Why Does My Car Paint Look Dull?: Refraction versus Reflection

The day you bought your new car it was hard to tell which was beaming more; you or the vehicle’s paint. Now a few days, months or years have passed and the luster of the vehicle seems to be gone. You drive it right on over to a car wash and run it through the tunnel. You buy the top package (the one with that SiO2 infused hot lava strawberry scented wax). Still just ehhh… wondering why? 

Why Has My Car Paint Become Dull: Introduction

Remember when you bought your car or truck? That black reflected like a sheet of glass. The red was brighter than a firetruck. Now a few months later it just isn’t what it was before. You have done everything right to care for it; haven’t you? You wash a couple times a week at a local car wash, always immediately remove bird droppings at the gas station and hand wash it once a month with the softest sponge you can find. They must have tricked you at the dealership!

The Most Common Cause of Dull Paint on New Vehicles

While “life” is always going to happen to your vehicle – odds are improper care has begun to put scratches into your vehicle. Even in PERFECT scenarios (like at a detail shop), it is possible to put micro-marring (small scratches) into your vehicle’s clear coat. 

Scratches / Micro-marring are destroying your clear coat. The number one cause is likely that tunnel wash (brush wash / automatic car wash) membership that you have. Without diving too deep, your car exterior is a layer of primer, paint and then a clear coat. As the name eludes to – clear coat is a semi-hard layer of transparent protection over the vehicle’s paint. The brushes that are about to slap; I mean clean your car – contain the dirt and contaminants from the car ahead of you still in them. Oh, it was a construction truck ahead of you? Ouch.

Now I am not solely pointing the finger at the car washes – much of the damage we have fixed for clients comes from at home. Whether its drying your car with an old bath towel, using a dish sponge to get bugs off the grill or a long-handled brush in a wash bay; these all will cause scratches.

The Science Behind Your Dull Paint

You’re probably thinking that a couple scratches shouldn’t be causing your car paint to be lackluster. It comes down to reflection versus refraction. I have included a video here to explain these terms more in-depth if you want to skip a little reading.


the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound without absorbing it.” – Google Definition


“the fact or phenomenon of light, radio waves, etc. being deflected in passing obliquely through the interface between one medium and another or through a medium of varying density.” – Google Definition

What This Means to You?

Think of a high-quality diamond. The light bounces off (or passes through) cleanly. It is because said diamond has been cut, buffed and polished to trap as little light as possible. Now think about your grandmothers rings and how it has lost some shine. This diamond has been through life, and has picked up small scratches. Rather then the light cleanly reflecting off the surface – it refracts. Light refracting in this case essentially means it breaks apart. It becomes trapped in the valleys of the scratches while trying to reflect off the surface. These valleys (the scratches) spread the light out versus deflecting it. If you take a 100w light and measure a clean reflection of it – you will get very close to 100w. Do the same with a refracted light (off a scratched surface) and the results will be much different, hence seeing much less “gloss”.

Can Dull Car Paint Be Fixed?

Absolutely! The process has many names; the most popular being “Paint Correction”. (Other Popular names: Paint Enhancement, Buffing, Polishing, Car Scratch Removal etc). Paint correction is the process of removing a micro-thin layer of your clear coat, in turn removing the scratches.

On a micro level a scratch has 2 “peaks” and 1 “valley”. The light is being trapped in the valley so Kings Valet would abrade the peaks to slowly bring them down to the valley. This creates a level surface and a clean reflection. This abrading is typically done with a cutting compound. As the name implies, the cutting compound will itself leave scratches. These scratches left by the cutting compound are much finer (thinner and smaller) in nature and can be removed by a simple polish. True polishes contain very little abrasive material. 

This processing of paint correction IS permanent, but that is said with a small caveat.

What Causes Dull Car Paint? (Scratches and Swirl Marks Before Paint Correction)
How to Fix Dull Car Paint: After Paint Correction by Kings Valet
Ceramic Coating and Paint Correction by Kings Valet - Best Ceramic Coating Near You Classic Cars Kings Valet

Other Causes of Dull Paint

Kings Valet focuses on New Car Paint Protection and so scratches and micro-marring are the common paint defects that they work on. There are many other factors that can cause a dull or lackluster look on your vehicle. If an older vehicle – Oxidation and UV Damage are typically the causes of lackluster.

Oxidation is easily fixed, but the results can be tough to maintain. Without some form of protection (wax, sealant or ceramic coating) – oxidation will return to the vehicle. Oxidation occurs because the paint is “dry” and has lost its oil content from exposure to UV rays, heat and oxygen. The layer of paint protection applied after correcting oxidation will help to trap the oil within the paint and keep the look. (Polishes contain oil, which is one reason it seems so “easy” to fix oxidation). Oxidation is an “early warning sign” of clear coat failure. Ultimately, there are only so many times you can “buff” a car or truck as the paint is a finite resource. 

A final defect that we RARELY recommend fixing is Orange Peel. Orange peel gets its name from the fact that it looks like the skin on an orange. Orange peel is just about the literal opposite of a level surface, meaning light will reflect poorly. Unfortunately, nearly EVERY new vehicle that comes off the assembly line has orange peel. The only fix for orange peel is called wet sanding. It is a very aggressive “fix”, that will remove years of life from your clear coat. 

Best Paint Correction and Ceramic Coating Near Me: Kings Valet

(Can you guess which side has been paint corrected and which side still has oxidation and scratches?)

Can Kings Valet Fix Dull Car Paint / Scratches?

Absolutely – in the correct circumstances. Stephen and I have a deep belief in mastering a single aspect of our trade; this being Ceramic Coating. As such; we do NOT offer stand-alone paint correction services as we believe a long-term fix needs long-term protection. As for cost: Paint Correction is relatively inexpensive (about $350) to add to any Ceramic Coating Package from Kings Valet. If Paint Correction is something you are considering and you have a willingness to explore Ceramic Coating with it you can learn more by clicking the button below. If you are dead set on only paint correction – we would refer you to High-Def Detailing in Elkhart. The owner’s name is Ben and he does exceptional work.