Have you ever scratched your head observing your neighbour meticulously washing, fondling, and massaging his car every Sunday? Have you ever wondered why it costs several hundred or even over a thousand pounds when you give a professional your car to make it clean and shiny? Do you admire those incredibly glossy automobiles at car shows with their sharp reflections, warm glow and deep paint finishes?
Then this article is exactly for you. We will try to explain to you the absolute basics of car care, what it is, how it’s done, and how it works. This post aims at providing you with an insight into the fundamentals that you have to understand in order to comprehend what car care is all about and what it can do to your car – and can’t do.
Why we care for car care
The most important aspect is the following: Everything, and I really mean everything in car care has one goal, namely to reduce, prevent, and/or eliminate paint damage as well as tear and wear on interior parts. Paint damage can be a lot of things: scratches, marring, swirls, holograms, stone chips, rust, and so on. Paint damage of any kind is bad for two reasons: first, and foremost, your car’s paint is there to protect the material underneath it, be it metal, aluminum, carbon fiber, or plastics. Paint makes sure that the otherwise bare (metal) parts of your car don’t rust and erode away. And looking after your car’s interior, especially in modern cars with all their different materials and electronics, helps in making sure that your car functions as it should, is safe to operate, and also a clean space in which you and your passengers don’t have to worry about hygiene – which in today’s environment with global pandemics like Covid19 becomes more and more important. Taking care of your car’s paint also means making sure that it can perform its function of protecting your car’s metal bits for as long as possible. Because at the end of the day, any paint damage means a reduction in this protective function, as a scratch of any kind is a spot at which your paint was removed. The deeper the scratch, the more paint is permanently removed.
Secondly, any kind of paint damage reduces the gloss of your car’s paint and some damage to your car’s interior may reduce the functionality and/or safety. Now, of course, this is mainly a cosmetic and visual consequence of paint damage. However, it goes hand in hand with the above-discussed reduction in the paint’s ability to protect the metal of your car. If your car’s paint gets scratched up then there’s less material to protect it (e.g. from rust) and it automatically also looks dull. So taking care of your car’s paint not only makes sure your ride is protected, but it also makes sure it looks as good as it did the day it came out of the factory – if not even better.
How paint defects occur
So how are paint defects created? The answer will be shocking or at least surprising to some: pretty much by anything and everything, so even if you just drive your car as well as wash it. Everything that touches your car’s paint with enough force, speed, or abrasion will scratch it. Some paint finishes are quite hard (in general found on most German premium and luxury cars) and some are very soft (usually found on most Japanese cars), meaning that some cars will scratch up easier and quicker than others.
Even using the softest and gentlest of washing methods can and will induce fine scratches and swirls to your car’s paint, which is why we said above that car care and detailing is also always about reducing paint defects – as we know that you can’t really prevent them forever. However, proper car wash techniques and tools and washing your car by hand will induce far, far fewer paint defects than regularly going through an automated car wash – if you do it right. If you wash a very, very dirty car with high-quality car shampoo and a soft wash mitt, you will still scratch it up pretty bad, as you should try and remove as much dirt as possible before washing your car. This may sound counterintuitive but refers to the so-called “prewash” stage in car care. During this stage, you use products such as (alkaline) pre-cleaners, traffic film removers (TFRs), or a snow foam in a snow foam lance in order to soak your car’s dirty paint, loosen and soften up dirt and debris, and then rinse it away with a hose or high-pressure washer. After that, you then only have to deal with light and “stickier” dirt on your ride’s paint during the main washing stage.
This is why microfiber towels or wash mitts are so popular in car care, as microfiber is a very absorbent material on the one hand that not only picks up dirt from your car’s paint but also encapsulates it together with a proper car shampoo. On the other hand, microfiber is also very gentle and far less aggressive or abrasive than e.g. cotton towels. To be absolutely clear and fair: ultimately, microfiber will also scratch you car’s paint if you wash it often enough and/or if you use it wrong (e.g. by applying too much pressure), but may less so than your old terry cloths. For example, watch the below video:
Talking of using products wrong and using the wrong products: when you start with car care, you will definitely come across conspiracy theorists which tell you that you can e.g. use dish soap instead of a dedicated car shampoo or that you can wash your microfiber towels and wash mitts together with your regular laundry and wash liquid as all car care manufacturers are evil and charge too much money. In general, there’s a reason why dedicated car cleaning chemicals exist. Dish soap, for example, is of much, much lower quality than car shampoos, as dish soap is always used with a lot (!) of mostly warm and hot water and in conjunction with scrubbing sponges which are very aggressive on their own. Car shampoos, on the other hand, need to let your wash mitt glide as good and gently as possible over your car’s paint, needs to clean strongly in a short amount of time, and also needs to be able to be rinsed off with as little water as possible without leaving any residue behind. See this video for a more in-depth explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tqIrYJNjFA&t=302s. Regarding microfiber towels: NEVER wash them with regular laundry and never use regular detergents (i.e. such with fabric softeners) or they will completely lose their gentle, soft, and absorbent nature over time.
What exactly are paint defects?
A defect in your car’s paint that follows a more or less straight line is a scratch and scratches can be of different depth. Today, every car’s paint generally speaking consists of three layers:
- The primer which sits on your car’s body
- The base coat which usually gives a car its colour
- The clear coat which is transparent and protects the base coat
(On older and cheaper cars, the base coat and clear coat sometimes are just one mixed up layer)
Because of evolving painting techniques as well as cost savings by car manufacturers, the total amount or thickness of paint jobs gets thinner and thinner. Normally, your car will be delivered to you with anything between 100 and 200 microns of thickness (sometimes more, sometimes less). One micron is one-thousandth of a millimeter. So the total amount of “paint” on your car is thinner than a human’s hair!
Defects which are in the clear coat of your car’s paint can be removed by polishing. The important bit to understand here is that by polishing you are permanently removing clear coat. So you are not really removing a scratch, you are removing the area around it, meaning you level the clear coat to the deepest part of a scratch. Defects or scratches which reach into the base coat (the actual colour) can still be polished out, but you have to keep in mind that you then polish away all of the clear coat on that spot – which means you will have to protect the base coat at this spot so that it doesn’t get dull over time. Paint defects which reach to the primer cannot be polished out, as you will always see the white-greyish colour of the primer. Paint defects which reach as far as this need a respray or some sort of touch-up paint repair job to be removed.
Swirls are scratches which follow a circular pattern, whereas holograms and haze are paint defects which are usually introduced by correcting and/or polishing the paint, i.e. by untrained persons, quick and dirty polishing methods, or improper use of tools and material. The Ultimate Finish did a very good and comprehensive article on all of this if you want to dive deeper into it.
Can car care really make your car’s paint glossy?
In this respect, it is important at this point to talk about “gloss” as it is a concept that is all-encompassing in car care and often treated incorrect and unfair by car care manufacturers. Gloss, and I mean real gloss from a scientific viewpoint, is defined by how well light rays that hit a surface are then bounced off that surface. Perfect gloss is created when a light ray hits a surface and then is bounced off this surface in the same angle that it hit it. A mirror in that respect has perfect gloss. Everything that leads light rays to not bounce off your car’s paint in the same angle as they hit it reduces gloss – and this can be a lot of things: dirt, dust, scratches, swirls, and so on.
This is why all those photographs and videos in which people show you how mirror-like the paints of their cars look are just plain silly. You can make every car’s paint look shiny without touching it. All you have to do is take a picture from the right angle and in the right light conditions and you can make a totally scratched up paint look glossy, shiny, and reflective. So don’t let anyone fool you. The best way to check for the condition of your car’s paint is by looking straight at it in a dark surrounding (garage) and then shine at it with a very bright light (like a very strong illuminator) as this will allow you to see scratches and swirls.
The same accounts for promises by car care products and their manufacturers. If your car’s paint is e.g. covered in a layer of light dirt, dust, road and traffic film, then this reduces the perceived gloss. If you remove this layer of dirt by just washing it, then, of course, your car will look shiny and glossier again. So yes, in this respect, all car shampoos create “gloss” by helping you clean your car. But a shampoo itself and by itself, if used on an already clean car, will not be able to add gloss – as you only use something like 5-100ml in a wash bucket with 10-20l of water in it). The same accounts for any product that you apply to your car (quick detailers, waxes, sealants, ceramic coatings): none of them will really create gloss. Again, real gloss is defined by the angle with which light rays are bouncing off your car’s paint. What reduces gloss are paint defects as they change the angle in which light rays bounce off your paint. On absolutely perfect, completely levelled, 100% defect-free paint, any product that you apply on top of your car’s paint will add a layer of something that – if it is not completely and totally translucent – will by definition decrease gloss as it will intervene with the light rays.
The problem is that in reality, no car’s paint is realistically ever absolutely perfect, completely levelled, and 100% defect-free. In fact, most paint jobs from most cars today come from the factory with a certain degree of orange peel, as paint defects are less visible (i.e. on dark paints) on paint with orange peel and therefore look glossier for longer. Add scratches, swirls, holograms etc. that are introduced to a car’s paint by just driving and washing it and you are confronted with even less perfect paint conditions. And in this regard, products like quick detailers, waxes, sealants, or ceramic coatings can, in fact, create gloss by temporarily filling up light (!) paint defects. However, be careful and sceptical about promises of added gloss or extreme gloss by manufacturers of such products because most of the times they don’t really mean and talk about “gloss”, but about visible changes to the perceived light reflections on a car’s paint. It’s the same as when you look at a tasty cake or doughnut with chocolate on top of it: they look shiny by nature. Add a more or less transparent layer of sugar coat on it and it will look even glossier, but that’s not because you suddenly added “gloss” by that sugar coat layer, but because the light now reflects differently.
The important thing to take away from all of this is that real gloss will always be achieved by removing paint defects and this means correcting or polishing your car’s paint. On corrected and polished paint, no product on earth will make a huge, absolutely obvious and visible (for the human eye) difference in gloss. In fact, most products designed to add “gloss” will do so better on unpolished paint with defects in it. But then again, these products will not be able to fulfill another important function as good as on well maintained, prepared and/or polished paint, and that is “protection”.
How car care can (and can’t) protect the paint of your ride
What the above-mentioned products can and will do is help to keep your car’s paint cleaner for longer as they form a layer of “protection”. To be absolutely clear about it: no chemical product that you apply to your car’s paint will prevent scratches or stone chips from happening – that’s physically impossible. Visible scratches reach deeper into your paint (or the clear coat of it, to be exact) than one micron (one micrometer). And no paint protection product creates a layer on your paint that is thicker than one micron – we are actually talking about less than 0.1 micron for most products. The only thing capable of really preventing scratches and/or stone chips is a paint protection film (PPF), so a transparent wrap that covers and protects all of your car’s paint.
So when we and car care manufacturers talk about “protection”, what they mean is that those kinds of products create a more or less uniform and durable layer on your car’s paint that repels water and dirt better than the bare paint itself could do. This means dirt is less likely to stick to your car’s paint and it will, therefore, take longer for it to get dirty again. Also, those products protect the paint of your ride from the sun’s UV rays, from something like acid rain which can stain your car’s paint (which again is a paint defect), from water spots, from bird poo or insects, meaning these types of dirt and contaminants will be easier to remove and less likely to stain or edge into your paint’s clear coat – which would then need to be removed by polishing.
As with most things in life, you’ll have to deal with compromises when you decide which kind of “protection” you want to (let) apply to your car’s paint. In general, the easier and quicker a product is to apply, the less protection it offers. Quick detailers for example only really add a bit of UV protection and maybe water repellency, but not much else. Spray waxes or spray sealants can add a tad more, but they are also compromised in their ability to form a durable layer of protection by their ease of use. Waxes in liquid or paste form bond a little bit better to your car’s paint and form a significantly thicker layer which generally makes them a bit more durable and water repellent, they can add more to your paint’s finish, but they also take more effort to apply. (Paste) waxes, in general, offer the best balance between performance, protection, and ease of use – and they are a true joy to apply. Paint sealants (in liquid or paste form) ceteris paribus are even more durable but more complicated to apply.
But all those products only form a temporary layer of protection which you just “smear” on your car’s paint. The only product category that in fact really creates a semi-permanent bond with your ride’s paint are ceramic coatings. But these really aren’t something a beginner to car care should look at as it only makes sense to apply them to perfectly prepared and polished paint, should be applied in an enclosed environment (garage), are rather complicated to apply and can react very nasty to user errors, need a long time to cure (in general a day), and need to be removed by (very) harsh chemicals, polishing and or sanding if you make a mistake.
The following list contains paint protection products with increasing „protection“ in ascending order:
- Shampoo / foam with wax
- Shampoo / foam with sealing properties
- Wet coat products (spray on, rinse off)
- Detail sprays
- Spray waxes / spray sealants
- Liquid wax
- Paste wax
- Paint sealants
- Light ceramic coatings
- Ceramic / graphene coatings
- Ceramic / graphene coatings only available for professionals
But this is only a very broad generalization, as these categories are ever-evolving and also mixed up. Today, there are spray waxes and spray sealants which can be more durable and water repellent than paste waxes and paint sealants. There definitely are paste waxes out there which make almost as much fuss about their application as a ceramic coating does. And all products generally become easier to use as time passes by and manufacturers further develop their products.
So always make sure to do some basic research about what product you want to get, watch YouTube videos and reviews (but keep in mind that some of those tests and reviews are sponsored and not really independent, so always watch several for a specific product) and join forums or Facebook groups for detailing enthusiasts. On a side note: never ever ask the question of “what’s the best product” in such a group as you will either receive 105 different product recommendations from 100 different people or will be virtually beheaded. 😉
That all sounds a bit too serious – does car care really make sense?
Again, as this is the main mantra of car care you have to understand: everything in car care has the goal of reducing, preventing, and/or eliminating paint damage. This is why the whole car care industry, and this includes manufacturers as well as professionals and weekend warriors, has developed methods and products to wash, clean and protect your car’s paint as gentle as possible. Yes, those methods sometimes can seem a bit extreme and some aspects of this can seem as they have been taken a bit too far. But then again, if everything we do in car care is to reduce, prevent, and/or eliminate paint damage, then every „short cut“ you take from the ideal processes and methods introduces or increases the risk for scratches, swirls and so on.
This is why you will see so many different opinions from YouTubers, professionals, and weekend warriors in car care videos, forums and groups: Everyone has to find a balance between introducing as little paint damage as possible while washing and cleaning his or her car and the amount of time, money and effort he or she wants to put into it. The important thing to realise at this point is that there is no right or wrong opinion here.
Let us give you a few examples: the “best” thing you could do to your car’s paint would be not to touch it at all. Yes, running your car through an automated car wash will introduce far more scratches and swirls than you do ever induce by washing it by hand, but no matter how careful you are and no matter how much money you spend on wash mitts or car shampoos made from the early morning teardrops from a unicorn’s first-born, you will induce scratches and swirls over time. So in fact, it could very well be that whilst you wash your car every Sunday while your neighbour doesn’t clean his car at all that his car’s paint is in better condition. On the other hand, and if you live in a part of the world with strong and year-round sunshine, the paint of your neighbour’s car who washes and then waxes his car once a month will be in much better condition than your ride’s paint because the UV rays (in conjunction with e.g. salty air if you live near the sea) will slowly but steadily eat away the clear coat of your car’s paint.
Is all of this really necessary or relevant in a world in which more and more people tend to keep their cars for shorter periods of time because they rent, lease or finance them and don’t buy them? Well, that’s a can of worms on itself and something you have to decide for yourself. One could argue that you may save money in the long run by taking care of your car’s paint because you don’t have to pay as much money to the dealer for paint defects if you return your car after the contractual lease period. One could also argue that it’s visually more pleasing to look at a clean and shiny car. Some may make an argument that the appearance of your car says something about yourself, which could be important in a business context. And of course, it can also be fun to look after your car. But let’s stop there as this really is, as said, a decision you have to make for yourself.
To sum it up, car care aims at keeping your car’s paint (and/or interior) in the best possible condition for as long as possible because paint protects your car’s (metal) body and because looked after paint (and interiors) looks better.
If you decide to start with car care, make sure you educate yourself (e.g. on our blog) on the corresponding material you have to use as well as the right techniques and methods to use them. But most importantly: never forget that car care can and should also be something you like to do. You should never feel forced to wash and clean your car. So go out, get equipped, start washing your car and have fun while doing it!
Article by Andreas Schwarzinger