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Clay Bars vs. Synthetic Clay: How to Decide What’s Best

Before I dive into what the ‘best clay bar’ is…which the internet is full of, today I want to describe what’s on the market so you can decide what’s best for you! You have natural clay, synthetic clay, and a few different clay ‘media’ like mitts to choose from that I’ll break down too.

If you’re new to this topic, you’ll want to check out my step-by-step guide on how to clay your car for beginners, where I cover why to use clay and a bunch of other stuff.

Super important…because clay isn’t something you really want to use all the time.

What’s the best clay bar? One you know how to use!

Spoiler: Some clay bars are better than others, but most are about the same; most clay bars will run you anywhere from $20 to $50 and typically come with a lubricant like a simple detailing spray.

Here are a few variables to look for in a natural clay bar:

  • It’s easy to work with
  • There is enough clay to flatten, ball up, and knead
  • The clay picks up contaminants easily; no shiny, waxy feel

For a beginner, I recommend a simple claying kit by Meguiar’s or another everyday detailing brand, because they usually come with good instructions and helpful accessories like a clay bar case. It picks up contaminants well, and is reasonably priced.

Meguiar’s Smooth Surface Clay Kit

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Quick Tip

After using a clay bar, place it in a small plastic container to keep it clean and to keep it from drying out. Some clay kits come with cases, but if not, simply use what you have.

Premium clay bars…what’s the difference?

You won’t find too many ‘premium’ clay bar products on the market, but some just feel cheaper and waxier than others (meaning they’re not as effective at picking up contaminants). I’ve noticed clays labeled as ‘professional’ or ‘premium’ typically glide a little bit easier across the paint and are a bit softer to the touch.

Since professionals may need a fine, medium, or aggressive grade depending on the vehicle, brands that label clays by the grade are typically pretty good.

Want to remove surface contaminants every couple of months? Use a less aggressive fine-grade clay vs. standard clay. Many clay bars in kits are a medium grade…great for all-purpose jobs, but even medium grade can be overkill in cases where the car hasn’t been neglected.

Brands like Griot’s also sell what they call ‘glass cleaning clay’; it’s a bit denser than clay for paint, so it won’t stick to the glass as easily.

What clay bar to use as a professional

If you are a professional or someone who has experience using clay, you simply need the right grade for the job…the brand is completely up to you. Meguiar’s makes a mild-grade and aggressive clay line that comes in a nice container for storage. Adam’s and Chemical Guys do as well, so it’s just a matter of your budget and preference.

Meguiar’s Professional Detailing Clay

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While you’re at it, the Meguiar’s M34 Mirror Glaze Final Inspection product is nice to have if you’re claying after washing.

While natural clays are a go-to for many pros, synthetic clays have their advantages too, and are growing in popularity for high-volume detailers.

Synthetic clay bars

Synthetic clay bars remove contaminants like natural clay but can be washed off and reused. The ‘clay’ in synthetic clay is really just a thin disc that’s attached to block or foam ‘gripper’ for your hands which makes it faster to clay a large vehicle. No kneading required!

You can also find synthetic clay bar discs for dual-action polishers. When used with lubrication and as directed, they can be effective as well. You must be wary of the (often black) synthetic coating that acts as clay. Sometimes this substance can come off onto the vehicle without enough lubrication.

Pros and cons of synthetic clay

Pros

  • Speed
  • Can be rinsed off if dropped on the ground
  • Comfortable to use

Cons

  • Synthetic material can leave black marks if not careful
  • Not ideal for tight areas
  • Not ideal for cars with a lot of surface contaminants

Griot’s Garage makes a popular line of synthetic clay products many people love; they make synthetic clay bricks, towels and other clay media too.

Griot’s Garage Synthetic Clay

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Quick Tip

Synthetic clay is best used for vehicles with light levels of embedded contaminants. Since synthetic clay isn’t as abrasive as some natural clay bars, they don’t perform as well on neglected vehicles or surfaces like wheels that require a more abrasive clay.

What is a clay mitt?

A clay mitt is an accessory used to apply synthetic ‘clay’ to large vehicle panels. I say ‘clay’ in quotes because mitts obviously don’t work like natural clay…you can’t knead it. But it achieves the same outcome: lifting contaminants from paint.

You may also see clay towels or clay blocks on the market that work the same way. You’ll often find clay mitts and towels with a microfiber material on the front side, and the synthetic surface on the other. The microfiber backing on a clay towel or mitt is really for comfort, not clean up.

I recommend using a few damp microfiber towels for cleaning up the lubrication as you clay.

When should you not use clay?

Need to remove water spots or small imperfections? Clay isn’t the best choice because it’s abrasive enough to remove surface particles and embedded particles in the clear coat.

If you have hard water (for example), you can either use a cleaner wax instead of a clay bar (for mild cases) or better yet simply use distilled or deionized water to avoid water spots completely.

In the end, it’s hard to say which clay is best, because it comes down to getting into nooks and crannies vs. speed. All forms and types can be effective…and you can even use both. I prefer natural clay because I like to see the tiny specs of junk the clay removes from my paint, but try both and see what you prefer.

For more in-depth articles like this, check out our washing and detailing tips section. Hope it helps!

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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