oxidation is easily removed through regular paint cleaning with a clay bar (see Clay Bar Detailing). Once the paint surface begins to dull and fade, you will need to clean away the dirt and oxidation with detailing clay and restore the shine by polishing.

Heavy oxidation, recognizable by a completely dull, chalky surface, is likely beyond complete restoration. However, even heavily oxidized paint can be polished to bring back shine.

I pulled a can of cutting polish off the shelf and spent about five minutes polishing away the oxidation on the trunk lid. I then switched to a finishing polish for a second pass. The result is what you see above. The cutting polish removed all of the stains, water spots and oxidation. The finishing polish restored the shine and brought back the color.

As with any form of paint damage, use the least abrasive polish necessary to get results. Even moderate paint oxidation causes paint thinning. As you polish, the oxidized (dead) paint is quickly removed.

One question that frequently appears in my e-mail is, “My car’s clearcoat is flaking off. How do I repair it?” Unfortunately, the only answer is to repaint the damaged body panels. Once a clearcoat fails due to heavy oxidation, it cannot be restored by polishing. In this regard, solid body paints are far more resilient.

The best way to restore the shine and color lost to oxidation is to polish the damage away using a dual-action car polisher, like the Porter Cable 7424XP.

Doing the work by hand is not really effective!

How-To Fix Severe Paint Oxidation

When paint oxidizes, dead paint and dirt build up on the surface. The first step is to clean the oxidation and dirt away.

Here are the step-by-step instructions to restore a paint finish that is severely faded (excluding paint that has completely failed):

Clean The Paint

The first step is to thoroughly wash your car with Dawn dish washing liquid and then use a clay bar to remove the bonded contamination and dead paint. As your car’s paint oxidizes, small particles of the top layer of paint flake off. This “dead paint” and the grime that sticks to it needs to be removed.

After clay bar detailing your oxidized paint, it will feel slick and have a little more shine to it, but the damage needs to be repaired.

An automotive clay bar is the fast and easy way to remove the dead paint and bonded contamination. You might as well use the least expensive detailing clay you can find, because it’s going to be trash when you’re finished with it.

Polish The Paint

The cleaning step was the easy part. Now the fun begins. You need to polish your car with two grades of polish. The first grade is a cutting polish, commonly called a compound. The second grade is a finishing polish.

Polishing your paint removes a thin layer of paint to cut away the damage. This allows the shine to be restored.

The cutting polish I recommend most is Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound. It’s new and uses a new micro abrasive technology. It will remove the top layer of damaged paint without scouring the finish. This is important because you need to get the job done while removing as little paint as possible. After all, the oxidation already took its toll.

The finishing polish I recommend most is Klasse All-In-One. I love this polish for this job because it uses chemical cleaners with its super-fine polish to get deep in the pores of your paint and bring up the shine. Plus, it’s very easy to apply.

Using a safe dual-action polisher and the right polish, a dull, lifeless finish like this can be restored in a couple hours.

A lot of people ask me if they can do this job by hand. The answer is “yes,” but it won’t be easy, fast or the best job possible. To use a micro-abrasive cutting polish, like Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound, you really need to apply the polish with a dual-action car polisher.

I recommend the the Porter Cable 7424XP (my personal favorite). If you are not familiar with dual-action car polishers (very safe), see our Car Polisher Buyer’s Guide.

To learn how to use a car polisher, read How-to Use a Dual-Action Car Polisher.

WARNING: If your car’s paint is badly oxidized, be very careful polishing plastic bumper caps, plastic mirrors and anywhere there is a raised edge. Painted plastic parts oxidize faster than painted metal parts. Be cautious and polish these areas by hand using a finishing polish only.
Do not use a cutting polish on painted plastic parts. Be careful on raised edges, too, as the paint will be thinner.

Seal The Paint

After polishing the paint has full color, gloss and depth again.

The final step is to use a paint sealant. For this I recommend Klasse Sealant Glaze because you can apply multiple coats for better protection and a deeper shine. Most car wax products contain a petroleum distillate to remove old the layer of wax. Klasse Sealant Glaze is an acrylic formula with a shine that noticeably deepens with two to three coats.

To learn more about the Klasse products and how to use them with shining success, see our Klasse Car Wax Guide. It’s different than a traditional car wax. A little goes a long way!

The next topic in our Paint Repair Clinic Series: Paintless Dent Repair!