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Maintaining a Car's Matte Finish Is Easier Than You Think

2020 BMW M5 Edition 35 Years
The exclusive 2020 BMW M5 Edition 35 Years is available in "frozen dark grey II metallic." Just 350 of these cars will be made in honor of the original M5, which debuted in 1984. BMW USA

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If you're a fan of the eye-catching texture of matte or satin car finishes you've seen at auto shows, or on the slick new BMW your neighbor is driving, we get it. Matte finishes on cars (like a lot of things) come and go with the trends. The look is becoming more popular again, and is also being offered as a factory option, especially on luxury vehicles. BMW and Lexus both have variations of a matte finish on some of their 2020 models.

However, there are a lot of misconceptions about matte finishes being excessively high maintenance. So, if you like the look, but have been scared off because of its upkeep, we're here to reassure you.

Matte Finish Isn't Meant to be Perfect

First, let's briefly explain what matte finish is. Cars with a matte finish paint have a non-reflective look and rough texture, as opposed to a glossy, shiny finish you're probably used to seeing on cars. The two paints are applied the same way; the different looks are created in how the clear coat dries. (More on that in a minute.)

As we mentioned, for some reason, matte finish paint has a bad rap, especially regarding how you have to maintain it. For example: Some people think matte paint cannot get wet (what?), it can't be washed and there's no way to protect the finish.

But none of these are true — anymore anyway. The durability of matte paint has improved in recent years and now a matte finish is just as easy to care for as a regular gloss finish. But it still has its own requirements. Let's take a look at why, and what they are.

Car paint jobs typically include primer, several layers of color and clear coat. As we said, the clear coat is what makes the difference between a regular glossy finish and a matte finish. With a glossy finish, the clear coat fills in any imperfections to create a smooth surface, then is polished and waxed to reflect light and create visual depth.

A matte clear coat is left deliberately imperfect, with a texture that diffuses light rather than reflects it. The clear coat also contains matting or texturizing agents to create a haze throughout the layers. Since the trick of matte is in the clear coat rather than in the colored layers, any color can be used to create a matte finish.

While it's true that a matte surface is more likely to collect contaminants because it's uneven, it's not incapable of being washed or protected. Some people believe common contaminants such as bird poop and dead bugs immediately etch through matte clear coat and into the color. Experts say this isn't true. Even though it's good practice to remove contaminants — especially biological matter like poop and tree sap — as soon as possible, it doesn't mean your paint is going to be destroyed before you even get home from work.

2020 BMW M5 Edition 35 Years
You can see how the frozen dark grey II metallic finish of the 2020 BMW M5 Edition 35 Years has a flat instead of glossy sheen.
BMW USA

Hand-wash Only

Matte paint will etch eventually, however. And if you're really worried about it, that's where a matte-specific protective sealant products can save you some headache. You just can't simply bust out your old collection of car wash products for this car.

Commercial products designed specifically for matte finishes are probably the safest bet, though some owners prefer homemade concoctions, such as a mix of dish soap and vinegar. (Dr. Beasley's, a team of detailers, chemists and car enthusiasts who design, formulate and manufacture detailing products, advises against this, though.) A guide that Lexus provides to owners of the brand's matte vehicles suggests using only water when possible, and a solution of citric acid powder to dissolve tough contaminants. (So, considering this contradictory information, we forgive you if you were one who thought the process was more complicated than it really is.)

The actual washing technique is just as important as the product you use, and there's little disagreement there. Matte paint should be hand-washed — don't send your car through an automatic car wash. The rough rollovers and brushes used in an automatic car wash — and the harsh chemicals — will remove sealants and protectants, while a gentle hand wash with a quality product will remove only dirt and contaminants.

Spot Cleaning and Protecting

For occasional spot cleaning or debris removal, again, use matte-specific soaps and detail sprays. They work just like their regular counterparts, except without the harsh ingredients that have undesirable effects. They can be used as often as necessary.

Don't use a regular paste wax because it will fill the imperfections in the surface and (temporarily or permanently) ruin the matte effect. Choose sealant products designed specifically for matte paint; they offer similar protective benefits. Matte sealant is actually easier to use than paste wax, because it can be applied on a wet car, doesn't require cure time, and doesn't leave the kind of hazy residue that wax can leave on trim and emblems. A matte car's finish should be sealed every six to nine months.

On a regular gloss finish, damage such as minor scratches, swirls and etching can often be buffed out, as long as the damage doesn't go all the way through the paint to the primer. On a matte car, though, abrasive polishes and glazes will cause shiny spots that will permanently alter the car's finish. Matte paint generally doesn't show very minor scratches because the surface is already imperfect. That means there's no need to polish a matte car. And you actually can't polish a matte car, anyway, because polishing gradually wears down clear coat.

In the case that a scratch or scuff shows in the clear coat, or penetrates down into the color, the truth is, you'll need to go pro. Visible scratches will need to be repainted by a professional rather than buffed or filled with the usual at-home techniques. Body work that requires repainting can be handled by any quality body shop.

Whether you're shopping for a new car or considering custom work on a car you already own, the decision to go for matte paint shouldn't be taken lightly. It's not quite as much of a challenge as you may have heard — or as difficult as it used to be — thanks to the availability of better-quality paints and care products. Still, it does require effort.

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