About seven minutes. That is all the time it takes to go through an automatic car wash. In those few moments, all of the grease and grime, dirt and debris need to be carefully cleaned from your car. Same goes for any road tar, salt, or other contaminants. Each must be treated, lifted, and rinsed off. Quickly. And any add-on processes – sealants, waxes, dressings, and the like – need to be applied. Then your car needs to be thoroughly dried. In seven minutes.
Heck, it takes nearly that long to load your dishwasher! Then your dirty dishes are cleaned for up to two hours, not just a few minutes. Inside the dishwasher, you put plates and cups and bowls and spoons. Inside the carwash? A vehicle that may have cost a small fortune.
So, how does a car wash work to accomplish the task of turning out a clean car in such short order? The answer is found in chemistry. The products used in an automatic car wash are chemicals specially formulated to quickly remove the contaminants on your car.
Car Wash Chemicals
Interestingly, the names of the products used in a car wash are not standardized across the industry. A material used in one business might be called something entirely different in another. And not all businesses offer the same services. Depending on the type of car wash you visit, whether it is a soft-touch or touch-free wash, there is also a difference in the strength of the chemicals used. In a soft-touch car wash, gentle friction from foam and felt brushes helps to loosen up contaminants on the surface of your vehicle. A touch-free wash must depend on stronger, harsher chemicals and high-pressure water jets to clean your car because it does not have the advantage of soft cloths.
Still, there are some general categories of chemicals that are common in any car wash. Each category is aimed at a specific function, whether that be to loosen up dirt and debris from the surface of your car, to fill in tiny pores in your paint, or to protect the underbody from rust. Each service in the car wash features a specialized chemical to get the job done. Chemicals are critical to your car because they determine how clean it comes out.
Here are some of the products you are likely to find in a car wash.
The first step in the wash process is the presoak stage. Here, a cleaning foam is sprayed onto the entire vehicle. The presoak loosens up grime that has adhered to the surface and helps to soften insect splatter. Presoaks can come in both high- and low-pH versions. A high pH presoak is an alkaline product that serves to remove oily and greasy soils. A low pH product, on the other hand, is acidic and removes dirt and dust. It also helps to maximize shine. (This stage comes right after attendants pre-rinse your car with pressure wands in a drive-through wash).
Next is the wash phase. This is where the soap or shampoo is applied. The shampoo lubricates the surface of your car and suspends the contaminants that were loosened up. In a soft-cloth car wash, the shampoo allows the foam and felt brushes to gently wipe off contaminants and the water jets to rinse them away without scratching your paint. Shampoo is usually neutral to low pH. Shampoo can also aid in the drying process later on by promoting free rinsing versus water retention.
Have you ever noticed a black coating on your wheels similar to soot? The sticky substance, made of dust from your brake pads and ground up bits of rubber, is not easy to remove with soap. “Brake dust” requires a chemical created for the specific purpose of removing the debris. Many products on the market claim to clean your wheels. Unfortunately, what cleans one wheel might damage another. This is especially true of some aftermarket or custom wheels. And wheel cleaner needs to do its job in the shortest amount of time: about ten seconds or so. A quality automatic car wash needs to use a product that is fast and safe for factory and aftermarket wheels.
Many upgrade packages offer the advanced service of triple foam. Also known as a conditioner and named for its array of colors during application, triple foam offers a secondary level of soap along with additives that help to prepare the surface to receive sealants and waxes and to dry faster.
Also known as a rinse aid, this mineral or synthetic oil-based product is designed to repel water from the surface of a vehicle. It helps the water bead up and runoff. For much of the wash process, the goal of each product is to reduce surface tension on your car so that it can be cleaned. With the drying agent, the idea is to increase surface tension so that the water wants to run off. The rinse aid helps the dryers blow the water off of your vehicle.
Rain-X Complete Surface Protectant
Once your vehicle has been thoroughly cleaned and the surface prepped, you have the option in many car washes to apply a coating of paint sealant or surface protectant. This hydrophobic synthetic sealant chemically bonds to surfaces on your vehicle to repel rain, sleet, and snow. It also protects those surfaces from contaminants and from harmful ultraviolet rays. Made from a blend of silicones and polymers, Rain-X Complete Surface Protectant will increase shine, improve water repellency, and offer more durable protection.
Armor All ® Extreme Shine Wax
Like a surface protectant, Armor All ® Extreme Shine Wax is a premium upgrade at many automatic car washes. Unlike a surface protectant, though, wax is an organic material, not a synthetic one. It is made from naturally-occurring materials and is used to coat, protect, and shine a surface. Armor All ® Extreme Shine Wax contains Carnauba wax, considered by car enthusiasts around the world to be the best wax coating for their automobiles. When combined with a surface protectant, Armor All ® Extreme Shine Wax offers maximum protection for the exterior of your vehicle.
Underbody Rust Inhibitor
It is easy to see how car wash products might affect the exterior of your car, truck, or SUV. It is more difficult to imagine how they might affect the undercarriage. Underneath a vehicle is often out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But it is just as important to keep clean. An underbody rust inhibitor is a quality complement to an undercarriage wash. Underbody rust inhibitor provides a protective coating to the metal surfaces of your car’s underbody. This is especially important near the coast or wherever winter weather leaves a layer of salt underneath your car.
Tire Dressing and Wheel Protectant
Tire dressing puts a shine on the shoes of your car, the tires. Products can come in water-based, solvent-based, or silicone formulas, all of which are designed to give your tires a glossy look. Wheel protectant is a polymer or oil-based product used to not only add shine but also form a protective barrier on your wheels to shield them from the elements. Wheel protectant makes it more difficult for mud and other contaminants to stick to your wheels.
Some businesses offer other cleaning chemicals as well. Products like glass cleaner specially formulated for use on automotive glass, or bug wash pretreatment that features a high pH capable of eating away at acidic bug splatter.
But at the top of the list of chemicals used on your car is one that might not come to mind right away: water. Water affects all of the other products used in the car wash process. Most car washes use recycled water that is treated for reuse. It has to be clean and have the right pH balance. And it must not be too hard, otherwise, it needs to be conditioned before use. Water with the wrong properties can hamper the cleaning process, rendering the other chemicals less effective. All of the chemicals in a car wash have to be matched to the water to work the way they should.
Given the time it takes to wash your dishes, your laundry, or your dog, it is amazing that an automatic car wash can clean, treat, and dry your car so quickly. But it does. Thanks to all of the chemistry poured into the process.