Tire dressing is a product applied to tires to make them look shiny, clean and new. Detailing shops and car enthusiasts use it regularly, though criticisms have arisen charging that some types of dressing actually damage tires in the long run. There are many different formulas of tire dressing and two major categories: solvent-based and water-based.
All dressings used to be solvent-based. Solvent-based products are clear, sometimes blue tinted, and sticky. They are popular with people who want a high-gloss or wet look to the tire. Most tire dressing products on the shelf at your local auto parts store will be solvent-based. These products are not environmentally friendly and can be difficult to work with because of their stickiness.
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A common concern with solvent-based tire dressing is sling getting on the paint of the car. Sling occurs when a car is in motion and dressing flies off the tire, usually landing on the rocker panels or rear fenders. Solvent-based products can leave a mark on paint jobs and some manufacturers sell products to remove this product from paint; but it should be removed promptly before it dries or sets.
Because solvent-based dressing is sticky, it attracts dust and dirt and can have a tendency to gum up where overspray or excessive application builds. It’s important to clean tires before applying a new coat of tire dressing, and you might find solvent-based dressings more trouble to clean off than water-based dressings.
Water-based dressing is milky white, slippery instead of sticky, and environmentally friendly. Many water-based dressings incorporate UV filters, helping to preserve the tires' own built-in sunblock (carbon black) that becomes depleted over time. Protecting the rubber from UV damage can theoretically help to keep sidewalls supple.
Water-based tire dressing is known for its nice, matte or satin shine. Some manufacturers suggest layering the application to build a glossier look, if desired. While proper application should prevent sling, water-based dressing won’t harm the paint job. Since this dressing isn’t sticky it doesn’t attract dust or dirt and won’t gum up, making cleaning between applications a snap. Conveniently, it can also be applied to rubber bumpers, vinyl, window stripping and other trim making it more versatile than its solvent-based cousin.
Some charge that using dressing regularly can leech the protective compounds and waxy oils added to rubber that keep it from drying and cracking. Solvent-based dressings are targeted as being the culprits, but other factors can also lead to premature drying and cracking of tires, including constant exposure to the sun and elements, improper inflation, curb-swiping and infrequent driving. If you prefer the high-gloss of solvent-based products, you might apply them occasionally rather than routinely.
Tire dressings of both types (water-based and solvent-based) come in three forms: aerosol spray, pump spray, foam and gel. Aerosol applies a nice even coat, but tends to cause overspray that can get on wheels and paint. Pump sprays are sprayed on an applicator, such as a soft pad, sponge, rag or soft brush, then applied to the tire. Foam and gel dressings are wiped on. In all cases the dressing should be worked into the sidewalls and allowed to dry before moving the vehicle.
If you’d like to try this product but are concerned about potential long-term harm, stick to water-based formulas that include UV filters and lack silicone oils. This type of dressing is safe and can even be beneficial, though it won’t be as easy to find as solvent-based dressing. The finish will be a satin matte verses a high-gloss.
Tire dressing should never be applied to tread because it can make the tread slippery. This is especially important for motorcycles. Always follow manufacturers directions and wear protective gloves when applying solvent-based products.