What causes paint swirl marks and micro scratches?

What causes paint swirl marks and micro scratches?

Shiny vs. clean black paint swirl marks

Most people use the word “shiny” when describing a clean looking vehicle. As do I. But the thing is clean does not necessarily “shiny”. Many vehicle owners find that over time the paint on their vehicle looks less shiny and duller. The fact of the matter is that this happens to almost all vehicles unless they are kept inside a show room where no one is allowed to touch them.  This is referred to as swirl marks. 


Modern paint is a 2-stage paint. It is made up of a layer base color, which is the color of the vehicle that you see. The top layer is the clear coat. This is the layer we feel when we touch the paint. This is also the layer in which most minor scratches are found. Most of these micro scratches or swirl marks can be removed through the paint correction process or buffing and polishing. 

 car paint layers swirl marks

Causes of paint swirl marks 

It is true that some micro scratches are unavoidable if you are actually using your car.  

The most common cause of swirl marks is improper care and washing of the vehicle’s painted surfaces. 

The major factors that can contribute to swirl marks while washing are: 

  • Improper Rinsing (not rinsing completely before washing) 
  • No/Not enough lubrication from soap or other cleaning chemicals 
  • Wrong washing tools (stiff brushes, hard sponges, etc.) 
  • Dirty wash mitt, chamois, sponges, etc. 
  • Misuse of polishers/buffers and/or pads 
  • Dusting/wiping with rag or duster on dry car 
  • Not washing your car thoroughly before drying 
  • Automatic car washes with outdated brushes and other wipers 
  • Automatic car washes with poorly maintained brushes 
  • Using a car cover when the car or the cover is not clean


How to remedy swirl marks? 

It’s possible to correct most swirl marks through the process of paint correction. With the proper use of paint correction tools and compounds the clear coat layer can be smoothed out to bring back a mirror like finish. It is always easier to maintain a paint surface then spend the extra time or money to repair it once its damaged.  

by Chris Blaisdell, CD, Onsite Detail

12 replies
  1. Jackson
    Jackson says:

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  2. Stephan Smith
    Stephan Smith says:

    I used to be a fan of car washes and thought I was taking care of my car but then I noticed my paint dulling and could not figure out the problem. Now I get it. No more car washes on my nice cars.

    • Chris Blaisdell
      Chris Blaisdell says:

      Car washes are not for everyone and every car. Remember not all car washes are created equal. Some are better than others.

    • Chris Blaisdell
      Chris Blaisdell says:

      Even though in our eyes a car may be “new” does not mean it has not already been improperly cared for. Plus it is normal for newer cars to need paint correction. Its just a matter of personal preference on how well the owner will care about it.

  3. Kent
    Kent says:

    What’s up, its nice article regarding vehicle paint, we all need to be aware of the fact the paint get beat up really bad and does require paint correction and paint protection kind of like our skin.

  4. Janis
    Janis says:

    This is a topic that’s new to me… Thank you! I was always wondering why my car’s paint would look so dull after a bit.


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