Do car covers damage paint?

Imagine this: you’ve put your pride and joy to sleep for the winter. Come spring, you excitedly pull off the cover under which it slumbered – only to find dozens of small scratches marring the once-pristine paint.

Take a deep breath – that was only a hypothetical. But it’s a valid concern whenever you cover a car. Whether or not car covers damage paint has been a point of debate among car aficionados for years. Do you cover your car and risk scratches, or leave it uncovered and exposed to the elements?

The good news is that covering a car doesn’t always cause scratches – in fact, when used properly, there should be no scratching at all. As for which techniques to follow and which to avoid? We did the research and cut through the noise to find out what works and what doesn’t. Take a look below to see our findings.

How Do Car Covers Damage Paint?

Car covers in themselves don’t damage paint – they’re typically just cloth and cotton weaved together in a form-fitting blanket for your car. The problem lies when dirty cars are covered. Do that, and you’re almost guaranteeing scratched paint when you remove the cover.

Here’s what happens: as you drive your car around, dirt, dust, and grime naturally settle on the surface. Some of this you might be able to visibly pick out, such as if a layer of dust formed on the car, but typically it just manifests as a dull-looking finish. Yet even though you likely can’t tell, particles of grime are clinging to the surface.

When you drag your car cover across the paint to fit it into place, you’re pulling it right over the dirt. This in turn runs the dirt across the paint. Particles and paint don’t play well, so the result – which you’ll only see after you pull the cover off – are innumerable fine scratches. Some of these may be able to buff out, but others may be more permanent.

How to Prevent a Car Cover from Scratching Your Paint

Wash Your Car Before You Cover It

Wash your car first

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The first step to protecting your paint when using a car cover is to wash the car before fitment. Washing one day prior is a safe rule of thumb; if you’re covering your car tomorrow, wash it today. The tight turnaround time ensures that no unwanted specs of anything have time to build on the paint finish before you install the cover.

You might think that if washing a day beforehand is good, then an hour beforehand is even better. That’s actually not the case: if you were to wash your car just an hour before putting on a car cover, you will almost certainly trap in moisture. There’s a lot of reasons this isn’t good, including mold and mildew concerns, but most damaging of all may be the unsightly water spots that will inevitably form on the paint.1 These blemishes, when left untreated, can etch into your car’s protective clearcoat and permanently damage your finish. In that sense, water can be as bad or worse than dirt when it comes to improper car cover techniques.

To avoid water spots, give your car ample time to dry off, ideally in the sun, before considering covering it. You can also help speed the drying process up with a drying towel designed especially for automotive applications. If you cover your car while it’s dry and clean, you’ll drastically reduce the odds of paint damage during storage.

Cover Your Car – and Leave it Covered

It’s tempting to want to periodically uncover your car. However, we strongly suggest resisting the temptation. As fun as it would be to take your classic out during that winter thaw, one of the easiest ways to scratch your paint is by frequently installing and removing the cover.

You might think that the cover won’t do any harm – after all, it’s a soft material designed expressly to protect your car, right? The problem is that dirt and dust have already had a chance to build on the cover. As you remove the cover, you’re displacing that grime and potentially dragging it across your paint. Later, when you go to put the cover back on, you may inadvertently trap dirt under the cover – which, as we already discussed, can easily scratch your paint when you eventually remove the cover again. To prevent any of this, the best thing to do is simply leave the cover on until you plan on driving the car regularly once more.

Oh, and once you do uncover your car for the season? Consider washing your car cover. It’s the most surefire way to get rid of the dirt that may have built up over the storage period.

Consider Car Cover Material and Design

Car cover to protect paint

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No two car covers are exactly alike. The main two categories are indoor and outdoor covers; from there, different designs and price points offer a spectrum of features and coverage quality. This can definitely be covered in more detail, but suffice to say that the wrong car cover for the storage environment may actually do more harm than good.

This is especially true when storing a car outside. When regularly being buffeted with the elements, a car cover may not be able to remain breathable and well-fitted. A good gust of wind may dislodge the cover, or water may worm its way under the cover through pinhole gaps or holes. If you don’t take a few preventative measures, a car stored outside may well end up looking worse than it did before going into hibernation.

Material Choice

The most important thing to do is find a car cover that is built to withstand the weather your car will be subjected to. Outdoor covers are built out of a tougher material than indoor covers; these covers may be more likely to cause scratches on account of their rougher, more durable fabric. Indoor covers can be made of softer materials that are less likely to cause paint problems. However, don’t expect them to hold up to even brief exposures to the elements.

Waterproof Covers

Be careful with waterproof covers – they may be a little too good at what they do.2 If water gets trapped under a waterproof cover, it won’t be able to easily evaporate and escape. It’s a situation that could quickly breed those dreaded water spots.

Tie-Down Grommets

To prevent an outdoor cover from billowing or even blowing away, utilize the built-in tie-down grommets. A simple bit of rope threaded through the eyelet is all it takes to cinch down the cover and keep it from disappearing in a windstorm. This also drastically limits the cover’s ability to billow in strong winds, which further reduces the risk of scratching. The more secure your car cover is, the better job it will do protecting your vehicle.

Parting Thoughts

Car covers might catch some flak for causing scratches, but the truth is that with proper usage and careful installation, you’re vastly reducing the chance of damaging your paint. You can expect just the opposite, actually: the right cover used correctly will likely provide you with many years of high-quality paint and UV protection. All in all, it’s an investment that’s well worth the money.

Article Sources

Ride Digest uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Why Water Spots On Car Paint Is Bad And How To Remove ThemKaliberautodetailing.com. Published 9 Oct 2018. Accessed 18 Oct 2021.
  2. Waterproof vs. Breathable Vehicle Covers. the-cover-store.com. Accessed 18 Oct 2021.