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What’s the Difference Between a Car Wash and Detailing?

February 2, 2021

Automotive detailing is an advanced version of a regular car wash. It is a more thorough process that goes beyond what a car wash can accomplish to clean, correct, and protect your investment. A car detailing service focuses not only on deep cleaning, but also on light cosmetic paint restoration and high-tech protective coatings. While getting your vehicle washed every week or so is important, car detailing is a special event to rejuvenate your ride and keep it looking good. Car detailing is a cut above.

Think about it, as a driver you can putter around in a Nissan – or you can pilot a GT-R NISMO, with its carbon fiber body, tuned 600-horsepower engine, and carbon ceramic braking system. A cut above. If you are a musician, you can play your guitar through a 5-watt Pignose practice amplifier, or you can hit the stage with a pair of Marshall stacks. Each has their place. But if you want a premium experience – or service – then clearly one goes beyond the other.

But in what ways does car detailing go beyond a car wash? How do they differ?


Professional detailing might include more than a car wash, but it does begin with one. Even the wash phase of detailing, in many cases, is a cut above a normal car wash. Some detailing services will rely on an automatic car wash for the initial wash phase; others will wash your car by hand – the preferred and most effective method.

Of course, what a detailer can do in a professional shop is different from what most auto owners are able to accomplish when washing a car in the driveway. To begin with, a detail technician will carefully clean all of the exterior surfaces of your vehicle, including the engine compartment, door and trunk jambs, wheel wells, and underbody. Contaminants such as bird droppings, bug residue, and road tar are targeted with special chemicals. Same goes with the sticky brake dust on your alloy wheels. Every surface, nook, and cranny on your car is addressed.

Once your car is washed, it is dried with microfiber towels and compressed air. Along the way, a detailer will take special care to prevent sand, dirt, or other abrasives (like terry cloth cotton towels) from doing damage to your paint.


With your car professionally washed and dried, a detail technician will then thoroughly inspect all of the painted surfaces to determine if paint correction is needed. Paint correction is the restoration of the paint finish to make it look like new. It is here especially that an ameteur who tries to “detail” a car in the driveway can do damage to a vehicle, since paint correction involves machining or tooling the paint surface.

The paint on your car (if it was manufactured anytime in the last thirty years) is made up of a two-stage finish: a colored basecoat and a hard, transparent clearcoat. This outer clearcoat layer is made of a durable plastic that withstands the elements – dirt, sand, snow, salt, sunlight – and holds a gloss for many years. But over time, the outer layer of clearcoat can become dull due to tiny micro-scratches caused by abrasion, poor wash techniques, and even poorly-equipped or maintained automatic car washes. Oxidation also causes a dulled finish, and scratches that result from tricycle handlebars and smiley faces etched into the dust leave behind unsightly marks.

Not long ago, an owner of a new vehicle pulled into a detail shop, distraught over the scratches on his shiny new paint. Apparently, his four-year-old daughter found the side of the SUV to be a convenient canvas for her artistic interests as she scrawled images of flowers and houses and blades of grass using a rock she found. Gleefully she announced to her father that she drew him a picture. Daddy was not amused.

Fortunately, dull paint and oxidation, even some deeper scratches, can be addressed with detailing. The paint correction phase begins with the removal of stubborn contaminants (such as hard water spots, brake dust residue, rail dust, and overspray) using a clay bar. Then the technician will determine if more aggressive methods are necessary. If so (as in the case of the little girl’s artwork), the detailer will use sandpaper to remove the imperfections and a polishing wheel with an abrasive compound to buff out the sand scratches.

If a vehicle requires minimal paint correction, machine glazing might do the trick. In any case, the aim is to return the paint surface to a pristine condition – vibrant and glossy.


Once your car is cleaned and the paint has been corrected, it is time to add a protective layer or two to the paint. This is generally done using products that fall generally into three categories of coatings: wax, sealant, and ceramics.

Wax is a naturally occurring substance that has hydrophobic properties. It repels water. The main ingredient of most professional car waxes is Carnauba wax. Secreted by a certain palm tree in Brazil, Carnauba serves to shed water from the paint, prevent contaminants from sticking to it, and protect it from harmful UV rays. The higher the concentration of Carnauba in the product, the higher the quality.

Sealants (or polymer sealants) are similar to waxes in that they form a thin, waterproof barrier against the elements. But sealants are synthetic, man-made products. They bond extremely well with the paint and provide a hard shell. They tend to be more durable than waxes and are capable of lasting for up to a year in some cases. Some auto enthusiasts argue that Carnauba wax holds a richer gloss than polymer sealant. Others prefer the durability of a sealant. Hard-core motorists might use both a sealant and a wax for the best of both worlds.

The third category of paint protectant is ceramic coating. A relative newcomer to the automotive stage, this option is far and away the highest degree of protection of the three. Primarily composed of silica and titanium dioxide, ceramic coatings create a strong chemical bond with your paint and form a nano-ceramic shield over your clearcoat. Ceramic coatings are extremely durable, lasting from two to upwards of five years. But they are difficult to work with and need to be applied over an immaculately prepared surface. DIY products exist, but they are inferior to professionally-applied systems, some of which require that a technician be certified for its use.


If you want your entire vehicle professionally treated, you can opt for an interior detail as well. Here, similar attention is paid to the inside of your car. The carpets are vacuumed and spot treated, even shampooed and extracted. The cloth, leather, or vinyl seats are washed and treated. The dash and other sensitive surfaces are cleaned and coated without leaving behind ugly stains from the use of improper cleaning agents. Odors are eliminated and the windshield and other glass is dealt with.

(Read How To Keep Your Car Cleaned and Organized)

Whether you want the outside of your car, the inside of your car, or both to be attended to, detailing addresses far more than a cursory wash job. The difference is really in the “details”. Of course, you can invest in the tools, materials, and time necessary for detailing your car yourself. But if you want the best result with the greatest amount of protection and the least amount of damage, you might be better off scheduling a professional detailing service.

In the same way that Batman might be the better Bruce Wayne, or Superman a souped-up Clark Kent, auto detailing goes a “cut above” and beyond what car washing can accomplish.


This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

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