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What Is Paint Protection Film (PPF)? The Complete Rundown

If you have a brand new car or had multi-stage paint correction done, you’ll want to get some protection on before the dirt, road grime, bugs, and birds get to it. That’s fairly easy to do with today’s abundance of waxes, paint sealants, and ceramic coatings readily available on the market.

But what about scuffs, scratches, and stone chips?

If you drive your car daily, you can’t escape gradual wear and tear. Long commutes on the highway and frequent road trips will have the front end absolutely hammered by flying rocks and debris from the road.

Even the best professionally-applied ceramic coatings can’t protect your paint from mechanical damage. You need paint protection film!

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What Is A Paint Protection Film?

Paint protection film is a relatively thick transparent layer of urethane that’s applied on top of the body panels to protect the paint underneath.

Urethane is a widely-used polymer throughout the automotive and practically every other industry. Modern cars have urethane bumpers, as well as urethane insulation, seals, and even interior components.

The material is very strong, flexible, chemically stable, and resistant to UV degradation. Applied on top of your vehicle, it becomes a second skin to body panels, protecting the paint against mechanical damage like scratches, dings, and paint chips, as well as UV and chemical erosion.

Paint protection film was invented to protect helicopter rotor blades from flying shrapnel, debris, and dust during Vietnam. It worked very well and is still used today.

Race teams took notice in the 80s and realized that a transparent lightweight film could help protect race cars from the rocks, debris and rubber flying along the track, as well as contact during close-quarters driving.

Today, paint protection film is a 250-million-dollar market, protecting hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cars from daily grit.

How Does Paint Protection Film Work?

Paint protection film comes in rolls of ready-to-use material. It consists of several different layers, each with a different function.

On the bottom is a release liner that protects the other layers and keeps them clean up until installation. When it’s time to apply the film, the liner is removed and discarded.

In the middle is a layer of acrylic adhesive about 1.6 mils thick (0.040mm). The adhesive binds the PPF to the clear coat, but is designed to stick to remain attached to the film, making it 100% removable without damaging or permanently altering the paint.

The real work is done by the urethane layer, the thickest portion of the film at about 6 mils (0.152mm).

When a rock flies into the car, it will make contact with a jagged edge or point, focusing all of the impact energy into a very small area. Automotive paint is thin and not very flexible, so it will crack and eventually chip away. A couple of years of driving will put dozens of these on anything exposed to the airstream - front bumper, fenders, hood, rocker panels, etc.

Once this happens, the paint is never going to be perfect again. You can touch up the chipped areas and reapply the clear coat, and with enough polishing, the paint will look great from any reasonable distance. However, after a certain amount, it’s more economical to repaint the entire panel, and that’s already expensive.

When you have PPF applied, the urethane layer will flex when impacted, absorbing some of the force and spreading out the rest onto a much wider area, thereby saving the paint.  

Finally, modern PPF products feature a thin clear coat layer about 0.5 mils thick (0.013mm), which seals and protects the urethane layer from contaminants.

Urethane is porous on its own and, if exposed to the environment, will trap microscopic particles from the road, which will discolor the film over time. That’s why older or cheaper PPF products turn yellow after some years.

The top coat is resistant to UV, oxidation, and a variety of airborne chemicals and pollutants.

Self-Healing

Scratches, scuffs, and scrapes will accumulate in the film, but they won’t stay for long. Paint protection films have a self-healing property.

Urethane works similarly to a super-viscous liquid such as honey. Any pressure will cause it to buckle and deform, pushing the material away without forming tears and cuts.

Urethane is a thermoplastic polymer, which means it softens and becomes more malleable when heated. Applying heat to the film, it wants to reject the energy absorbed by the impact and return to a flat, uniform state. It hardens back to its regular strength when it cools, and you can cycle it indefinitely without changing the chemical structure.

It’s almost magical when you see how scratches and scuffs disappear in seconds after blasting the film with a heat gun. Depending on where you live, on a hot sunny day, the film will sort itself out, healing most impact zones and straightening out.

Still, you want to be realistic about paint protection film. It will like an invincible material, but it has its limits. Obviously, if you take a knife through the film, you will tear it apart and cut into the paint, ruining the whole panel in an instant.

Larger impacts can also make a dent in the body panel. As long as they don’t tear through the film, the paint should be spared, but you’ll have to make a visit to the body shop to straighten it out.

Paint Protection Film vs. Clear Bra

These are the exact same thing.

Clear Bra was the name given to one of the first paint protection films developed for consumer use. The name comes from the “Car Bra”, a black vinyl cover used in the 1960s to protect vehicles from stone chips and other mechanical damage.

Paint protection films are also called Clear Wrap, Clear Mask, Stone Guard, and other names depending on where you live.

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The Best Spray-On Ceramic Coating. Period.

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Paint Protection Film vs. Vinyl Wrap

PPF and vinyl are both polymer films that wrap around the panels of the vehicle. The installation process is largely the same; however, the materials are entirely different.

Vinyl wrap is made from polyvinyl chloride, otherwise known as PVC. It’s used to change the visual aesthetic of your vehicle in a non-destructive way. Most people prefer wraps, as this is the cheaper way to change the color and surface finish of their car. However, you can do a lot more with them if you have the money to spend.

A graphic designer can make a custom livery for your vehicle, which is printed into sheets of vinyl and cut to match the shape of the panels exactly. This is precisely how racing teams design and install livery on their cars.

However, vinyl wrap offers only marginal protection when it comes to scratches, rock chips, and scrapes. It’s thinner and relatively brittle, with very little shear strength.

Polyurethane is much tougher, flexible, and harder to shear. It’s much thicker - 6-10 mils - which gives it meat to dissipate the energy of the impact and protect the paint underneath.

Conversely, vinyl wraps are only 2-6 mils thick - considerably thinner, and therefore some 35% lighter than PPF when covering the same area.

Both vinyl and PPF are removable without damaging the paint underneath. So, when your wrap gets damaged, you’re tired of looking at it, or you need to sell the car, you have this option.

As far as pricing goes, since installation is the hardest and most expensive component of the service, you’re looking at roughly the same price. At the top of the range, full vinyl wrap and full paint protection film can cost $10,000 or more.

A major difference is that you can do partial PPF, but you can only do a full vinyl wrap.

Cost Vs. Value

The protection offered by paint protection films is unparalleled to any other product in the automotive industry.

However, their cost can be prohibitive for cheaper cars and lower budgets. Paint protection film is not a DIY product - you have to have it professionally installed.

The cost of wrapping your vehicle is dictated by several factors:

  • Quality of the paint protection film itself - Not all are made equal.
  • Installer fees - Who’s doing the wrapping? Not all installers are equal and neither is the quality of their work.
  • Complexity of the surfaces - Are there lots of edges, creases, or louvers? Obviously, straight or gently curved panels will be easier and faster to wrap.
  • Surface area - Are we talking about a Miata or a Cadillac? The surface area will dictate how much material and labor is needed to complete the job.

Wrapping the whole vehicle costs between $5,000 and $10,000. It’s expensive.

Many drivers opt to wrap only the front-facing body panels - front bumper, hood, front fenders, plus the side mirrors, rocker panels, and rear fenders on vehicles with wide body kits.

These parts interact with the air stream and accumulate the most damage and wear over time. It will easily cost you $1,000-$2,000 to wrap just these panels in a reputable shop.

By far the most impacted part is your bumper. Just wrapping the bumper in paint protection film will cost you $300-$500, as it’s a rather complicated shape with lots of cavities, curvature changes, and other features.

Is it worth getting it on your car? Yes and no.

Advantages of Paint Protection Film

Paint protection film will most certainly preserve your paint from the vast majority of scratches, stone chips, flying debris, scuffs, and even some parking lot carnage. It has its limits, like anything else, but most drivers who’ve tried it can verify that their vehicle is chip-free and that the paint looks perfect even years after installation.

There’s also additional protection against organic acids - bug guts, bird crap, tree sap, and UV rays and environmental pollution... provided, of course, that you go with one of the better products on the market.

When you match a high-quality product with a professional and experienced installer, the film will be invisible from any normal viewing distance and only revealed when you examine the details and know what to look for.

Paint protection films can last more than 5 years, giving you long-term protection.

Obviously, if you’re in the market for supercars or high-end luxury vehicles, whose paint jobs cost upward of $10,000 dollars, applying a paint protection film makes all the sense in the world. It will very much affect the value of the vehicle and the resale price you get down the road.

Disadvantages of Paint Protection Film

Mainly, it’s expensive. Paint protection film is many times more costly than other car care products like ceramic coatings, sealants, and waxes. Neither of these offer any sort of mechanical protection, but not every single driver can afford thousands of dollars to keep their paint looking good.

If you change your cars often and are looking to secure a higher resale value, you may be disappointed to learn that there’s almost no benefit from paint protection films.

A well-maintained paint with a ceramic coating will endure at least 2-3 years before any noticeable deterioration piles up. Whatever defects and stone chips have accumulated can be resolved with some paint correction on the most affected panels. This will usually cost you less or the same as putting the film on, so the upfront investment doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Dealerships will not give you a better trade-in price if the paint looks perfect. They’re okay with some imperfections and will often just glance over the paint without a detailed inspection.

Private buyers may be more eager to pay your asking price. However, they will not automatically pay $1,000 more than comparable vehicles on the market.

Certainly, if you’re leasing the vehicle, the wear and tear guidelines of most leasing companies accept a fair amount of stone chips, minor scratches, and scuffs.

Other than the price, there are no significant drawbacks. The quality and longevity you get are directly linked to the quality of the product and the installation process.

You may think you’re tricking the market by going for the cheapest stuff, but you’ll find that the film may start to deteriorate sooner than expected, discoloring to a yellow hue due to absorbed pollution or leaving unsightly edges that start to peel off and bubble.

Combine PPF And Ceramic Coating

The ultimate protection for your paint is a combination of paint protection film and ceramic coating.

The PPF will protect against scratches, chips, scuffs, and other mechanical damage. The ceramic coating will add protection against UV rays, heat, salts, brake dust, industrial fallout, bug guts, bird poop, tree sap, cement, and road tar and other contamination. The ceramic coating will also do a better job at beading off water due to its hydrophobic properties.

These bond together perfectly - the ceramic doesn’t crack or interfere with the self-healing properties of the film.

Paint protection films can dull the finish of the clear coat by some amount. Adding a ceramic coating on top will restore the wet glossy finish and make the film practically invisible. On partially wrapped vehicles, it’s especially beneficial, as it will blend the surfaces together and restore a uniform shine.

If you’re already paying the price for a paint protection film, a couple of hundred dollars on top for a ceramic coating makes perfect sense.

On partially-wrapped daily driven vehicles, you can substitute the traditional liquid ceramic coating for a ceramic spray coating that you can install yourself. It’ll save you some money and give you amazing protection and a glossy finish on a budget.

Try Torque Detail’s ceramic coating spray, Ceramic Shine. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve for a product under $50.

Paint Protection Film Installation Process

How to install paint protection film? You don't.

Paint protection film is unlike any coating you might have previously used.

It’s a solid material with considerable thickness. A sheet of paper is around 3 mils thick, while PPF is 6-10 mils. Getting it to conform perfectly around the complex surfaces like the bumper requires skill, experience, thorough preparation, and an extremely clean environment.

Unless you’re prepared to fail and do it over several times, this is not a weekend DIY project, and certainly not a driveway job.

Regardless, you want to at least understand the wrapping process so that you can make better decisions about who is installing your paint protection film and whether the price you’re paying is justified.

Wash and Decontamination

The preparation process starts with the standard full decontamination and paint correction before applying any product.

The vehicle is thoroughly washed with car soap, iron removers, and potentially tar and grease removers. It’s especially important to go around the corners of the body panels, since the wrap will tuck in on the inside. If you leave the back side dirty, the film won’t bond to the surface and will begin peeling soon after installation.

Bonded contamination is removed with detailing clay.

Paint Correction

Next, one-stage paint correction will take care of any defects, pitting, scratches, swirl marks, and other imperfections in the clear coat.

If you’re wrapping a used vehicle for the first time, there will be stone chips and other damage you’ll want fixed before the film goes on.

If you’re wrapping the entire vehicle and it's particularly preserved, you may be able to skip the paint correction, since the adhesive will fill up and level most of the scratches and the thick urethane layer will inevitably dull the finish a little bit, depending on the product.

That said, higher-quality films are more transparent and allow you to see the finish of the clear coat underneath with all the scratches and pitting you didn’t remove. If you’re paying this much money, you’d be well advised to spend a few hundred on the paint correction as well.

If you’re partially wrapping the vehicle, it’s paramount to do paint correction - otherwise, you’ll see a noticeable difference in the finish of adjacent panels.

Some film installers will have you believe the opposite, since they don’t/can’t do paint correction themselves and it introduces extra hassle and waiting time for them.

Paint Protection Film Installation

Finally, it’s time to install the film. It arrives in rolls of sheet material, which is loaded in a plotting machine and cut into 2D layouts that correspond to the shapes of your body panels. Sometimes, it’s more effective to work with the sheet material directly, trimming it to size after installation.

The body panel is cleaned one last time. Any contamination will compromise the film in the future, producing ugly defects and shortening its lifespan.

The panels are sprayed with a mix of soapy water to help position the film and inhibit the adhesive during the installation. The film is separated from the protection liner and also sprayed on both sides.

It’s laid flat carefully and stretched to cover the entire panel. More soapy water is sprayed underneath to keep the surface slippery and delay the adhesive. Two people are needed for large panels like the hood and roof.

After the edges are positioned and the film is stretched to cover the entire panel, the installers use an array of squeegees to push the soapy water out and lock the film in place.

They start from the center of the panel and move out in all directions, pushing the solution out, removing air pockets, and conforming the film to the surface. Overlapping motions, specific angles and pressure on the squeegee, and lots of patience are key to complete the job successfully.

A tack solution of water and isopropyl alcohol is used to promote adhesion around complicated details and on the edges of the film, where a tight seal is critical for lasting results.

With the film fully conformed to the panels, the installers trim it with a blade and around the edges. If you don’t do this right, you can cut into the paint or make the trim too short, ending up with unsightly edges or wrinkles around the corners. If the seal is not perfect on the edges, dirt and grime will work its way up and the PPF will start peeling.

Curing and Coating

Primary adhesion occurs after 30 minutes, with full adhesion taking 48-72 hours. It’s ideal to keep the vehicle in the shop the whole time. Exposure to the sun or roadside contamination can compromise the film and prevent proper or complete adhesion.

You can wash and wax the vehicle a few days after it comes out of the shop; however, you don’t want to put any permanent coatings on just yet.

The film will continue to cure for 30-45 days. Small bubbles can form as the leftover moisture collects into pockets. These should dry out and lay down flat on their own over time. You don’t want to touch them or disrupt the drying process. If you’re worried, visit the wrap shop and have them examine the problem.

Once the protective film is fully cured and all defects are removed, you can apply any other kind of paint protection - ceramic coatings, paint sealants, and waxes. The process is absolutely the same. Don’t do all of them - just pick one and stick with it.

As discussed earlier, a ceramic coating is the best option. If you’re having it installed for you, try to find a shop that will perform both services for you. That way, the same shop will take responsibility for the final look and finish of your vehicle.

If you had your wrap done on a budget with partial coverage, you might want to opt for a DIY ceramic coating to keep the prices down.

If you don’t have a lot of experience, stick to a ceramic spray such as Torque Detail Ceramic Shine. There’s almost no way to get it wrong - just watch our 5-minute video and you’re good to go.

Liquid ceramic coatings will give you more protection and will last for years, but you really don’t want to make a mess of a job. Removing ceramic coating after it cures is very, VERY difficult. You’ll be stuck with a botched finish for years, or will have to redo both the coating and paint protection film. It’s expensive just thinking about it.

How To Maintain a Vehicle With Paint Protection Film

This is the easiest part.

Especially if you have a ceramic coating on top of the paint protection film, the vehicle will stay cleaner for longer. A touchless wash once a week or even every ten days will keep your car in almost concourse condition at all times.

Every once in a while, you’ll need to hand-wash the car to remove the thin layer of persistent dirt, but that’s pretty much it.

You likely won't need to use any detailing clay, iron removers, tar removers, or harsher detergents for at least six months. A decontamination wash once or twice a year will increase the longevity of your coating and paint protection film.

If done right and with the proper products, your paint should stay fresh for years, with very little maintenance and cleaning required.

A Wrap On PPF

DIY CERAMIC COATING - 1yr of Protection
The Best Spray-On Ceramic Coating. Period.

★★★★★ "My car is slick as glass!! I put the Ceramic Shine on my Corvette Stingray and it is very slick and shiny. I should have purchased it sooner. It is a great product. It made my wheels look new. Keeps off dirt and dust." - Charlie F.

15% Off Deal

The bottom line is this:

You can’t get better than paint protection film in combination with a ceramic coating. Yes, you’re looking at a five-figure bill, but if you want to keep your paint truly perfect for years and you have the money, that’s what you have to do.

If the cost of a full wrap is prohibitive or it forms a significant percentage of the value of the vehicle, consider wrapping just the forward-facing panels. This option will still run you in the low thousands but offers the biggest bang for buck, especially when combined with a ceramic coating.

We’re on the fence about wrapping just the bumper. Sure, it’s the most impacted part, and you can get it covered for a few hundred dollars. However, the adjacent panels will get their share of damage and stand out after a few years, making the overall aesthetic largely the same.

Regardless of whether you can or can’t afford to splurge on a paint protection film, go for a ceramic coating, which will add protection against everything except mechanical damage for just $50-$100 if you do it yourself.

And that’s a wrap on paint protection film. There are certainly many technical details we skipped over in this article, but you should now have everything you need to make an informed decision on paint protection films and ceramic coatings.

  • Published on May 16, 2021
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