Auto Laundry News - September 2012

Detailing Chemicals: No Magic — Just Basic Chemistry

By Keith Duplessie

For a car wash operator who is considering the detail business for the first time — and even for many experienced detailers — detailing chemicals are a source of confusion.

Most chemical companies promote magic formulations and make claims about their chemicals that only creates confusion for the users and a great deal of profit for the supplier. While not intending to criticize the many good and reliable chemical suppliers in the detail industry, I would like to help operators develop a good basic understanding of the many chemicals used in detailing, be it express or full service.

This article should give you a basic understanding of detail chemicals and provide some simple generic definitions of products to help you.

Also, you need to learn that it’s a waste of time to dedicate too much attention to chemicals. If a product is not working for you, contact alternative supplier companies for samples of the products you wish to replace. Beyond that, stay with what you have. You know the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

To make things simple, we’ll group detail chemicals into the following categories:

  • Cleaners
  • Compounds
  • Polishes/Swirl Removers
  • One Step/Cleaner Glazes
  • Glazes
  • Waxes
  • Sealants

There is no magic in the formulation of these chemicals. It is basic chemistry. Many chemical sales people have certainly attempted to create magic, but there simply is not any. You will see that most of the chemicals have many of the same ingredients. The type of ingredients that are used, and how much of each is used, determines what the chemical will do.


Cleaners are the most basic of the categories and can include such products as: car wash shampoos, tire cleaners, wheel cleaners, glass cleaners, carpet and upholstery shampoo, all-purpose cleaners, and water-based degreasers. As varied as this list might seem, all cleaners consist of two primary components: water and surfactants. Water is water, and a surfactant is soap. It is an agent that makes water “wetter” and performs the cleaning and removal of dirt.

The key to a cleaner’s ability to do a particular job is which surfactant is used and how much. There are nearly 5,000 surfactants a chemist has to choose from.

Some specialized cleaners may include either high- or low-pH caustic components. These enhance the chemical’s ability to do a certain type of cleaning. For example, some wheel cleaners include hydrofluoric acid, which will usually out-perform an alkaline cleaner. Glass cleaners can contain alcohol or ammonia depending on what the formulator wants to achieve. Beyond the water and surfactant, cleaners can include:

  • Phosphates – to soften water
  • Colorants – to provide desired color
  • Fragrance – to provide desired smell

Color and fragrance are strictly for aesthetic effect and have nothing to do with a cleaner’s performance, but they do help sell many products.

So when your chemical salesperson comes calling with the super new revolutionary cleaning product, ask for the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that lists the product’s hazardous ingredients and then discuss the basics. Make the salesperson prove why his company’s cleaning product is better that the one you are currently using by talking about the ingredients.

Citrus Cleaners
In recent years “citrus cleaners” have gained popularity as though they are some magic formula, better than a non-citrus cleaner.

Question: Are they citrus cleaners because they are orange colored and smell like oranges? Why are they citrus cleaners?

Without going into a lengthy story on the subject, suffice it to say they are different than a normal cleaner because the solvent used in a citrus cleaner is diLimoneen which is a natural solvent obtained from the peels of oranges.

Being a natural solvent, it is better for the environment, but diLimoneen is no better a cleaning solvent than glycol-ether, the normal synthetic solvent used in most cleaners. But what a great marketing tool. It has worked, convincing detailers and the consumer that citrus cleaners are the only cleaners to use. Consider the facts, though: few citrus cleaners contain 100 percent diLimoneen. Most have only trace amounts to meet the legal requirements for calling it a citrus cleaner. More good chemical marketing.


Whether liquids or pastes, all compounds are basically the same. Although more complex than cleaners in formulation, they involve only a few basic components: water, solvent, oils, abrasives, surfactants, coloring, and fragrance.

Again, it is the amount and type of components used that determines how a compound will perform.

The more water there is in a compound, the softer it will be. That is the difference between a liquid and a paste compound. Neither is better than the other in terms of performance. It really comes down to what the detailer prefers. Most people feel that liquids are best.

There are basically three solvents that can be used: mineral spirits, kerosene, and naphtha. Mineral spirits are usually a quick-drying solvent that will make the compound dry quickly, speeding up the job. However, it will also increase the possibility of burning the paint if used incorrectly. Kerosene, on the other hand, is a slower-drying solvent that reduces the tendency to burn paint. It will, however, increase the work time with the compound.

The most common oil used in compounds is mineral oil. The purpose of oils is to provide lubricity. The amount used will determine the working time of the compound.

These are the most important ingredients used in compounds because the abrasives determine how quickly and how deeply the cutting action of the product will be on the paint. Abrasives come in all grit sizes, ranging from a heavy 600 grit to a micro-fine grit, which is above 2,000. Abrasives can be soft or hard. The most common abrasive used is silica. However, many formulators are also using aluminum oxide. Most good compounds are a combination of both silica and aluminum oxide.

These are similar to the surfactant used in cleaners. In a compound, surfactants help to blend the various ingredients together.

Coloring is used strictly for customer appeal. For example, most detailers believe compounds are tan or olive in color, so most manufacturers color their compounds accordingly.

Smell is only for customer appeal.

Compounds are used in the buffing process to correct a paint-finish problem such as oxidation, scratches, scuffs, dulling, or water spotting. The selection of a compound requires a great deal of technological expertise on the part of the user. First, you must know the particular paint finish you are working with. Second, you must identify the irregularity you are trying to correct and know to what extent you can correct it. Finally, you must know the makeup of the compound you are using, especially the type of abrasive in the product.

No longer can you pour a little on your fingertips to determine its abrasiveness. Several very abrasive compounds do not feel abrasive to the touch because the particles are emulsified in oil and not released until heated by the friction of the high-speed buffer.

Whether pastes or liquids, compounds usually fall into these categories: micro-fine, light, medium, and heavy. With today’s clear-coat finishes, only two compounds are really needed, light compound, with a 2,000 grit abrasive, and micro-fine, recently developed for clear-coat finishes with spider scratches, light dulling, and surface dirt.

To be most effective, a compound must be used with a high-speed rotary buffer and a cutting pad (poly/wool blend, foam, or microfiber). If you do not have a thorough understanding of today’s automotive paint finishes, paint problems, and how to choose the correct tools, chemicals, and pads, you can severely damage the paint finish.


Polishes and swirl removers are where you will find “razzle dazzle.” The chemical salesperson and even the detailer who mixes apples and oranges are attempting to find a magic product. Polishes and swirl removers, like all chemicals, are simply a formulation of ingredients to achieve a desired result — again, this is nothing but basic chemistry.

It is difficult to understand polishes and swirl removers because of terminology. After long hours of discussion with chemical companies all over the country, a consensus was reached on the following definitions:

  • Polish is a product designed to smooth the paint and create a high shine.
  • Swirl remover is a product designed to remove buffer swirls, smooth the paint, and create a high shine.
  • Some chemical companies will sell you two products — a polish and a swirl remover. However, if you have the right product, you only need one.

The following are the ingredients used in polish/swirl remover:

  • Water.
  • Solvents — act as solubilizer for the other ingredients. By adjusting the type of solvent, you will determine how long it takes the product to dry.
  • Micro abrasives — used to remove buffer swirls left by the cutting pad and compound.
  • Surfactants.
  • Colorings.
  • Fragrances.
  • Waxes — some products contain a small amount to produce gloss and fill small imperfections.
  • Emulsifiers — used to stabilize the product and make it easier to use.
  • Silicones — can be used to make the product easier to work with and leaves a gloss.
  • A body-shop-safe swirl remover will not contain waxes or silicones, which will seal new paint finishes.

Using these definitions to select your polishes/swirl removers will save a great deal of confusion and time and provide clarity for your employees. To reduce the seeming redundancy of products, I believe it is in your interest to use a single product for both polishing and swirl removing.

Polish is used as a first step on a reasonably good paint finish with a foam polishing pad to give a deep shine and high gloss. It can also be used with an orbital waxer. However, without the heat created by a high-speed buffer, you don’t get that high gloss, spit-shine look. This is an extremely critical step with black and other dark paint finishes.
Swirl remover/polish is a similar product that has very light abrasives to use after compounding with a high-speed buffer and a sheepskin finishing pad or foam polishing pad. This serves to not only remove swirls left by the previous step but will also provide the high-gloss spit-shine look.

Keep in mind that any time you use a high-speed buffer with a cutting pad and a compound, you will put swirls in the paint. And swirls put in with a high-speed buffer must be removed with a high-speed buffer. An orbital will only fill the swirl marks no matter which product you use, but it will not remove them.

Swirl removers fall into two categories: removers or fillers. The remover has light abrasives to actually eliminate the swirls. The filler is just that, it simply fills the swirl marks. After several washings, the swirls will be visible again.


As the term conveys, these products are combination products that allow the detailer to correct, polish, and protect in one step. They are also called cleaner/glazes to connote they can clean the paint and protect, but differently than a compound, polish and wax, or sealant.

They are popular for dealer cars allowing the detailer to complete an acceptable paint finish quickly.

They cannot be used on severely damaged paint finishes as the abrasive is not aggressive enough, and they offer a short-term protection compared to a wax or sealant.

Like other products, they involve basic chemistry. They are a combination of ingredients to achieve the desired result: water, solvents, oil, abrasives, silicones, synthetic wax, emulsifiers, surfactants, color, etc.


This is an area where confusion reigns high. What is a glaze? Is it a wax or a polish? Again, there is no magic, special, or proprietary formulation, just basic chemistry and a formulation to achieve desired results.

The term “glaze” actually refers to a body shop product used to remove buffer swirls. However, a glaze does not contain any silicones or waxes because new paint cannot be sealed for 60 days to allow solvent to evaporate. The common ingredients in a body shop glaze are: water, glycerin (usually in high amounts to produce a high shine), oil, solvent, abrasives (to remove swirls), surfactant, coloring, and fragrance.

A detailer might use a glaze that contains silicones and/or waxes to make the products easier to work with and to provide more shine, but then it is really a polish, isn’t it? Detail products called cleaner/glaze should contain a light abrasive, wax, and silicone to give the detailer an inexpensive product to use on dealer cars. They are quick to use, but their main drawbacks are that they have no durability and should not be used on retail cars.

They should be used with a high-speed buffer, using a lamb’s wool finishing pad or foam finishing pad. You can also use an orbital waxer, depending on the condition of the paint finish.


Although somewhat more complex than the other products discussed, waxes and sealants also involve just basic chemistry.

When a formulator designs a wax or sealant, he will take several factors into account, including the ease of application and removal desired, cleaning ability (if required), depth of gloss or shine, durability, and resistance to soaps. Unfortunately, no one wax or sealant product can meet all of the above characteristics. If one is emphasized and enhanced, it will be to the detriment of another. For example, increased durability means that application and removal can be more difficult. Or, if cleaning capability is emphasized, the depth of shine will be less.

The best wax or sealant to use is one that provides as many of the characteristics as possible to achieve a shiny, durable finish. The basic components used in waxes and sealants are:

  • Water.
  • Solvents — to act as a solubilizer for the other ingredients. Depending on the type of solvent used, you will determine the product’s drying time.
  • Wax — to produce gloss, fill small imperfections, and provide protection. There are several types of waxes: carnauba, extracted from the Brazilian palm tree; synthetic carnauba (micro-crystalline); beeswax; and wax derived from German coal called Montan.
  • Silicones — to increase depth of shine. All paint sealants, and some waxes, will use amino-functional silicones that provide a bonding action of the sealant to the paint. Typically, a wax will use only a standard silicone fluid, which is not as durable as amino-functional silicones.
  • Emulsifiers — to stabilize the product and make it easier to use.
  • Very-light abrasives — to provide mild cleaning and to aid the wax in drying consistently for easy wipe-off.
  • Surfactant.
  • Coloring.
  • Fragrance.

Waxes typically come in the following forms: hard paste (no water), pre-softened paste, cream, and liquid. These forms are arrived at by a simple adjustment of the raw materials. No magic, just basic chemistry to achieve a desired result. Which form you use is a matter of preference.

Sealants typically are formulated either as a liquid or a crème and differ in durability depending on the amount of and type of silicones used. Then there are Teflon sealants. Teflon, you’ll find, in no way enhances the durability or shine of an automotive wax or sealant. That’s a fact. So what is all the hype about waxes and sealants with Teflon that are guaranteed for three to five years? As we stated in the beginning of this article, it’s only marketing razzle-dazzle.


The bottom line is, you don’t need to involve yourself in this type of misleading marketing to sell your customer. Just provide value, quality, and service and they will pay the price, time and time again.

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the basics of detail chemicals and can deal with your chemical supplier with knowledge and confidence.

Keith Duplessie is technical services manager for Portland, OR-based Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems. You can reach Keith at

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