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Cleaner Wax vs Clay Bar: Here’s the Difference

You’ve likely seen both a cleaner wax and a clay bar on the store shelves at your local Walmart or auto parts store, but what’s the difference?

In this blog post, I’ll go into detail about the main differences between using clay bar vs. cleaner wax, and when to use each one.

The difference between a ‘cleaner wax’ vs clay bar

The main difference between wax and a clay bar is that wax is first and foremost a protectant, while automotive clay is not. While both of these products can clean to an extent, they serve different purposes. Clays are formulated to remove contaminants waxes can’t, while cleaner waxes are meant to protect, while also removing minor surface defects.

While waxes and clays can be used in combination, a vehicle should always be washed, clayed, compounded and polished (if necessary), and then waxed with a finishing (non-abrasive) wax. A cleaner wax really a polish/wax all in one, which is why many detailers specializing in high-end detailing don’t use it.

For the average Joe, cleaner waxes can allow you to skip a few of these steps while achieving decent results, even without claying or polishing. But it’s not for everybody.

If you need a quick refresher on the differences between various detailing products, check out my post Compound vs. Clay, Polish & Glaze – 7 Products to Understand that breaks down how these products are different, and what purpose they serve.

What automotive clay is used for

car clay kit

Clay bars are used to remove contaminants that soaps and waxes can’t. These tiny particles can include any of the following:

  • Industrial fallout (tiny metal particles)
  • Road grime
  • Sap or small tar particles
  • Other metal and fiberglass particles
  • Bug remains

Before applying any kind of wax to a vehicle that has been exposed to these contaminants, you need to actually remove these substances with clay. Even cleaner wax won’t do this.

Clay provides a smooth surface for waxing

By using lubricated clay, these ‘stuck on’ particles detach from the clear coat, stick to the clay, and leaves the surface smooth to the touch. If you’ve never clayed your car before, you’ll be amazed at how much smoother your vehicle will be when these particles are removed.

The reason claying is important is because you want wax to adhere to a 100% cleaned clear coat, with these tiny particles removed. It also makes applying wax a lot easier, since it will apply smoother and without resistance.

Claying your vehicle is important periodically, but as long as you keep a high-quality wax or sealant on your vehicle, you can get by without claying your vehicle as often.

Where cleaner wax comes into play

cleaner wax meguiar's

The main purpose of cleaner wax is to remove everything else that may be left behind (that your car wash soap wasn’t able to reach). Cleaner waxes generally fall into the category of one-step products, since they both clean and provide shine all in one step.

How cleaner waxes can remove some imperfections

Minor abrasives in cleaner waxes are able to remove imperfections on the clear coat, like hard water spots or even tiny particles of dirt that may still be there after washing.

Cleaner waxes are really great for people that are on-the-go, not necessarily for car enthusiasts who desire a less abrasive wax, or finishing wax. Finishing wax is ideal for vehicles as a last step product, with no need for the abrasives in a cleaner wax.

Theoretically, the surface of the vehicle should be completely clean prior to applying any type of wax. However, since many people don’t use clays or other products like an IPA (isopropyl alcohol) solution, the abrasives in cleaner wax can help to create somewhat of a smoother surface.

Downsides of cleaner waxes

Cleaner waxes can help remove older wax and dirt, but are consumer-grade products that aren’t designed to completely clean everything.

With cleaner waxes, the abrasives in these products technically are removing a portion of the clear coat (like all abrasives do), which is why claying in combination with a professional non-abrasive wax or sealant is the safest and most effective method for vehicles that don’t need an abrasive applied.

Since most people don’t have the time to clay their vehicle very often, cleaner waxes can make a difference cosmetically.


In conclusion, these two products both are important to use on your vehicle, but simply put a cleaner wax is a protectant with the ability to clean some substances off your car, while the purpose of clay is to remove contaminants.

Let me know if you have anything to add in the comments, and be sure to download your free copy of my free eBook: 25 Essential Auto Detailing Products for Beginners. Happy detailing!

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.

2 thoughts on “Cleaner Wax vs Clay Bar: Here’s the Difference”

  1. I’ve been using both a cleaner wax and clay bar and I really like them both. They both do a great job of cleaning my car. The only difference I’ve noticed is that the cleaner wax leaves my car feeling a little smoother than


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