Auto Detailing - April 2009

At the Car Wash Part 10:
Protection and Conditioning Chemicals
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the tenth column in a series that explores the issues involved with offering detailing services at a car wash. In last month’s column, we continued the discussion of detailing chemicals by describing the cleaners that are typically used in providing professional detailing services.

These detailing cleaners include all-purpose alkaline cleaner; isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol; solvent cleaner; bug, tar, and sap remover; carpet and fabric cleaner; stain removers; leather cleaner; degreasing cleaner; glass cleaner; wheel cleaners; odor neutralizer and fragrance; and car wash shampoo.

In this month’s column, we will continue the discussion of specific chemical types, with a focus on protective, conditioning, and specialized products.


Detailing can be defined as the cleaning and protection of the various surfaces on the vehicle. Last month, a list of cleaning chemicals for detailing was provided. Once the surfaces of the vehicle are clean, we need to go back and provide protection or conditioning for each of those surfaces. With that in mind, the following is a list of many of the types of protective products that are in use in most detail shops.

Dressing for Plastic, Vinyl, and Rubber
These surfaces include tires, wheel wells, exterior trim, as well as interior surfaces such as plastic panels that cover the sides of the center console and the walls of the foot wells. Cleaning these surfaces with all-purpose cleaner tends to leave them dry and dull. Applying a dressing or conditioner darkens and shines up these surfaces, making them look new instead of just clean. If the customer does not like a “glossy” or “wet” look, you can easily remedy this by wiping off excess dressing with a clean towel — leaving the surface with a satin finish.

There are many options available in dressings. There is water-based versus solvent-based, both of which typically contain silicone. Solvent-based dressings are not necessarily recommended for interior surfaces and are generally used for the tires and trim. Solvent-based dressings tend to last longer than water-based. There are also non-silicone formulas available for use around body shops and in the engine compartment, where silicone can cause damage to electronics.

For interior surfaces, a vinyl and plastic dressing that contains an ultraviolet-ray inhibitor or blocker is recommended.

Carpet and Fabric Protection
This product repels liquid spills on carpeting and fabric seats. A professional grade liquid repellent will have the strength and durability to provide lasting protection. This can be applied after the surfaces are clean and dry. The service is typically offered as an upgrade option to the interior portion of the detail, or it can be offered as part of a new vehicle protection package.

Your customer is paying a premium for you to spend five minutes spraying something in the car. I recommend using something that the customer can’t buy at the store. Fabric protection products that can be bought by the consumer are generally much less potent than products “designed to be applied by professionals.”

Convertible Top Sealant
Canvass convertible top material can be sealed with products that act similarly to liquid repellents used on the interior of the vehicle. I recommend using a product specifically designed for canvass convertible top material, and one that has ultraviolet blockers.

By the same token, vinyl convertible tops can also be conditioned. If nothing else, use your favorite plastic and vinyl dressing. Preferably, use a product specifically designed for vinyl tops — one that has UV blockers and resistance to precipitation and washing.

Aluminum Polish
This polish is especially designed for use on bare aluminum, like some custom wheels. The polish, when used on bare aluminum, will turn black as it is worked across the surface. This indicates the normal chemical reaction between the polish and the oxidized aluminum that it is removing. Typically, this will be used on wheels.

Chrome Polish
This is an indispensable product for use on chrome wheels, bumpers, side mirrors, and other chromed accessories. Chrome polish and glass polish contain similar components so some manufacturers simply choose to combine the two into a product labeled “chrome and glass polish.”

Glass Polish
Sometimes glass has stains that will not be removed with normal glass cleaners. The next step is to try a mild glass polish. Chrome polish and glass polish contain similar components so some manufacturers simply choose to combine the two into a product labeled “chrome and glass polish.”


Since the paint covers such a large part of the surface area of a car, we will discuss these chemicals separately. Part of understanding how to rejuvenate and protect automotive paint is to understand the different chemicals that are available to do the job. Unfortunately, the auto appearance industry has for years casually interchanged terms such as wax, polish, cleaner, and compound. Understanding the proper definition of each of these terms will help you sort through the myriad of products that are available to the professional detailer.

Detailer’s Clay
This product, which is not actually clay but is instead a malleable plastic resin, is used to remove contamination from the surface of the paint. As it is rubbed across the paint surface, usually using quick spray wax as a lubricant, it “erases” anything that is sitting on top of the paint surface. This includes environmental fall-out and paint overspray.

Often, the paint feels rough, even after washing. Clay takes care of this problem. It is especially beneficial when used before waxing or sealing a vehicle that needs little or no paint rejuvenation. Nonetheless, virtually every vehicle that is to be waxed should be clayed first. Without using clay, it’s like waxing the kitchen floor without first sweeping it.

A wax in its true sense is simply a protective coating. Pure wax actually does very little to enhance shine — it is typically the other ingredients mixed in with the wax that cause shininess. Wax is made up of either natural ingredients like carnauba or synthetic ingredients like paraffin. Waxes are available in liquids, creams, and pastes, all of which are equally effective. The choice of which form to use depends on personal preference and the type of equipment being used to apply the product. A professional detailing operation will have more than one type of wax — a premium wax for most exterior detailing, an economy wax for basic and economy detailing packages, and a quick spray wax.

A glaze is a filling product that cosmetically hides minor imperfections in the paint, especially micro-scratches related to regular washing and swirl marks. The glaze simply fills the imperfections in the surface of the paint, yielding a solid surface that appears to be shinier and deeper than it actually is. Glazes, in their purest form, offer little if any paint protection and last a very short time.

A polish is designed to clean and shine the paint surface. Polishes typically contain mild abrasives and chemical cleaners as well as some lubricants for ease of use. They come in varying strengths, from those that border on being light compounds to those that are only a bit more aggressive than wax. A pure polish will have very little, if any protection capability.

The purpose of a compound is to correct major imperfections in the paint surface. A compound is made up of abrasive granules and lubricating ingredients such as silicones and solvents. Compounds can range in strength from those that will remove the heaviest oxidation in one application, to those that are almost as mild as the heaviest polishes. Compounds, in removing major damage, will leave minor damage behind. Thus, it is recommended that use of compounds be followed by the application of a polish.

Polymer paint sealants are a newer class of chemical to the detailing industry. A polymer sealant, like a wax, is a protective product in its purest form. A polymer sealant, however, provides better protection than wax and lasts about twice as long.

The difference between the two products is based on their molecular structure. The molecules of wax go on the paint surface in a relatively random fashion. In contrast, the molecules of a high-quality polymer sealant cross-link in long chains forming a durable net across the surface of the paint. Additionally, the polymers bond to the paint surface. This bonded net is much more difficult to deteriorate than the random layering of molecules of a wax.

Combination Products
There are also some great combination or “one-step” products that have a place in the detailer’s chemical box. These include combinations like compound-wax, polish-wax, cleaner-wax, polish-glaze, and glaze-wax. Combination products are great for wholesale detailing and for those customers who do not want to pay for separate paint rejuvenation steps. However, for customers who want the best result for the paint surface, it is best to use separate steps for rejuvenating and protecting the paint surface. An important fact to remember: whenever two chemicals are combined, the individual effectiveness of each chemical is slightly reduced.


Our journey into the world of detailing chemicals continues. Last month, we covered detailing cleaners specifically. This month we covered specialized chemicals and those for paint correction and protection. In the next issue, we’ll discuss what chemicals are recommended in the express and the full-service detail departments.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

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