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How to Protect Your Car From Sun Damage, Inside and Out

Stephen Fogel
June 7, 2018

You wouldn’t expose your skin to the blazing summer sun for hours at a time without protection, right? Well, the same ultraviolet rays that can leave you red as a lobster can also damage your car, inside and out.

Protecting your vehicle from the damaging rays of the sun is important for its long-term health. Whether you live in a temperate climate with just a few months of hot weather or a desert where it sizzles most of the year, these tips will keep your car running smoothly and looking its best for years to come.

» JUMP AHEAD: Protecting a car's exterior, protecting a car's interior, protecting your engine, protecting your tires

Protecting your car's exterior

Two different types of sun-related damage can affect your car’s outward appearance. Both of them are caused by the ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight.  

Oxidation results from the loss of electrons from the atomic structure of your paint, plastics and rubber surfaces. The look and the structure of these materials deteriorate, making them dried out and brittle.

Photodegradation damage happens as a result of the breakdown of chemical bonds of the substances your vehicle is made of. You will see this as fading color, or a bleached-out appearance.

Wash your car frequently

Washing your vehicle often is a great protective measure year-round, not just when it’s hot. During summer weather, washing removes dirt and dust that can accumulate and scratch your finish. It also gets rid of bird droppings, insect splats, pollen and sap that can react with your paint and permanently stain it. 

Depending on where you live, you should wash your car once a week or once every other week. Here are some tips for washing your vehicle during hot weather:

  1. Make sure your vehicle’s surface is cool, and wash it in a shady area.
  2. Have a hose with a pressure spray head ready.
  3. Use an automotive car wash product, never household detergents.
  4. Use two microfiber wash mitts to wash your vehicle — one for the car, and one for the tires and wheels.
  5. Use two buckets of water, one for soapy wash water, and one to rinse your mitt.
  6. Spray each section of the vehicle before you wash it, one section at a time.
  7. Dip your wash mitt into the soapy water, and wash one section at a time, starting from the top and working your way down.
  8. Spray off the soap after washing each section.
  9. Rinse your wash mitt in the rinse bucket and wring it out after washing each section.
  10. Repeat steps 6 through 9 until the car is completely washed.
  11. Use a tar removal product for tar stains that won’t wash off.

Drying your vehicle well is just as important as washing it the right way. Here are some drying tips:

  • Use clean microfiber towels.
  • Dry your vehicle completely to avoid water and mineral spots.
  • Switch to a fresh towel when the one you’re using gets too damp.
  • Wash the towels when you’re done. 
  • Wax your vehicle for extra protection

Once you’ve washed and dried your vehicle, a coat of wax will add an extra layer of protection between it and the sun. The wax locks in the oils that make your paint look good, and protects your finish from UV radiation, grime and other contaminants that can cause scratches.

For the best results, use a high-quality protective wax, and reapply every two to three months to maintain a good level of protection. If your paint shows imperfections or a rough surface texture after washing and drying, use a clay bar to get a smooth, clean finish before you apply the wax.

Protect your plastic and rubber parts

Use protectants on your car’s exterior rubber and plastic parts to keep them looking new. Your plastic headlight covers can be protected with film or a spray-on product, or can be polished if they have become dull or hazy.  

Convertible top care

If you have a convertible with a fabric or vinyl top, it’ll take a bit of additional work. Starting with the car out of direct sunlight, rinse off surface dirt and dust with water. Next, use a cleaner designed for your specific top material. Apply the cleaner and rinse according to the manufacturer’s directions. Blot the top dry with microfiber towels, letting it dry thoroughly. Apply a protectant as a final step. If your top has a plastic or vinyl rear window, use products designed to clean and protect that material to finish the job. 

Other exterior protection strategies

Park your vehicle out of the sun

This is one of the simplest and most effective strategies for avoiding sun damage to your vehicle: Prevent the sun from baking your car in the first place! This saves both your vehicle’s exterior and interior from damage. Some possible hiding places for escaping the sun’s wrath include:

  • A garage
  • A carport
  • Under a tree (make sure it isn’t filled with birds or dripping sap)
  • Inside a parking structure
  • Any other shaded area you can find

Get a car cover

Car covers protect your vehicle from the sun’s rays and other hot weather hazards. They also will keep it from getting dusty and covered with bird and insect droppings. 

But there are some downsides to using a car cover. You need to remove the cover and store it each time you drive. The underside that contacts the vehicle’s finish needs to stay clean. And you never want to put a clean car cover on a dirty car – abrasive dirt and particles will scratch the finish as the cover is put on and taken off, and will then be transferred to the cover material, making the situation worse.

So, if you drive your vehicle occasionally, live in a place where the weather is pleasant, and keep your vehicle clean, a car cover might be a good sun protection strategy. But for a heavily used family car, it might not be the best strategy.

Clear protective film

Some vehicle owners apply a clear protective film to their vehicles. Popular choices include XPEL Ultimate, LLumar Platinum and 3M Scotchguard Pro. These films can be applied to the front end and lower body surfaces, or can cover the entire car. The clear film protects not only from the sun’s damaging UV rays, but also from stone chips, insects and bird droppings.

These films can be expensive to have installed, though — and they can be tricky to do yourself. If you have professional installation done be prepared to shell out anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on how much of your car you want covered.

Vinyl body wraps

Taking this concept a bit further, you can go for a full vinyl body wrap. This allows you to change your vehicle’s color, add a matte finish, or include stripes or other graphics. The thick vinyl wrap completely covers your paint, acting as an opaque barrier to the sun’s rays and anything else that makes contact with your car. It’s fairly expensive, but it will keep your original finish underneath fresh.

Protecting your car's interior

Your car’s windshield and windows let you see out — important, obviously — but they also let in damaging UV light rays. These rays attack the soft vinyls and plastics on your dashboard, console and door panels; the fabric, vinyl and leather on your seats; and the carpeting on your floors. But there are some steps you can take to prevent damage.

Use a windshield sunshade

The best way to reduce sun damage to your interior is to keep the sun from entering. A foldable windshield sunshade is an excellent solution. The best ones are custom fit to your exact windshield size and shape. They also feature a reflective surface and multilayer construction that blocks the heat from getting through to your interior.  

Keep your dashboard and interior surfaces clean

Accumulated dust, dirt and grit can make very small scratches in your dashboard, console and door panels. This condition will worsen over time if neglected. The solution is to wipe your vehicle’s interior surfaces with a clean microfiber cloth. Finish with a cleaner and protectant designed for these surfaces. Choose a low-gloss product to eliminate glare.

Protect your seats

Your seats will last longer if they stay clean. Vacuum cloth seats, or use an appropriate cleaner and protectant if they’re covered in leather or vinyl. Leather seats require some extra care in hot weather, as they can easily dry out and crack if not properly conditioned.

Fabric seat covers are an option if you live in a very hot climate. You can also use light-colored seat covers on dark-colored seats to reduce your discomfort on a hot day. Covers will protect your seats from everyday wear and tear.

Consider tinting your windows

Tinting usually involves the application of a film to the insides of your windows. It will reduce the interior heat levels and filter out UV rays.

For the best installation, use a professional tinting service. But first, make sure to brush up on your state and local tinting laws, which regulate how dark the tint can legally be. 

Crack your windows when parked

Rolling your windows down a half-inch or so when you park can release excess heat from inside your vehicle when it’s hot out. Don’t roll them down so far that someone might be able to break into your car or reach inside it.

Protecting what’s under your hood 

When you add the intense heat of the summer sun to the high temperatures that normally occur under the hood, you have a recipe for a variety of mechanical problems. Here are a few potential areas of concern.

Your cooling system

When the mercury rises, your vehicle’s cooling system must be in the best possible condition to handle the extra load. All these items need to be in optimal condition to prevent overheating: 

Have your mechanic check the entire cooling system before the hot weather arrives. And check your coolant level regularly, when your engine is cold.

Your other fluids

Even if your cooling system is fine, other fluid problems can hurt your engine or other important parts. While you’re having your cooling system checked, have your mechanic check and top up your engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid and brake fluid.

Your battery

Hot, sunny weather and the heavy use of air conditioning puts a strain on your car’s battery and charging system. If you’ve noticed any signs of a dying battery, have your mechanic check it before the temperatures soar. 

Your air conditioning system

When it’s really hot out, air conditioning can be a necessity. The AC system needs to be fully charged with refrigerant, and have a properly working compressor and drive belt. Have your mechanic check your AC before you absolutely need it.

Your air filter

As seasons go, summer is the worst in terms of the amount of dust and dirt that floats around in the air. As you drive, a lot of this airborne debris gets sucked into the air filter on your engine. This can build up to the point where the filter gets clogged, choking your engine.

Your fuel economy will suffer and, in extreme cases, the dust can penetrate your filter, causing damage to sensors that control the engine’s operation. This can lead to an expensive repair. Ask your mechanic to check your air filter and replace it if necessary. It’s cheap insurance. 

Protecting your tires

Your tires are in a special category. They’re on the outside of your vehicle and exposed to the harmful rays of the sun. But they’re also moving parts responsible for your safety. So some special care is required to keep your tires performing well in hot weather.

Check your tire pressure

Heat is the top enemy of your tires. Underinflated tires create a huge amount of heat. Combined with high outside temperatures and the even higher temperatures of a blacktop road surface, the life of an underinflated tire can be very short. Tire blowouts can cause serious accidents.

To avoid blowouts, check your tire pressures every week or two during the summer. Check the pressure when the tires are coolest, before you drive. And always check your tires before a long trip. You can find the correct pressures on a sticker in your driver’s door jamb, or in your owner’s manual. 

Check your tires’ condition

The sun’s UV rays can also cause the rubber in your tires to deteriorate over time. Take a close look for hairline cracks or crumbling rubber. Applying a tire protectant can slow this process down. But tires do age, and they wear down faster in a hot climate. 

Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

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