Paint Scratches Off with Fingernail – What’s Wrong with It?

You’re running your hand over your car and can feel something flaky, or slightly sharp. You glance down and notice the paint has been completely scratched off. In fact, as you scratch at it, your paint comes chipping away from your car entirely. What would cause this? We’ll help you understand what just happened, why, and how to fix it.

Paint can peel away entirely from the vehicle or any other project when the base layers of paint separate from the metal of a vehicle’s body. Prolonged exposure to the sun’s UV rays, exposure to harsh weather, age, dents, or other body damage, and a poor-quality initial paint job can also cause scratching and peeling.

Read more to understand why paint jobs tend to scratch off, and how to fix it.

Paint Is Not Impervious

Many modern paints are well-made and expertly applied in-factory, but paint is not a perfect suit of armor. If damaged or compromised, paint can and will begin to detach from the body of your vehicle.

Car paint is generally applied in layers. The base layer sticks to the metal body of your car, truck, or SUV, bonds with the body to protect the metal underneath, and acts as a base for further layers of paint to be added. Finally, a clear coat is added to lend extra shine and protection to the finished paint job.

When the base layer of paint separates from the metal body of your ride, this is called de-lamination. This process can be accelerated by age, exposure to the sun, or a poorly done initial paint job. For example, if your car was painted by hand in a dusty environment, contaminants between the car’s metal body and the initial paint layer can cause flaking later on.

Dings and Dents Can Cause Peeling

Another common culprit of paint peeling or flaking is damage to the car’s frame, however minor. Dents and dings warp the metal frame of your vehicle, causing either a separation of the paint job from the frame or chips in the paint job itself. This, in turn, will lead to peeling.

Obviously, not all accidents are completely within your control but make sure to be careful when backing, parking, or maneuvering in tight spaces. If possible, park at a slight distance from other vehicles in a large parking lot to avoid door dings, scratches, or mishaps from other drivers.

Check your car, truck, or SUV after every outing to catch dings and dents before they become major problems. The faster you catch something, the less of a problem it’ll be in the future.

Harsh Chemicals Can Cause Peeling

The soaps or chemicals used to clean your car can damage your clear coat, and leave your paint job vulnerable. For example, we don’t recommend dish soap for cars, as this can eat away at the clear coat and the paint underneath.

Some car washes use harsh or abrasive chemicals to get vehicles clean. These chemicals can actually attack your paint job over time and cause damage. In addition, the rough materials used in some car washes to scrub away grime and dirt can damage the paint. Make sure you take your vehicle to a high-quality, professional car wash to avoid this kind of damage. You can also wash by hand to keep things gentler on your ride.

Age Could Be the Culprit, Too

Some older vehicles, especially from the 1980s and 1990s, are known for having delicate and easily flaked-off paint. The quality of paint in this era was not quite as high as the paints we use today.

In addition, age will typically wear away at any clear coat and paint job, no matter how well it was applied, or what the quality level was. So, if you have an older vehicle, it may be time for a new paint job anyway.

Harsh Weather Can Cause Peeling

Your paint job is meant to offer some protection from the elements, but it’s not perfect. The sun’s UV rays can damage clear coat, and leave paint underneath more vulnerable to peeling and flaking.

Hail, ice, and other winter weather can further pummel your paint job. The salt used to help de-ice roads in winter can also eat away at your car’s paint, leading to peeling, rust, and body damage. Road salt is among the greatest dangers to paint jobs and vehicle integrity.

How to Protect Your Car’s Paint

There are several steps you can take to prevent paint from chipping or peeling beforehand. These include:

  • Waxing: Waxing your car at least once a year with a high-quality product can help add extra protection to your vehicle’s paint job.
  • Repair scratches immediately. Even small scratches can cause damage to clear coat, and cause paint to chip. Be sure to repair even minor scratches quickly to help prevent paint from flaking off.
  • Fix dings and dents before they become big problems.
  • Wash your vehicle weekly. This will help keep your paint job cleaner and wash off corrosive materials like road salt.
  • Garage your ride. Keeping your vehicle in a garage is a great way to keep it safe from sun, weather, damage, and theft. It’ll help protect your paint job as well as your entire car.

How to Fix Peeled Paint

If you’ve already got a vehicle with peeling paint, you can take several steps to correct this at home, or at an auto body shop. Most consumers choose to have this work done by professionals, but there are benefits to a home paint job, too.

You’ll save money if you correct peeling paint at home, and if you’re patient and careful, the results can look great. Follow these steps to correct peeling paint on your vehicle on your own.

1) Clean Your Car and Work Area

First, you’re going to want to carefully clean the area you’ll be working on, both on the vehicle and in the area, you’ll be painting in. Hose down your car to remove grime and dirt. Make sure your workspace is free of dust, and give your garage floor a good hose down and a squeegee to trap extra dust particles in the remaining water.

2) Visually Inspect the Flaking Paint

Do a thorough check of the entire flaking area to catch all flaking paint. This will help you identify and correct all problem areas, and make you less likely to miss minor peeling. You’ll want to correct everything in one go.

3) Sand Down Your Paint

Next, carefully sand down the offensive area, until you’ve reached the metal base of your car. 1200 grit paper is best for this job. Carefully clean the sanded-down area with a microfiber cloth to remove any dirt, impurities, or fine particles of paint.

The cleaner your metal surface the better and the less likely future paint is to peel off. Sanding down the area immediately surrounding the visible chipping (about one inch out from the visible paint damage) will help prevent future problems, as paint often begins to separate before it visibly flakes away.

4) Add Your Primer

Apply a layer of primer if you see bare metal. Primer will adhere nicely to the base metal, and give your paint something to stick to. This will help prevent future peeling and flaking and give your paint job a longer life. Primer is usually applied in several layers.

If you notice any blemishes in the primer job, gently sand them down and begin again. Take your time with this step, as it’s important to paint on a well-primed layer.

5) Paint and Clear Coat

Next, add your actual paint. Make sure that your paint color matches your original paint job perfectly to get the best-looking results. Wait at least 30 minutes between each paint layer; 3-4 coats of pigmented paint are advised. Make sure that you paint a consistent distance from the vehicle, apply paint lightly, and keep your hand and arm motions fluid.

If you notice any blemishes in the paint job, carefully sand them down as you work once dried. Patience and a sharp eye are key here, but the results will be well worth it.

Next, apply your clear coat, in as many layers as used for the underlying paint. The clear coat will give your vehicle shine, and add a bit of protection from the weather, too. Let dry, and enjoy your beautiful new paint job, for a fraction of the cost of professional work.


Flaking or peeling paint can be caused by de-lamination, meaning that the original layer of paint has separated from the metal body and is now flaking off. Harsh sunlight, dents, road salt, age, and hail damage can also cause paint to chip and flake.

The best way to prevent de-lamination is with annual waxing of your vehicle, weekly washing, and careful care of your ride, being sure to fix all scratches and dents early on. Garaging your vehicle is a smart way to keep it safe, too.

Peeling paint can be corrected with 1200-grit paper, in a clean and dust-free environment. Sand down and apply several layers of primer, followed by a careful paint job, and clear coat. Go slowly as you work, correcting any blemishes, and your car, truck, or SUV should be looking good as new!