How to Remove Swirl Marks from a Car by Hand

Removing swirl marks from a car by hand can be a challenging task, but not an impossible one. Before getting around to that though, let me walk you through what swirl marks are in the first place.

Now, most cars have their exteriors finished with two-stage paint jobs over the sheet metal and primer. The first coating is a pigment that imparts color to the car. The second coating is a transparent paint without pigments. After applying this transparent layer, the colored layer remains visible beneath.

Swirl marks are microscopic scratches in the transparent layer. You wouldn’t even notice them in normal circumstances. They are generally not at all visible in cars parked in garages, carports, or any other shaded locations. You are more likely to notice the spiral or twisty patterned marks under a bright light. The marks catch your eye due to the optical effect known as backlighting.

How to remove swirl marks or light scratches from a car by hand.

The phenomenon happens when light enters the transparent coat, and some of this light reflects off the colored layer under it. The reflected light travels in many directions and can, therefore, highlight the swirl marks.

These marks are so minute that you can hardly even feel them with your fingers, but they may occur all over a car’s body. They are, however, more commonplace on the hood and the trunk. Also, you will encounter them in dark paintwork, especially black paintwork, since dark/black pigment absorbs the light that falls on it. Pastel colors, on the other hand, reflect most of the light incident on them and, so, it’s not that easy to discern the swirl marks in such paintwork.

Issues That Cause Swirl Marks

There are many reasons why swirl marks occur, some avoidable and other unavoidable. Let’s look at a few of these:

Using Dirty Wipes for Car-Cleaning

The most common cause of swirl marks is wiping the car with a dirty chamois, sponge, or duster. The dirt particles caught in these materials can easily score the car’s thin paint layer. Furthermore, wiping with a dry towel of polyester or any other synthetic material can also damage the paint. Polyester is an abrasive material that can make minute scratches on any surface.

Encasing the Car in a Dirty Cover

Covering the car with a dirty cover can also give rise to swirl marks. If wind-blown thorny seeds and other particles get caught in the car cover material, they may scrape against the car’s body while you put on or remove the cover.

Cleaning the Car with a Brush

Some brushes used for car cleaning — whether handheld or in an automated car wash system — can end up damaging the paintwork.

Buffing the Car for Rust Removal

Car painters use high-speed buffers for rust removal and for blending newly applied color into the existing paintwork. Occasionally, they may use the wrong buffer pads, or their use of the tool may be incorrect. Whatever the case may be, the result will be swirl marks in the car’s paintwork. Such marks are so common the industry jargon for them is buffer trails or paint holograms.

Applying Cleaning Agents to the Car

Some polishing agents and paint cleaners have powerful chemical formulations. Instead of keeping the car’s exterior in optimum condition, these cleaning agents may end up wearing away and marring the paintwork.

Choosing the Right Method to Remove Swirl Marks

First of all, the methods you can use to remove swirl marks depend on how deeply the marks are etched in the paintwork. To gauge their depth, move your fingernail over them. If it dips inside, they are rather deep, and you may need to repaint the scratched areas. However, if the marks are shallow, you can use an electric polisher machine to remove them, or you can polish them away by hand.

The electric polisher machine — more commonly known as a rotating wheel — can quickly remove swirl marks from your car’s paintwork. To begin with, you need to daub the car surface with polish and then spread it about by moving the polisher back and forth. This movement heats the top coat of the paintwork and melts it a bit. The melted paint flows into the scratched areas and fills them up, but this isn’t something you want to try too often. With repeated heating, the paintwork can degrade to such an extent that it might become necessary to completely repaint the car.

Also, while the polishing machine is not expensive, it is still an expense you must consider. You will also require some amount of experience and practice in operating the polisher. Hand polishing, by far, is the most cost-effective method to remove swirl marks.

How to Remove Swirl Marks by Hand Using Car Polishes

You can use a variety of car polishes, paint cleaners, and other compounds to remove swirl marks by hand. Let’s see how this works.

Car polishes include minute abrasives that whittle away at the jagged edges of the swirl marks. Once smoothed, these edges don’t reflect any light and are thus useful in hiding scratches. If you are worried about the abrasives creating more scratches in your car’s paintwork, you needn’t be. They are too minuscule to cause any damage. You can buy various polishes of different abrasiveness levels to suit your needs, either online or from the local supplier in your area.

Some polishes contain resins or oils that can enhance the car’s surface shine. While these polishes are worth having, check if they allow polishing your vehicle in direct sunlight. If not, you will have to do it in the shade. There are certain polishes, manufactured with polymer technology, that are impervious to the weather conditions.

Another factor to consider is whether the polish produces any dust or residue when buffing off the hazed-up polish. One of the best cars polishes currently available is the Mirror Glaze Ultra Finishing Polish by Meguiar.

Other Tools You’ll Need

Besides the car polish, you will need the following thing:

Car Cleaning Products and Equipment

You can use specially formulated car-cleaning soaps. If the car’s surface is grimy, a pressure washer or a foam cannon can soften the dirt before you soap the surface. However, even this cleansing may not be sufficient to remove microscopic contaminants that adhere to the car’s paintwork.

To get rid of those, you will need to use a clay bar and a specially formulated lubricant. Claying is also essential to ensure that waxing or sealing the paintwork is effective. Shop around to find a suitable option from the many different and available brands.

If your area is experiencing water-scarcity, you can use a waterless car wash. Just spray it on your car’s surface and then wipe it off with a microfiber cloth.

Cloth for Car Washing, Drying, and Polishing

While sponges are a popular choice for washing cars, microfiber cloth is a better option as it is soft and can quickly absorb water. You may find it as convenient to clean with wool or 100% pure cotton cloth.

On the other hand, a car wash mitt like the X3002 Microfiber Mitt by Meguiar will give you a better result than a cleaning cloth when it comes to removing dirt or debris from the car surface.

When looking for wash mitts online, make sure you get the ones that are the right size for your hands and also that they have elasticated cuffs to fit your wrists. Get the small fibered soft mitt rather than the larger dreadlock fibered one. The former has a better grip for cleaning.

Chamois, woolly mammoth, and waffle weave microfibers are perfect for drying the car surface. One of the best options is the RAG Company’s Dry Me A River Jr microfiber cloth that has a waffle weave. It can efficiently mop up water without leaving any streaks.

Microfiber cloth is the best choice for polishing the car’s surface, as for cleaning everything else. If you want the best microfiber cloth, get some from brands like Vibrawipe, Meguiar, and Chemical Guys.

Wax for Shining/Protecting the Car Paintwork

Wax coatings can act as sealants because they are insoluble in water. They are very easy to apply and can quickly adhere to the paintwork. Waxing provides a durable, natural-looking finish to the car surface. While we can get different types of waxes from plant, animal, and petroleum sources, beeswax is the most commonly available one. You can also get great results from Carnauba plant waxes. Although there are wax alternatives like paint sealants and special ceramic coatings, most of them require at least 24 hours to cure. Also, the protection they provide may last for only one to three years.

The Swirl Marks Removal Process

Now, let’s look at the three-step process to remove swirl marks.

First Step: Wash the Car’s Surface

Washing the vehicle with water will clear accumulated dust and other dirt from the surface. Make sure you dry it well with a clean microfiber cloth.

Second Step: Polish the Car’s Surface

Take a small amount of polish on another microfiber cloth and apply it to a small section of the car surface with overlapping circular motions. Polish until the surface looks smooth. Then, carefully, wipe away the excess polish with a clean microfiber cloth. Repeat this process when polishing other affected areas as well.

Third Step: Wax the Car’s Surface

Make sure that the car surface is dry. Put a little wax on a clean microfiber cloth and spread it over the car surface. Buff it by gently rubbing the surface.

That’s it. You have removed all the swirl marks, and the car now looks shiny and perfect.

Use a Rubbing Compound to Get Rid of Larger Marks

Large swirl marks require far more abrasive formulations than polishes. While you can daub these rubbing compounds by hand, most of them must be applied using an electric machine.

You can gauge the rubbing compound’s strength by its sand marking number. These markings vary between 1000 and 3000 grit. The best-recommended rubbing compound is 3M 39060 Perfect-It, which has 1200 grit sand marking.

After you have smoothed out the swirl marks with the rubbing compound, you will need to wax the car surface. Rubbing compounds can also remove water spots, oxidation marks, and other defects.

Removing Swirl Marks With Paint Cleaners

Paint cleaners have fillers and come in two varieties — abrasive and chemical. When you apply the paint cleaner on the swirl marks, it fills up the scratches. You should take care not to rub the surface too hard with the abrasive cleaner since that has the same effect as using sandpaper and can damage the clear coat. To avoid this, you may want to try chemical cleaners. Just keep in mind that you can’t apply paint cleaner in direct sunlight, so park the car in the shade before you work on it.

Before applying the paint cleaner, wash the car surface with water. As some paint cleaners can work on a wet surface, check the instructions before drying the car. Next, soak a microfiber cloth in the cleaning solution and gently rub it back and forth over the affected area. Keep at it until the paintwork looks smooth. Repeat the process on the other affected parts of the car. You can also polish the car’s surface or directly wax it.

The Autoglym Super Resin Polish, available since the 1960s, is a great paint cleaner, polish, and sealant. The Meguiar Paint Cleaner is another popular choice.


Since you will find various swirl mark removal products readily available on the market, there’s no need to break out in cold sweat whenever you see swirl marks on your car. However, it is always better to prevent them from occurring than to clean them up afterward.

As much as possible, make a point of using clean, soft materials to wipe and cover the car. You should also make sure that the car cleaning products you use are safe and non-toxic. With a little timely care, you may be able to avoid getting too many swirl marks on your car.



Scroll to Top