Car lovers do some weird things. For example, some folks use one cleaner for all their detailing needs.
Actually, it’s worse than that!
I often hear people say they use Simple Green or an engine de-greaser to clean everything from wheels to carpets. What!
Turns out, this is both dangerous and harmful to the car.
Guys, listen up!
Car care does not have to be complicated.
For the most part, you can adequately care for your car with just a few chemicals. Yes, there’s a huge variety of products, each with its own little twist.
Here I’ll explain the basics of car care chemicals. Good decisions about the products we choose is a must!
Let’s get started…
Where to Get Car Care Products
Go to a large retailer, like Walmart, and you’ll notice their car care departments are tiny.
Why is this?
It’s simple: The internet transformed this industry. Also, the cost of retail shelf space limits variety at these stores.
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.
Here’s the bottom line:
The marketplace has become super competitive. That’s good news for you and your car care needs.
So, where do we go from here?
My job is to help you find and use what works. I search Amazon.com for the best deals. I also dish top quality advice and honest reviews of car care and detailing products.
Browse the site and you’ll find superior recommendations. 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. That’s it.
Not much else exists in the car world. Figure out the type of soil, and you can select the proper cleaner.
99% of all stains will come out.
Organic soil is anything that contains carbons. We’re talking 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.
Fact: Scale and lime deposits are the most common form of non-organic soil.
Not to be overly technical but…
Petroleum soils do not contain water and will not mix with water. Petroleum soils also 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!
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 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.
Let that sink in.
On the other hand, 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
Why am I telling you this?
Again, because if a substance doesn’t contain water (mineral spirits is an example), it does not actually have a pH.
So 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 and Protectants
With so many retail products, it’s hard to understand the differences between them. It’s useful to break down product function into basic terminology. It makes them easier to classify.
Cleaners, polishes and protectants are the three basic categories.
Some products have a dual function. Leather protectant, for example, also cleans as you apply the product.
Most common is a wax (protectant) that also polishes and cleans the paint.
We’ll also be talking about different car care chemicals needed to properly detail your car. For now, just keep in mind the primary purpose of each.
Car Washing Soaps and Wash Mitts
A car washing soap is a mild shampoo formulated to gently clean, lubricate and restore gloss.
Simply 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 wash shampoo.
It generates nice suds, has 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” since most sponges aren’t safe on clear coat finishes.
Grit gets trapped in the sponge and causes light scratching.
Bottom line: A fuzzy wash mitt is best for most applications.
The primary concern is that the wash mitt be free-rinsing and have the ability to hold plenty of soapy water.
For this reason, chenille microfiber wash mitts are an excellent choice.
Wheel Cleaners and Tire Cleaners
A tire cleaner is a detergent that removes old tire dressing and the nasty brown film that forms on tires.
Carefully read the label on any tire-cleaning product. If a tire cleaner contains petrochemicals, bleach or abrasives, I don’t recommend using it.
Because they 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.
They come in two basic formulas: acid cleaners and acid-free cleaners.
FYI: 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 from a brush or sponge. But they 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.
I’ll let you in on a little known secret:
A good gel (foaming) wheel formula will allow the cleaner to cling to the wheel, which gives it more time to do the job.
Engine and Undercarriage Cleaners
Some people would never think to clean their engine or undercarriage, even though it’s the dirtiest part of their car.
Of course, you know what 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 which is a natural cleaner made from the rind of oranges and lemon oil.
I’m not a tree hugger but I am against raw petrochemicals because of what they do to our environment. We don’t need this junk in our rivers and oceans.
Be responsible guys!
If you use a petrochemical formula, make sure to do so at a wash facility with a waste trap.
Pro Tip: Detergents and d-limonene solvents work great at home and won’t harm the environment like petrochemicals.
Car Leather and 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 quality interior cleaner to clean your interior vinyl and leather surfaces.
Avoid using household cleaners, such as Formula 409 or Simple Green, for this task.
Most of these products contain harsh detergents. You don’t want to damage vinyl and leather by dissolving the protective coating.
In a nutshell, avoid a situation where any material can prematurely lose its sheen, dry or even crack.
Car Upholstery and 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 big fan of 303 Multi-Surface liquid cleaner.
I can mix it with water to regulate the amount of cleaning strength I need.
Glass Cleaners and 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. Just choose the right product and know how to use it properly.
Always Avoid Ammonia Agents
In the car, there is only one wrong type of glass cleaner and that is ammonia!
Avoid using ammonia-based glass cleaners. It is very harsh on interior car surfaces and poses a potential danger to you as well.
It is 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.
How awesome is that?
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. Bulk Microfiber Cleaning Cloths are great on glass, plastic and all interior surfaces.
Plastic Parts and Polishing
Plastics can be cleaned with a glass cleaner. That is as long as it doesn’t contain ammonia, alcohol or detergent.
The truth is that ammonia and detergent can cause plastics to yellow and turn hazy, whereas alcohol will dull the surface.
Don’t be that guy!
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 is polishing that really makes paint look sharp.
Choose a polish that matches your 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 is more abrasive than required to do the job.
Make no mistake about it:
Paint polishes do remove fine layers of paint or clearcoat.
Let me explain…
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 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 ie. paint and glass.
The clay bar works by shearing off foreign materials that are stuck to your paint and glass. Unlike a polish, a good claybar requires only two or three light passes over the paint.
It will leave the surface perfectly smooth!
However, detailing clay cannot remove scratches or other paint imperfections.
The long-term benefit of clay bar detailing is this: You can quickly and safely clean a car’s paint without reducing paint thickness.
So important on modern finishes!
Last Step Products (Car Waxes and 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 does not contain solvents or abrasives for cleaning like a cleaning wax.
Many people mistakenly assume pure wax means 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 are likely to get a long sermon. Detailers can be quite passionate about their choice of wax.
Car Detailing Chemicals Summary
You now have a glimpse of the many products the car care industry has to offer.
As you can see, good car detailing requires a little knowledge of chemistry.
I’ve done my best to arm you with enough info to understand the basics of cleaning and detailing.
Be on the lookout!
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 Car Washing and Drying techniques to avoid damaging your car’s paint finish.