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Automotive Paint is Delicate – Don’t Touch It!!


Automotive paint exists for a couple of reasons. The most obvious is to add a splash of color, but it’s also there to protect the vehicle as well. So if it’s there for protection, that has to mean that it’s durable, right? Well, yes and no.

Paint is very durable in a sense that it can take a beating from road debris, harsh weather, and the occasional grocery cart without cracking or chipping. Having said that though, even the slightest swipe of a (clean) finger on a (clean) surface can scratch some paint systems! Don’t believe me? Since I knew there would be some skeptics out there in the audience, I took the photo below the other day just to prove my point.

This car was highly polished with the exception of some clusters around the car where it had been touched. The scratches in the photo above are on the driver’s door, just below the window trim. Obviously somebody has closed the door from the inside with their hand on the door (with the window down), and their fingers extended over onto the paint. Had they closed the door properly by using the inside door handle, this would have been avoided. I saw some other scratches/scuffs around the car where somebody had aggressively wiped or washed. Even with high quality microfiber, you can scratch paint if you use too much pressure. As a test, I very lightly swiped my finger on the paint (and I mean very, very lightly), and it scratched it up!

Granted, this is very soft black paint, but I think it proves a point about just how delicate paint can be.

If you look at the photo below (taken from my TL article), you can see where the paint has gotten beaten up pretty badly over time by closing the door by pushing against the painted surface (the wrong way) as opposed to shutting it by the door handle (the correct way).

I once heard a statement about automotive paint that I really liked: “don’t touch your paint with anything that you wouldn’t put in your eye!”. I think that really puts it into perspective!

Anytime I’m around cars, be it my own or ones that belong to my clients, I get paranoid anytime somebody gets close to them. Why? Because most people have no clue to just how delicate and easily scratched automotive paint can be. One wrong move, and it’s time to break out the buffer once again.

Now that I’ve addressed just how easy it is to scratch the paint on cars, let’s take a look at some of the most common causes for damaging automotive paint.

  • Failing to shut the doors by the door handle. If you or your passengers are grabbing or pushing on the door in any area other than the door handle, you’re scratching it!
  • Using the wrong wash/dry methods and techniques.
  • Getting your oil changed. Those “protective” mats they put over your fenders have been on every dirty car and town, and now they’re just grinding abrasive debris into your paint!
  • Leaning against the car. Are you kidding me? Never, ever lean against or sit on a car unless it’s a rusted out junker that you don’t care about.
  • “Dusting”. This may be OK if the car is sitting inside a storage facility, but not after it has been driven. Even with a quick detailer, you risk scratching/marring the paint.
  • Setting items on the car. I’ve seen so many rooftops and trunk lids scratched heavily where items have been placed, and then literally dragged off of the surface. Never put anything on a car.
  • Covers. Car covers are fine, but you need to make sure that the cover is clean, and the car is clean. Otherwise, you’re just rubbing debris against the surface.
  • Improper care. Now this goes along with the improper wash/dry item already listed, but I felt it should be mentioned twice. Just because there’s a local detail company that shows up in a van to do a quick wash, it doesn’t mean that have any clue what proper washing methods even are. Your car may be clean when finished, but there’s a good chance it’s being scratched/swirled in the process. That’s not a jab at volume detailers, it’s just a simple fact that not many actually know how to properly care for paint.

Since I’m a bit of a rant here, let me continue about how not to take care of vehicles. Obviously I’m a car guy, and I love to watch television shows about cars…restorations, auctions, modifications, whatever. What gets me all worked up however is when these people on the automotive television shows treat the cars the wrong way for all to see! I mean…they’re supposed to be experts, right? Watch the auctions and not only will you see lots of swirls and holograms on these highly collectable vehicles, but you’ll also see the guys pushing the cars with their bare hands. Now watch the shows about rare examples of automotive history, and see the host actually leaning on a museum piece! Heck, even in (popular) shows where they are rebuilding and repainting…the cars are full of swirls afterwards, only to be outdone by them leaning against the cars at the end of the show. Hmmm, I think it’s time for Todd to have his own television show so that people (including these automotive experts) can learn what they’ve been doing wrong all of these years.Β  πŸ™‚

Those of us in the highline professional detailing world understand just how delicate paint can be, and we appreciate it more because we spend so much time correcting these issues. When we spend 20 to 30 hours on a car, we want to see it stay looking that good for as long as possible. Our goal here on the DI Ask A Pro Blog is to educate the masses on proper detailing techniques. If even one of our hundreds of articles inspires you to take better care of your vehicle, then we have accomplished our goal.

So the lesson of the day is…Automotive Paint is Delicate – Don’t Touch It!!

Todd Cooperider Esoteric Auto Detail
Todd Cooperider
Esoteric Auto Detail
Columbus, Ohio

48 comments on Automotive Paint is Delicate – Don’t Touch It!!

  1. Justin says:

    Great topic Todd.

    In my expience in the body shop, if you leave basecoat in an open mixing can overnight, the next day you will return to something that feels like a super-bounce ball. Flexible, solid, but not rigid. A cars substrate (sheetmetal) expands and contracts with temperature, so the paint needs to be flexible to prevent cracking. (Think of urethane bumpers and sills)

    Even a standard 3 part clearcoat or single stage with hardener mixed in has major flex

  2. Ivan Rajic says:

    Todd that’s some great info and advice! My personal favorite is when people lean on cars. I absolutely can’t stand it and have been known to actually tell someone, politely of course, to stop leaning on a car that wasn’t even my own.

    Paint is definitely delicate, especially the softer paints out there, and all should heed your advice!

    Great post.

  3. Richard says:

    Great article Todd. This past weekend someone leaned her elbow on my car on my one week unwashed car with noticeable dust on it. After I washed it and examined the area under the sun, that spot where her elbow was resting had swirl marks, just at that spot! The good news is that I can easily take the swirls out from the polishing techniques I learned from this site!

    A lot of people do not understand that concept of delicate paint!

  4. Adam B says:

    I agree Todd, you definitely should start your own show, I’d watch it for sure!

  5. Eric says:

    nice article Todd. The worst is when the client asks “can I touch the paint” after a 12 hour session with the car…I cringe everytime I hear that phrase. I even had one guy swipe dust off the car (outside in the sun, windy day) after I spent two days on the car…of course it scratched it up, and I rehit the panel, but COME ON, I just put 2 days of work in on the car and you dont see me touching it with anything but a MF towel…

    • Adam B says:

      during the winter when salt is covering my car, my friends will trace their finger in the salt to write some word and I go nuts, like start yelling, I cannot stand that, I’ve seen that a hundred times too, when pollen is covering the car or dust, they trace there finger along the car, I go nuts, as they start to make there move, I catch them I’m like stop don’t touch it, and then I have to explain why.

    • Thanks Eric. In those cases, you can quickly see why you had to spend so much time fixing the vehicle. The best thing you can do at that point is try to (respectfully) educate the owner on how delicate it is. I try to put as many of my clients through an educational course (by linking them to specific articles here on DI) before I even do the work so they’re prepared for the after-care process. But still, that doesn’t always work.

  6. David says:

    Wow Todd,

    So with respect to the following point you made in your article:

    β€œDusting”. This may be OK if the car is sitting inside a storage facility, but not after it has been driven. Even with a quick detailer, you risk scratching/marring the paint.

    I’ve read that in some forums it’s okay to use some dusters, probably the safest would be the California Duster before using a quick detailer so long as you apply the lightest of pressure to the vehicle with the duster.

    If you suggest not using these duster type items, what’s the point of even using a quick detailer then? Won’t that even put more scratches and swirls on the vehicle becuase we’re now wiping off the vehicle with even more dust?

    And what’s your take on waterless washing (i.e. Optimum ONR)? There are some critics that avoid using waterless washing products for the same reasons as well.

    • David,

      While using tools like these may be safe on some paints, in some situations, I’d much rather preach to the majority. There are always exceptions, but in my position is much better to teach people to be on the cautious side than to try to find the exceptions. IF I had a metallic silver BMW for instance, I’m confident in my abilities and knowledge of paint care that I could probably do light “dustings” or wipedowns between washes and still prevent marring. Seeing cars in what I would call very good condition (lack of swirls) is a rarity in my experience…even “show” cars. While not perfect, my 60k mile soft black daily driver looks exceptionally good. My wash methods are solid, I do not do any kind of wipedowns/dusting whatsoever, and I rarely do even a light polish on it.

      I’ve dealt with some ridiculously soft paints that even with the absolute best wash methods, you will get some slight marring. That’s with the safety of lots of water and lubrication safely floating even the slightest debris away. Now imagine what a dusting or a quick detailing would do to it!

      Rinseless washing (ONR) is safe for most paints most of the time with proper techniques. Once again, there are exceptions. Would I use it on a very dirty, soft black paint like mine? No. Would I use it on my car (or similar) when it is just lightly dirty? Yes.

      As for quick detailers, the only time I use them (or recommend using them) is during or immediately after drying. Unfortunately many people mistakenly use these as an alternative to washing the car.

      I hope this helps.

      • Matt says:

        Todd, you mentioned you rarely do even a light polish on your black car. Would you consider M205 using white LC pad a light or heavy polish? That is what I was planning to use next time on my black stang to get rid of all the micro marring. Is that too abrasive? Maybe go to black pad?

        • Matt,

          It depends. I’ve worked on some Mustangs with relatively soft paint, and some with relatively hard paint. So your combination would be considered heavy on one, and light on the other. You’ll just need to do a test to see what’s going to work best. For MY black paint, 205 even with a black pad won’t finish down well enough to be a final polishing step.

          On yours, I’d probably first try 205/black to see what it does. If it’s too aggressive, then you’ll want to use something like Poli-Seal (quick) or Menzerna 106FA (not so quick). If it’s too light, then step up to a white pad.

  7. Armand says:

    Hey Todd,

    I have been reading your blogs and I had a question for you.

    Your tutorial on how to wash a car and this article as well stress the importance of limiting the touching of a vehicle.

    In light of this, what are your thoughts on the Metro Air Force Blaster? Is it a suitable option for drying and not damaging the paint? Are there others that work better or just as good? Which would you suggest, if any?

    I look forward to your reply.


    • Yes, using forced air like that is a great idea when drying cars, and I use that method all of the time (usually with an air compressor). Unless you’re using deionized water though, you will be leaving some film/residue/water spots after you blow the majority of the water off. This is when you want to use your quick detailer or spray wax to help you with the final drying (there will still be some water remaining).

  8. Adam says:

    This really helps to shed light on things. I knew my NBP Accord Coupe had soft paint, but I couldn’t understand how my swirls were coming back so quickly. I thought that using a good sealant would save me from my “time saving” wash and dry methods.

  9. Great article Todd!

    My pet peeve is when people shut the trunk by grabbing the lower edge or top corner of it. These areas can be especially bad if the owners wear rings. Most cars have handles somewhere in the trunk to pull them shut with, if not I suggest grabbing by the license plate or some other non-painted/delicate surface.

    Another big one for me is the gas cap and gas door! Almost all cars have a way to hang the cap when filling up so that it doesn’t clank against the side of the car. Shutting the gas door with caution helps too, especially when dirty.


  10. KC Detailing says:

    I remember back in the day when I would go to the pressure wash to clean my car and would dry it off with a normal bath towel. I would rub hard if there was grim that wouldn’t come off. Then I would spray some high-gloss tire shine on my tires and just stand back and stare at how awesome my car looked. I’ve gotten a little better since. LOL I guess it was better than cleaning my car with a sand blaster.

    All that to say, some people really just have no clue at all about how to properly take care of their car. Lets educate them but give them a break if they are not as OCD as guys like us who do this for a living and as a hobby. If everyone was as obsessed about their car’s paint as we are, we would all be out of jobs. As twisted as it is, doctors need sick patients.

  11. Matt says:

    Todd great article, this really hits home for me as I have had a Black mustang for just over a year and learned this the hard way. Seems like litereally any time you touch it there is some new micro marring.

    I have some questions on the use of quick detailer or waterless wash for cleaning a lightly dusty car (especially black like mine). Sounds like from your responses you would never recommend doing this. I am talking for a weekly cleaning for a car that only get light dust, pollen etc and is never driven in the rain. I’ve used mequires ultimate quick detailer and more recently poorboys spray and wipe but am having doubts that this was a good idea. Would ONR be safe and appropriate for this type of cleaning?

    My problem is it takes me a solid 1.5 hours to do a good two bucket wash using your procedures. I don’t think I should do this level of wash every weekend just for slightly dusty/dirty surface (and don’t always have the time). Looking for a safe alternative to save some time.

    • Matt,

      Yes, ONR would be a good option for you when all you need is a light wash. Just follow DJ’s ONR tutorial, and you should be good to go!

      • Matt says:

        Thanks, I’m going to try the ONR and see how much time it saves me from the full wash. So after I switch to ONR is there any use for my Spray and Wash or should I chuck it? Maybe for my other car (metallic blue) I can get away with using it?

        • The first few times you use ONR it may take a little more time, but as with any “new” detailing procedure, it will become quicker as you get the system down. Sure…use the S&W on the metallic blue until you run out.

  12. Keith says:

    What do you mean when you say “Dusting”? I have a car that I keep in the garage and I only take it out on the weekends. It collects dust when it sits there for 5 days…is this ok? Also, I have a car cover that I don’t use right now…which is the lesser of two evils..the cover or the dust?

    • With all things being equal, I consider “inside dust” and “outside dust” to be different animals. If you have your garage door open a lot, and the winds are blowing in a lot of debris and “dust”, then you’d want to be very cautious. If the car’s simply sitting in an enclosed facility and gets lightly dusted it’s much safer if done properly. Mostly what I am referring to is when people actually drive their cars and then they only look dusty. The reality is that when they’ve been driven, they’ve picked up a lot of fine (and abrasive) particles from the road, and even doing a QD wipedown would cause marring and/or scratching.

      If you drive your car and don’t have time to do even a light wash afterwards, I would be extremely cautious / careful about putting a cover on it. As you pull the cover over the edges in particular, you risk rubbing that road dust across the finish. If it looks even slightly dirty, I would let it sit and gather more dust in the garage until I had the opportunity to wash it again.

  13. ENVautoDetailing says:

    Well said, Todd! I just finished up an 11 hour paint correction on a customers Bentley lats week, only to arrive at his home today and see the car filthy with new scratches on the doors from his children! It really makes me wonder why I spend all that time to get it back to production line quality!?!?!? But like others have said, if it weren’t for this exact example, we’d all be out of jobs!

  14. Aman says:

    Hey Todd,

    Great article as usual. I tip my hat off to you and all the other pros that take time out of their day to share their experience with us here. Thank you.

    I just have one question about the pictures you posted. Isn’t it more likely those scratches come from nails and/or rings, as opposed to simply skin? Looking at my fingers, it’s hard to believe they could scratch the paint.

    I understand if we’re talking about a shop or construction worker who gets his hands dirty. But if I remember correctly, the TL in question belonged to a Honda engineer who worked on the development of that car, correct?

    You’re the pro, not me πŸ™‚ I hope you know what I’m trying to get at. Thanks again for taking time to help us out.

    • Aman,

      On the black Ferrari, they were most definitely caused by fingers. I did a “test swipe” myself and easily scratched it. On the TL, it was most likely a combination of fingers, fingernails, rings, jeans, etc. On my black TL I can always find where somebody has gotten in and out of the car and pushed on the door or touched it otherwise. I’ll find handprints, and then when I wash it I reveal light scratching/marring that requires a spot polish to fix. Now compound this over years of care that is nowhere near the OCD level of mine, and it quickly builds up to what you see in that photo. I look over so many cars and always see much more marring and scratching in the areas where the cars get handled a lot.


  15. Marlene Miciunas says:

    Regarding a quick detailer, you say it shouldn’t be used on the car once it has been driven. What about when you drive your classic car to a car show? Since it’s been driven, a quick detail spray should not be used? How do you suggest getting the car wiped down to look its best at the show? ONR is probably a bad idea as well?
    Thank very much.

    • Marlene,

      This can be a risky proposition for sure. On one hand, you want to show off a great looking car at the event, but on the other hand you don’t want to scratch/mar the finish. I go to car shows all of the time where the vehicles are driven in (sometimes across dirty/dusty fields), and see the scratchy ritual begin as soon as they get parked. And it’s no surprise when I walk up and down the aisles of event just to see heavily swirled show cars.

      In a case like this I’d say that a modified cleaning with Optimum No Rinse would probably be your best bet. Take a pre-mixed bottle of ONR and distilled water, liberally spray down one panel and then lightly and carefully “clean” it with a plush microfiber towel. You’ll want to use a fresh side of the microfiber on each panel, so plan on going through a handful of towels for the entire car. Do one panel at a time. This should safely clean it and leave it streak-free provided you’re not trying to do it in the direct sun on a hot surface. I would limit this to early morning when the sun is low and before it gets too hot outside.

      I hope this helps!

  16. Nate Falslev says:

    As a fellow Nighthawk Black Pearl owner, I appreciate you making an effort to educate the masses.

  17. my blog says:

    Hope to hear your response.

  18. Bob says:

    Todd: I’m new here, but the amount and quality of expert information from you and others is incredible…thank you! I just purchased a near show quality cobra replica (black/red) and had a paint correction/sealant performed by a local detail shop. The detailer did an amazing job and I’m now trying to learn how to keep it in near show condition. The car was driven home about 3 miles after the paint correction/sealant procedure and put into the garage. I was told to leave the car uncovered for a few days to give the sealant time to cure fully. Now, the car is dusty and daytime temps are not conducive to outside washing. I would like to cover the car, but wonder if I could just blow off garage dust with an MVC Air Force Master Blaster, or whether an Optimum No Rinse would be better. Thanks for your help! Bob

  19. Michael says:

    Had a question in regards to if its a bad idea to use a quick detailer to wipe down a car after a small rain. I had driven my car the other day and it barely rained. Enough to get it wet not a down pour. Good thing was due to waxing it raind pretty much ran all off. I couldn’t put it away though dirty. So what I did was took a couple buckets of water to get it wet, used a sponge with very little soap, dumped a couple of more buckets to rinse as best as possible,squeegy bladed it (squeegy specifically for car), then used quick detailer with a clean microfiber and flipping it. Sorry so long but wanted to detail so You knew what was exactly done in hopes that You can answer the question as I haven’t been able to find one yet. Thanks

    • Reece @ DI says:

      Michael – This is certainly okay! Just make sure you are using good products and techniques. You basically are performing a quick wash at that point, so be sure to use a maintenance shampoo like the Chemical Guys Maxi Suds or Optimum No Rinse. Both of these will help you clean the surface and they will not remove any protection you have on the surface.

      • Michael says:

        Thanks much for response as I was really concerned. This might sound crazy but afterwards I had turned fluorescent light on in garage and even shined a flashlight on paint and didn’t notice any scratches but just wanted to get a professional opinion. I tend to be very anal with my car as its my dream car that I always wanted as a kid. Only other question is would You recommend or is it okay if I occasionally wipe it down with quick detailer once a week with a microber with minimal pressure if it has a car cover. Or would You shy away from it

      • Michael says:

        Just wondering if You got last response

        • Reece @ DI says:

          You certainly can wipe it down with a quick detailer whenever you would like. Just be sure to use a clean microfiber and light pressure. If you car has more than light contamination (dust) I would recommend skipping the quick detailer and giving it a wash instead.

          • Michael says:

            Thanks again for response as everything You’ve said(good products, quick detail if just dust with clean microfiber and light pressure,etc)been doing but good reassurance.

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