Boat Wax vs Boat Polish: What’s the Difference?

Boat wax and boat polish do the same thing, right? Well, not exactly. 

Boat polishing vs boat waxing

Yes, they both make your boat look shiny and new. However, boat wax and boat polish are very different from one another. Both are used to restore the color and shine to a boat, but they work in different ways. 

Boat polish is used to prepare a surface. It removes the rough oxidized surface layer of a boat’s gelcoat to leave a uniform, smooth surface.

Boat wax is used to finish a surface. It creates a protective layer over a boat’s gelcoat that repels water and UV rays while providing a glossy shine.

Why You Need Both Polish and Wax

Fiberglass boats have gelcoat, an outer layer of resin that covers the fiberglass structure; provides resistance to water and UV rays; and creates a smooth, glossy finish. The problem is that gelcoat is prone to oxidation. 

Oxidized boat fiberglass gelcoat

Oxidation is a chemical reaction that occurs when the gelcoat is exposed to the oxygen in the air and water, which results in the gelcoat becoming rough and pitted. As it oxidizes, the gelcoat loses its shine and takes on a dull, chalky appearance. Regularly applying boat wax to gelcoat places a barrier between the gelcoat and the elements, which minimizes oxidation. If the boat is not regularly waxed, the oxidation reaches the point where it’ll be necessary to use boat polish to remove the oxidation before waxing again.

When to Use Boat Polish

If you keep your boat cleaned and waxed, you may not need to polish it for years. 

Fiberglass boat polishing

However, the oxidation will eventually become noticeable. The first sign of oxidation is the surface of the gelcoat becoming rougher to the touch. Gelcoat should feel glass-like when you run your fingers across it, so if it starts to feel slightly abrasive, it’s time to polish it.

Boat polish is a very fine abrasive that removes a tiny amount of the gelcoat to leave a perfectly flat surface with no pitting. Care should be taken when using fiberglass polish so as not to wear away the gelcoat. When used properly, boat polish creates a smooth, mirror-like surface on the gelcoat that can then be sealed and protected with boat wax.

Boat polishing or waxing

If the gelcoat has been neglected for a long time and the oxidization is heavy, use a rubbing compound. It’s similar to fiberglass polish, but is more abrasive and effective on rough, heavily oxidized surfaces. Once the oxidation has been reduced with rubbing compound, it should then be polished before getting waxed. A boat oxidation remover kit comes with everything you need to remove oxidation, polish and wax, and restore fiberglass. 

Meguiar's fiberglass restoration kit

Meguiar's boat oxidation remover kit

It’s recommended that a boat be polished and waxed at least once a year, usually at the end of the boating season, to remove all the dirt and stains accumulated over the last year. Remember that boat wax creates a protective coating over gelcoat, but boat polish does not, so always wax your boat after polishing it.

When to Use Boat Wax

Boat wax can be used whenever you see fit, provided the boat is clean and the gelcoat hasn’t oxidized.

Waxing a boat

The wax has oils that penetrate the gelcoat to restore its true color. It also fills any slight imperfections in the gelcoat’s surface to provide a mirror-smooth finish. How often a boat needs to be waxed varies depending on how long it’s kept in or out of the water; whether it’s used more frequently in salt water of fresh water; what climate conditions it’s regularly exposed to, and so on. Your boat at minimum should be waxed at least once a year, but may need it every few months.

Boat Wax Varieties

Boat waxes today are enhanced with exotic, synthetic ingredients to give them better durability and protective properties. 

Boar fiberglass polish shine

As a result, boat waxes are marketed under different names, such as restorer wax, cleaner wax, etc. Cleaner wax is a hybrid polish/wax with an abrasive that acts like a polish to smooth the gelcoat’s surface, while the wax provides the protective finishing layer. Although cleaner wax offers a quicker one-step option to polishing and waxing a boat, it’s not very effective on badly oxidized surfaces compared to fiberglass polish, and the wax finish doesn’t last as long as a dedicated boat wax. 

Meguiar's cleaner boat wax

3M Marine boat cleaner wax

In general, the products that have the higher natural wax content are simply sold as boat wax or marine wax, while products with more synthetic ingredients may be sold as wax and sealer, or something similar. Despite the different names and ingredients, all boat waxes essentially do the same job of providing a shiny, protective layer for gelcoat. Opinions differ as to which wax type is better, so it’s recommended trying several brands and formulas until you find a product you’re happy with.

NOTE: Some boat polishes, boat waxes and cleaner waxes should never be used on two-part polyurethane paints. If your boat’s hull, topsides or deck are painted with a two-part polyurethane, check first with the paint’s manufacturer before polishing or waxing it.



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