As we begin to assess our approach to automotive detailing in the midst of a pandemic, it is critical that detailing technicians have an understanding of the issues involved in working on customer vehicles, especially interiors. There is a ton of information to present on this topic. The more I research this, the more I realize how much I don’t know. But, in an effort to assist my fellow detailers, I’ve tried to condense the information down into some definitions and recommendations, with the disclaimer that I am not an infectious disease expert.

Nonetheless, it is possible to start to define some of the terms we are using and seeing in the media with coverage of the Coronavirus pandemic. We need to understand these terms as they apply to our day-to-day operations, and we need to be able to have an intelligent and perhaps educational conversation with our customers about what we can and cannot do with respect to ensuring a “virus-free” vehicle.

I was inspired by, and indeed have borrowed some, material from an excellent webinar presented by Jason Yard, CD-SV and Justin Labato, CD-SV, RT a few weeks ago. (The presentation is still available by searching YouTube using these exact words: “Understanding Cleaning, Sanitizing, Disinfection, and Sterilization.”) Other sources used are listed within and at the end of this article.


What’s the difference between a bacterium and a virus?

Bacteria are microscopic living organisms. Many are single-celled organisms. We live with vast amounts of bacteria in our daily lives and many bacteria are beneficial to the overall balance of life. It’s the bad ones that can make us ill if they enter our bodies. Bacteria like to live in organic matter like dirt and liquids, but also can survive on inorganic materials like plastic surfaces, fabrics, and carpeting.

Viruses are submicroscopic particles (around 100 times smaller than a bacterium) that consist of genetic material inside a coating of protein and sometimes enveloped in another coating of fatty lipids. Whether or not they are living organisms has been food for scientific debate for decades. They are not a cell, leading some to describe them as a “chemistry kit” containing specific chemicals. They cannot reproduce without a host. And most viruses will become inert (“dead”?) after a certain amount of time without a host. (See Scientific American article, August 8, 2008, “Are Viruses Alive” by Luis P. Villarreal.)

So, why are viruses so insidious? It is what they do once inside a host (infected) cell that makes some of them so dangerous. We’ve all seen the images of the Coronavirus sphere with its spikey protrusions. These help it grab onto living cells, penetrate the cell wall, and “inject” its contents into the cell. When a virus gets inside a living cell of an organism (like Coronavirus does in the cells inside the lungs of a person with a COVID-19 infection), they take over control of that cell and “instruct” it to become a “replication factory,” utilizing the machinery and metabolism available in livings cells to reproduce the virus thousands of times. Infected cells cannot perform their normal jobs (as in the intense respiratory problems associated with COVID-19).

The host’s internal anti-virus defense system kicks in. In some cases, the virus infection is kept in check (as in the non-symptomatic carriers of Coronavirus). In other cases, the virus temporarily takes control, causing the activation of the host’s immune system. In this scenario, the host becomes ill with classic symptoms. Often the host’s defense system can eventually overcome the virus (as in the percentage of COVID-19 patients who are quite ill for a while, but eventually recover).

Unfortunately for some hosts, especially those with compromised immune systems or other conditions that are exacerbated by the virus, the virus simply overwhelms the body’s defenses and the host dies.

So, what does the professional detailer have to do with any of this? We have two main concerns:
1. We must neutralize the virus — as best as possible — in the vehicle by using appropriate chemicals and procedures.
2. We must minimize transmission of the virus to and from customer vehicles by utilizing personal protective equipment (PPE) and protocols for beginning and completing each interior detail.


Now let’s dive into the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting.


It is critical for a more complete removal of virus from a vehicle that the interior be completely cleaned before using anti-viral chemicals. This is because dirt and grime simply allow more attachment points for the virus to cling to while it waits to be transmitted to the host. Also, since viruses can actually live within bacteria, which can help viruses survive much longer, cleaning methods that can kill or remove bacteria are also critical. And, in fact, sanitizing and disinfecting will be less effective on dirty surfaces than clean surfaces.

Cleaning alone will always contribute to reducing allergens and microorganisms because a certain percentage of these are being physically removed from the surfaces. However, simple cleaning inherently increases risk of transmitting microorganisms because they are not necessarily “killed.”

Our professional detailing chemical manufacturers offer us several types of cleaning chemicals. Alkaline cleaning chemicals, like your favorite “all-purpose cleaner,” help to loosen dirt from the surface so that it can be removed more easily with extraction or wiping. Enzymic cleaners help break up other types of residue like oil-based, protein-based, tannin-based, and dye-based stains.


Sanitizing chemicals reduce the concentration of germs on a surface to a level that is considered “safe” according to public health code. For example, to be considered a “sanitizing agent,” the chemical must kill 99.9 percent of germs within 30 seconds of contact on a hard surface. Sanitizers are typically designed to be applied to the surface and then allowed to air dry without wiping (think of the wiping cloth dipped in sanitizing chemical that is used to wipe down the table at a restaurant between customers).

Sanitizing reduces, but does not completely kill, the occurrence and growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. In general, sanitizers are used for and deemed safe for surfaces that might contact food. Because of this, sanitizing chemicals typically have a much lower concentration of active ingredients because it would be undesirable to leave too much chemical residue behind on surfaces used to prepare food.


In order to be classified as a “disinfectant,” the agent must kill 99.999 percent of germs on a surface. Disinfectants are designed to “kill” microorganisms, limited, of course, to the claims made by the manufacturer’s label. The purpose of a disinfectant is to reduce the spread of infection and typically requires a longer wet dwell time, i.e., two to 10 minutes.

Disinfectants are applied to many more surfaces like floors, walls, bathroom fixtures, and furniture. Because disinfectants are not generally used on food-contact surfaces, they have much higher concentrations of active ingredients so as to be more effective on low-contact surfaces.

So which chemicals should we use? As we source chemicals for virus reduction, we should be using chemicals that are registered as “sanitizers” or “disinfectants” with the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, or Centers for Disease Control. Once procured, read the use directions carefully. It’s also a good idea to fully read the Safety Data Sheet to understand what protective equipment the technician needs to have while using the chemical.

Remember that these chemicals are designed to kill living organisms, so they can be dangerous to humans if used incorrectly.


What we know about Coronavirus is that it wants to get into our lungs, and can do so through our noses, mouths, and eyes. Most likely, it is through the breathing of exhaled droplets from infected persons (hence, we’re supposed to wear masks in public and sneeze or cough into our shirts or elbows — not out in the open). But those droplets can end up on surfaces, and we can transmit the virus by touching infected surfaces, then rubbing our eyes or touching our mouths and nostrils.

That is why we hear so much about physical distancing, using facemasks, and staying home. This impacts how we approach providing detailing services in two ways:
1. We want to remove the virus from the vehicle so that the customer does not inadvertently transmit it to him/herself or to others getting in the vehicle.
2. We want to minimize the possibility that we transmit viruses to the customer vehicle, to other customer’s vehicles, or to ourselves.

There are several variables and factors that will help us to achieve these two goals. These include:
• Using appropriate PPE
• Learning and implementing appropriate procedures to put on (“don”) and take off (“doff”) PPE
• Protocols for re-use and disposal of PPE
• Protocols for customer interface
• Techniques for cleaning and disinfecting the vehicle interior
• Protocols for disinfecting detailing equipment and supplies after each detail job 
I will discuss these issues at length in next month’s article.


A final word about societal obligation: The following is my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.

To those who scoff at the idea of our elected officials asking or ordering us to do certain things in response to the pandemic, please remember that it’s not just you that they are trying to protect; it is also those who can be gravely impacted by the incidental and innocent transmission of the Coronavirus from person to person.

Think it’s no big deal? Then please think about the hospital staff who routinely must hold up smartphones so that relatives can witness the death of their loved ones on Facetime. Shocking, yes. And it makes me, for one, have little sympathy for those complaining that they can’t go to the park today, or sit at a bar (one of my favorite pastimes, by the way).

In contrast to earlier “stay-at-home” situations, we do so in relative luxury. For example, during World War II, California coastal communities were forced (not optional) to stay home with the lights off (or using black-out curtains), while eating rations of food, which did not include fresh meat and other fresh foods that we can easily obtain today anytime we want, or have delivered to our doorsteps!


Don’t take my word for it. Although I hope the information in this article helps you to understand some of the terms and issues that we are up against, I strongly recommend that each of you do your own research so that you can develop your own understanding.

Sources used in writing this article include:
• U.S. Chemical online publication, “Sanitizers vs. Disinfectants”
• article: “The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting,” April 20, 2012.


Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999.

He is available at (619) 701-1100 or