Many well-intentioned car enthusiasts use one cleaner as a general-purpose tool for detailing. I often hear people say they use a product like Simple Green or an engine de-greaser to clean everything from wheels to carpets. In my opinion, this is both dangerous and harmful to the car.
For the most part, you can adequately care for your car with just a few chemicals. Yet there seems to be an endless variety of products available, each with its own little twist. Here I’ll explain the basics of car care chemicals so you can make better decisions about the products you choose.
Where to Purchase Car Care Products
If you take a trip to an auto parts store or large retailer, like Walmart, you will notice that their car care departments are shrinking. This is due, in large part, to the large number of online sellers and the cost of retail shelf space.
When I started selling car care product online in 1999, Amazon.com had fewer than 100 items in their car care category. Today they have many thousands which are distributed by hundreds of different sellers.
As a result, the marketplace is forced to remain competitive. I have tested the market again and again, and more than 95% of the time the best deals in car care are available on Amazon.
My job is to help you find and use what works. I usually search Amazon.com for the best deals on quality car care products. I work hard to provide top quality advice and honest reviews of car care and detailing products. By browsing the site, you’ll find superior recommendations to get the most out of detailing your car.
The Dirty Car Basics
In the science of car detailing, dirt can be classified as organic, non-organic soil and petroleum soil. Not much else exists in the car world. If you can figure out the type of soil, you can select the proper cleaner and 99% of all stains will come out.
Organic soil is anything that contains carbons. This includes proteins, animal fats, body oils, mold, yeast, bugs, bacteria, animal and bug excrement as well as carbohydrates. Those chili-cheese fries you spilled on the front seat are a classic organic soil.
Non-organic soil does not contain carbons. This is commonly found on car exteriors in the form of water spots and/or acid rain spots. Scale and lime deposits are the most common form of non-organic soil.
Petroleum soils are substances that do not contain water and will not mix with water. Petroleum soils do not have a pH factor. They include common chemicals like motor oil, grease and road tar. By the way, chewing gum also falls into this category.
It’s also possible to have a combination of the three soils. This is a nightmare, as combination soils are very difficult to identify. In such a case, choosing the right product can be difficult unless you have a general-purpose cleaner that works well on all soils.
Understanding pH in Car Detailing
The term pH is a measurement of the relationship between hydrogen ions and hydroxyl ions. When you have more hydrogen ions than hydroxyl ions, it’s an acid. Likewise, if you have more hydroxyl ions than hydrogen ions you have an alkali.
Any solution with a water base has a pH measurement. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14. The first half (0.0 to 6.9) represents acids, and the second half (7.1 to 14.0) represents alkalis. Pure water is neutral and has a pH of 7.0
If a substance doesn’t contain water (mineral spirits is an example), it does not have a pH.
Now that you know the basics, here are some tips to remember when selecting a cleaner:
- Organic soil is cleaned with alkaline cleaners.
- Non-organic soil is removed with acids.
- Petroleum soil must be removed with a petroleum-based cleaner.
- Never use a cleaner that’s too strong for the soil you’re trying to remove.
- When in doubt, test a new chemical on a hidden part of the surface you want to clean to verify compatibility.
Car Cleaners, Polishes & Protectants
With so many retail products on the market, it’s hard to understand the differences between them. It’s useful to break down product function into some basic terminology because it makes them easier to classify.
In my mind, there are three basic categories: cleaners, polishes and protectants. Some products have a dual function, such as a leather protectant that also cleans as you apply the product. Most common is a wax (protectant) that also polishes and cleans the paint.
We’ll also talk about different car care chemicals needed to properly detail a car. Just keep in mind the primary purpose of each.
Car Washing Soaps & Wash Mitts
A car washing soap is a mild shampoo (not a detergent) formulated to gently clean, lubricate and restore gloss. Choose a car washing soap that works best for you. The major brand names are close in quality and results. In my experience, you won’t see a huge difference until you start getting into some of the smaller, lesser-known enthusiast brands.
One of my personal favorites is P21S Bodywork Shampoo. It has everything I look for in a good wash shampoo. It generates nice suds, good lubrication (to reduce the risk of scratching), it’s free-rinsing, and it leaves a wonderful gloss that makes cars look like they were just waxed. Oh, yeah, it smells great, too!
To compliment your car washing soap, you need a good car wash mitt. I say “wash mitt” instead of “wash sponge” because most sponges aren’t safe to use on clear coat finishes. Grit gets trapped in the sponge and causes light scratching. A fuzzy wash mitt is best for most applications.
My preference is a genuine wool wash mitt. However, the new chenille microfiber wash mitts come in lots of bright colors and are also an excellent choice. The primary concern is that the wash mitt be free-rinsing and have the ability to hold plenty of soapy water.
Wheel Cleaners & Tire Cleaners
A tire cleaner is a detergent that removes old tire dressing and the nasty brown film that forms on tires. You should read the label on any tire-cleaning product carefully. If a tire cleaner contains petrochemicals, bleach or abrasives, I don’t recommend using it.
They’ll tend to harm your wheels and cause your tires to dry out and prematurely crack. Likewise, I’m not a fan of using wheel cleaner to clean my tires. While it works okay, most wheel cleaners are too expensive for cleaning tires and the cleaning formula isn’t exactly right.
Wheels need a strong cleaner that can break the bond between brake dust, road tar, road grime and the wheel. Wheel cleaners come in two basic formulas: acid cleaners and acid-free cleaners. Acid cleaners are very strong and usually work without much agitation.
Acid Cleaners Require Caution
Care must be taken not to use acid cleaners on wheels with pitted or chipped surfaces. The acid will migrate into any fissures and accentuate flaking and peeling of surface coatings. Non-acidic cleaners are mild solutions of alkaline solvent. These solutions creep under brake dust to loosen and lift.
Non-acidic cleaners require some surface agitation (brush or sponge), but are safer to use than acidic cleaners and will not likely etch a wheel’s finish.
Wheel cleaner manufacturers have also started making gel formulas. The idea is that the wheel cleaner needs time to work on the dirt in order to clean. Gel wheel formulas allow the cleaner to cling to the wheel, which gives it more time to do the job.
Engine & Undercarriage Cleaners
Some people would never think to clean their engine or undercarriage, even though it’s the dirtiest part of their car. I think it’s a good practice for preventive maintenance.
It takes strong chemicals to remove dirt, grease, oils and grime from the engine and undercarriage. When you clean these areas, you have 3 choices for cleaners: petrochemicals, detergents and d-limonene (a natural cleaner made from the rind of oranges and lemon oil).
I am against raw petrochemicals because of what they do to our environment. We don’t need this junk in our rivers and oceans. If you’re going to use a petrochemical formula, make sure to use it at a wash facility with a waste trap.
Alternatively, detergents and d-limonene solvents work great at home and won’t harm the environment like petrochemicals.
Car Leather & Vinyl Cleaners
Leather and vinyl are both durable materials. Their worst enemy, however, is oil from the human body. Oily skin will cause vinyl and leather to break down, age and eventually discolor. To prevent this from happening, use a mild interior cleaner to clean your interior vinyl and leather surfaces.
There are many good leather and vinyl cleaners available for this very purpose. Avoid using household cleaners, such as Formula 409 or Simple Green, for this task since most of these products contain harsh detergents.
Detergents will damage vinyl and leather by dissolving the protective coating, causing the material to prematurely lose its sheen, dry and crack.
Car Upholstery & Carpet Cleaners
Fabric and carpet take the brunt of soiling inside a car. Unlike leather and vinyl most types of spills, dirt and dust can’t be wiped away from fabric and carpet. You can vacuum, but by the time you do, dirt and dust have already been ground in.
Likewise, your carpet is subject to lots of wear and tear. Fabric and carpet cleaners need to be tough enough to loosen and remove the dirt, but not so harsh that they ruin the fabric.
Carpet and fabric cleaners come in two basic forms: foam and liquid. Both have their advantages. Foams tend to push more dirt and soil to the top of the carpet or fabric where it can be vacuumed away.
On the other hand, liquid sprays do a better job of thoroughly wetting the fabric for deep cleaning. I’m a bigger fan of the liquid cleaners, because I can mix them with water to regulate the amount of cleaning strength I need.
Glass Cleaners & Plastic Cleaners
Even a washed and polished vehicle does not truly sparkle until the glass has been cleaned thoroughly. Perfectly clean and clear glass is easy to obtain if you choose the right products and know how to use them properly.
Always Avoid Ammonia Agents
In the car, there is only one wrong type of glass cleaner: ammonia. Avoid using ammonia-based glass cleaners. It’s very harsh on interior car surfaces and poses a potential danger to you as well.
It’s easy to become asphyxiated from ammonia if you don’t have proper ventilation. Some glass cleaners also use alcohol as a cleaner, which is not as big a problem as ammonia, but it can cause headaches.
Microfiber Towels are Terrific
With the new generation of microfiber towels, it’s possible to clean your glass without using any cleaners at all. A little water and most microfiber towels do a great job.
When it comes to cleaning, you don’t need a thick, fuzzy microfiber towel. In fact, quite the opposite. Generic, bulk Microfiber Cleaning Cloths are great on glass, plastic and all interior surfaces.
Plastic Parts & Polishing
Plastics can be cleaned with glass cleaners as long as the cleaner doesn’t contain ammonia, alcohol or detergent. Ammonia and detergent cause plastics to yellow and turn hazy, whereas alcohol will dull the surface.
Plastics, including modern headlight covers, window tint film, taillight lenses and convertible top windows also require regular polishing to remove minor scratches. The best product for regular maintenance of clear plastics is Plexus.
Perfect Paint Polishing Plan
Many people mistakenly think that waxing is what makes a car look good. While it’s true that a quick coat of wax will make a car shine for a while, it’s polishing that really makes paint look sharp.
Choose a polish that matches your car’s needs. If your car is still new, chances are that it simply needs a good pre-wax cleaner with mild polishing capability. If your car has swirl marks or water spots, choose a formula that specifically addresses these issues.
Never use a polish that’s more abrasive than required to do the job. Make no mistake, paint polishes do remove fine layers of paint or clearcoat. A fine polish can be used for years without noticeably reducing paint or clearcoat thickness. A coarse polish, such as a rubbing compound, will rapidly reduce paint or clearcoat thickness.
Get a Good Detailing Clay Bar
Automotive paint-cleaning clay, commonly called a detailing clay bar or “claybar”, is a soft abrasive material mixed with a plastic clay base. Originally developed for the body shop industry, a clay bar removes contamination from the exterior surfaces of the car (paint and glass).
The clay bar works by shearing off foreign materials that are stuck to your paint and glass. Unlike a polish, a claybar requires only two or three light passes over the paint to leave the surface perfectly smooth.
However, detailing clay cannot remove scratches or other paint imperfections. The long-term benefit of clay bar detailing is that it allows you to quickly and safely clean your car’s paint without reducing paint thickness. This is very important on modern clearcoat finishes.
Last Step Products (Car Waxes & Glazes)
The last step in paint finish care is waxing. Wax is a protective substance, natural or synthetic, that provides a thin layer of protection over painted or polished metal surfaces. Waxes can be paste, cream or liquid. A pure wax doesn’t contain solvents or abrasives for cleaning like a cleaning wax.
Many people mistakenly assume the term pure wax means that the wax contains nothing but pure carnauba wax or pure beeswax, but this is not the case. All waxes are blends of different substances.
Natural Waxes vs Synthetics or Sealants
Synthetic waxes, often called sealants, serve the same purpose as natural waxes. However, they are often formulated with superior durability. Most commonly, synthetic waxes contain polymers or acrylic compounds to create a sophisticated surface coating with exceptional gloss and slickness.
Ask any professional or enthusiast detailer which is better, wax or sealant, and you’re likely to get something that sounds like a sermon. Detailers, both professional and enthusiast, can be quite passionate about their choice of wax.
Car Detailing Chemicals Summary
This article has given you a small glimpse of the many products the car care industry has to offer. Good car detailing requires a little knowledge of chemistry. I hope that I’ve provided you with enough information to understand the basics of cleaning and detailing.
Mixed in with many great products are, unfortunately, an equal number of bad products with fancy marketing. Hype abounds in the detailing chemicals and supply industry. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Your next step is to learn proper Car Washing and Drying techniques to avoid damaging your car’s paint finish.