Auto Detailing - March 2009

At the Car Wash Part 9:
Detailing Chemicals - Cleaners
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the ninth column in a series that explores the issues involved with offering detailing services at a car wash. In last month’s column, I began a discussion of the importance of chemicals in the proper delivery of professional detailing services.

I noted that chemicals are part of the trio that assists in the removal of contaminants that do not come off with standard car washing equipment. (Proper equipment, which we discussed in previous months, and appropriate techniques, are the other two members of that trio.) Another important purpose of detailing is to protect those surfaces that have been cleaned. Thus, protective detailing chemicals (e.g., waxes and dressings) play an important role in the providing of professional detailing services.

In order to choose the best detailing chemicals, it is important for the purchaser to have a working understanding of basic detailing chemical types. They can be distinguished by the active ingredients, the surface for which the product was designed, and the purpose or effect that the product is intended to have. With this information, the educated detail chemical purchaser can work with the supplier of choice to select chemicals that are the most appropriate for the goals and activities of the detail center.

Some general rules about detail chemicals were suggested, including:

  • Use only the appropriate chemical for the surface.
  • Start with the least aggressive chemical available for the job.
  • Ensure proper dilution rates for concentrated chemicals.
  • Understand and adhere to the safety precautions of the chemicals.

As mentioned last month, the discussion of detailing chemicals can be long and complex. This will necessitate multiple installments just to finish the topic. In this month’s column, we will dive into specific chemical types, focusing on detail cleaners.


The following is a list of many of the types of cleaners that are in use in most detail shops. Depending on the condition of the types of detail services that you will provide, the typical vehicle entering your car wash, and the effectiveness of your wash equipment, some of the chemicals may not be necessary. Nonetheless, it is wise to have a general understanding of all of the cleaners that are available.

All-Purpose Cleaner
This product, as the name implies, is designed to help with multiple surfaces. It is typically a water-based alkaline product that helps water combine with surface contaminants so they can be removed more easily. In the car wash setting, all-purpose cleaner will most commonly be used on the interior of the vehicle for cleaning plastic and vinyl panels like the dashboard, center console, and door panels. On the vehicle exterior, all-purpose cleaner can be used for removing grime that does not come off in the car wash, like brake dust. It can also be used to clean doorjambs.

Most chemical manufacturers offer concentrated all-purpose cleaner, which can then be diluted for different needs. Although some makers claim that their cleaner can be used for many purposes, like engine degreasing and carpet cleaning, I recommend sticking to the aforementioned rule of using only products designed specifically for the surface to be cleaned.

Rubbing Alcohol
Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol is a great stand-by to use when all-purpose cleaner doesn’t satisfactorily remove stains. It works great for removing most paint transfer and smudges from the exterior, without damaging the OEM paint. It is also great for removing stains on interior vinyl and hard plastic surfaces. I recommend always trying rubbing alcohol before using a solvent cleaner.

Solvent Cleaner
Solvent-based cleaners are generally used as a last resort, when all-purpose cleaners and isopropyl alcohol don’t work. On the exterior, use solvent cleaners for removing things like paint transfer. On the interior, use solvent cleaners to remove things like shoe scuffs. However, if you have a dry vapor steam machine, try it on these interior stains first. Use only solvent cleaners that are specifically designed for the automotive detailing industry and that are safe on OEM painted surfaces.

Bug, Tar, and Sap Remover
A more specific class of solvent cleaner, these types of products are designed specifically to remove sticky contamination like bugs, tar kick-up, and tree sap. Depending on your location, you may not use this very often, but it’s important to have it on hand for the occasional problem.

Carpet and Fabric Cleaner
This is another water-based alkaline cleaner, made especially for the cleaning of carpets and fabric upholstery. This should be used in conjunction with a hot-water extractor. Make sure to choose a product that is low-foaming and will not clog up the machine. Carpet and fabric cleaner can also be used sparingly as a pre-spray when cleaning with a vapor steamer.

Stain Removers
These are a set of specialized cleaners whose specific function is to remove stains from carpets and fabric upholstery. For example, a “red stain remover” helps with red juice stains. A tannin stain remover will help with coffee and red wine stains. There are many other examples. There are also general-purpose stain removers that will work in most, but not all situations. How many of these specialized chemicals you have in place will depend on the demand for this highly specialized service.

Leather Cleaner
If you are not using a dry vapor steamer to clean seats, then you will need a cleaner that is designed specifically for automotive leather. It should be pH balanced so as to match the natural pH of automotive leather, thus reducing damage from the cleaner. In general, do not use all-purpose or any other kind of cleaner on automotive leather.

Degreasing Cleaners
Another water-based alkaline cleaner, degreasers help water attach to grease molecules and wash away the contamination. Degreasers are most commonly used under the hood, but can also be used for door-hinge areas, and, as a last resort, grease stains on carpets.

Glass Cleaner
As the name implies, glass has its own cleaner as well. I do not recommend using ammonia-based glass cleaners, as the ammonia can damage window-tinting film. Instead, use an alcohol-based glass cleaner.

Wheel Cleaners
There are several types of chemicals available for wheel cleaning during the prep wash. For most detailing situations, using multi-purpose cleaner during the prep wash should be sufficient. However, your preference or the specifics of your operation might prescribe using a special wheel cleaner. The main distinction is acid versus non-acid wheel cleaners. Non-acid wheel cleaners will never be as effective as acid-based wheel cleaners. The trade-off with non-acid wheel cleaners is that much more mechanical action (that is, scrubbing) is necessary to result in a truly clean wheel.

You may choose to never use acid-based wheel cleaners, in which case you avoid a lot of potential problems. If you do choose to have acid-based wheel cleaners in your detailing chemical arsenal, their use should be saved for only the worst-case scenarios. Some acids, such as hydrofluoric, can be extremely hazardous. They can remain on the skin and continue to eat away even after extensive rinsing. All precautions should be taken when using acid wheel cleaners including, protective eye wear, elbow high gloves, and clothing protection. Be sure that individuals using acid wheel cleaners are fully educated in the use, precautions, and first aid for these cleaners.

Odor Neutralizer and Fragrance
An odor neutralizing chemical will help to eliminate odors by neutralizing the elements that are causing the odors. This is in contrast to a fragrance, which only masks the smell. Once a fragrance has worn off, the smell will come back. So, if the goal is to make the interior of the vehicle smell good for a while, fragrance is fine. If the goal is to eliminate a bad smell (especially when requested by the customer), an odor eliminator is preferable.

Car Wash Shampoo
For most car wash operations, this particular chemical will not be used. However, if you are performing hand washes, then car wash shampoo is a must. Professional detailers use a high-quality car wash concentrate or car shampoo to wash the exterior of the vehicle. Only a high-quality car wash concentrate (properly called car shampoo to distinguish this product from those used in automatic car washes) will provide the proper balance of cleaning power and lubrication necessary to minimize the inevitable scratching that comes with cleaning a vehicle.


As you can see, there are many chemicals to discuss when considering automotive detailing. The subtopic of “detailing cleaners” has easily filled an entire article. In upcoming issues, we will continue the discussion of detail chemicals with a review of protective products as well as a primer on chemicals for the correction and protection of the paint surfaces.

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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