Wash your car, wax your car. That’s the process most people follow, but it’s missing an essential in-between step: polish.

That’s according to Dave Lambert, brand manager for Autoglym Canada, who says using auto polish helps to fill in imperfections in the paint, and prepares the surface for that final protective coat of wax.

“If you look at paint under a microscope, it’s like a mountain range,” he says. A coat of auto polish will fill in those microscopic hills and gullies, giving a smooth and level surface for the wax, which in turn will improve the shine.

The polish can also help to reduce the appearance of swirl marks. These aren’t caused by rubbing on wax with a circular motion, as some people believe, but are paint imperfections caused by using wash brushes, especially in an automatic car wash, to clean the car. “Wax has no abrasive quality to it,” Lambert says. “There’s nothing in wax that could (make swirl marks), unless you were using a dirty applicator.”

The first step is to wash your car, preferably by hand, using a sponge or soft cloth with a pH-neutral car wash product. If you drop the sponge or cloth, don’t use it again until you’ve rinsed it thoroughly. It will inevitably pick up dirt when it hits the ground, and if you don’t rinse it, you’ll be scrubbing that grime into your paint and scratching it.

Dry it with a chamois or microfiber towel, preferably one made by a car cleaning company, which ensures it’s safe for the surface. Terry towels or bath towels aren’t meant for the job, and their tougher cotton loops can chew into the paint and mark it.

It’s always best to polish and wax out of direct sunlight, and when the car’s surface is cool. Follow the instructions on the polish bottle. “Apply it in a circular motion, and don’t be afraid to put a bit of pressure on it,” Lambert says. “It doesn’t require a machine, and it can all be done by hand. Apply it in small sections, and finish those in a straight line to ensure that it’s evenly spread.”

The car will now look so shiny you may consider skipping the wax, but Lambert says it’s an important step that protects the finish. There are many types available, but he recommends a paste wax containing carnauba, a natural wax obtained from the leaves of a palm tree grown in Brazil, for the longest-lasting finish.

Yes, he said “containing” carnauba. “A lot of people say they want 100 percent carnauba wax, but in its pure form, it’s hard enough to scratch your paint,” Lambert says. Instead, you’re looking for this palm-based wax as an ingredient in the product.

How long that shine lasts depends on a few factors, including where you park, the weather, and how often you wash the vehicle, but Lambert says if you properly apply a three-step process with quality products, your wax job should last five to six months.

When it starts to look dull or water doesn’t bead up on the surface, it’s time to get out the elbow grease and start the process again.