This month’s column continues the discussion of detailing chemicals as it pertains to the International Detailing Association’s Certified Detailer exam.

In last month’s column, we discussed several factors related to detailing chemicals. The first point made was the importance of using the right chemical for the vehicle surface being addressed. Next, the pH scale was discussed, with special attention given to how the pH scale can indicate potentially dangerous chemicals. For example, very low pH chemicals like wheel acid and very high pH chemicals like heavy-duty engine degreasers. A special reminder: diluting extreme pH chemicals does not change the pH — they are still just as dangerous.
This month, we’ll focus on detailing chemicals that are used for the painted surfaces of the vehicle.

The types of problems typically found on and in vehicle paint generally falls into two categories: there can be contamination on the surface and damage that goes into the paint layers. Surface paint problems include environmental fallout, ferrous oxide deposits (rail dust), paint overspray, bug and tar splatters, cement splatters, and water spots. Sub-surface paint problems occur when the damage goes below the surface of the paint. Such damage includes oxidation, scratches, chips, staining, and etching.

An important element in the rejuvenation of vehicle paint is the type of chemical used in the process. There is a large selection of products that are associated with vehicle paint care. The object of this month’s column is to sort out these products, talk about how each one works, and help the operator make the best choice for each situation.


The paint rejuvenation process begins with washing the car. Car wash shampoo is recommended anytime the car is being washed by hand. The shampoo helps to loosen and emulsify dirt and light grime from the surface of the paint.
Anytime a car is washed using agitation, there is some unavoidable micro scratching that occurs. This is best seen as the cobwebbing that accumulates on a black car over the weeks following a good polish and wax. The use of car wash shampoo helps to lubricate the paint surface, thus reducing the amount of scratching that occurs during the wash process.

Car wash shampoo is available with and without wax. The “wax” is a very light liquid form that is mixed in with the shampoo. It is beneficial for regular washing and leaves a bit more shine on the car than plain car wash shampoo. For cars that are to be detailed, plain car wash is sufficient because the car will be waxed or sealed later.


There are currently several options for removing surface contamination that does not come off with normal washing. Detailing clay is the old standby, but there are new surface-preparation towels, mitts, and pads available. Detailing clay tends to be more thorough but takes more time. Additionally, the clay must be discarded if it is dropped on the ground because it will pick up grit and sand from the ground and will scratch the heck out of the paint should it be used afterwards. The surface-preparation option does not have this problem because it can be rinsed off if dropped.
The vehicle must be washed before removing surface contamination. Then the detailing clay or other contamination removal device is rubbed across the surface of the paint using a back-and-forth motion. To do so, the surface must be moistened with clay lubricant, quick spray wax, or with car wash shampoo.


Sub-surface paint damage can be handled by one of three basic categories of paint-related detailing chemicals: glaze, polish, and compound.

The choice of chemical depends on the extent of the damage and the desired outcome.

Glaze works to make the paint surface look better by filling in the minor imperfections and scratches. It is a temporary fix, however, because the glaze evaporates or is washed away over time — sometimes in as little as a couple of weeks. A pure glaze (i.e., not mixed with wax or polish) has no polishing capability or protective value.

The purpose of polish is to clean and shine the paint surface. The shining comes from the mild abrasives that smooth out the imperfections that dull the paint surface. The cleaning comes from the solvent base of the polish. A pure polish (i.e., not mixed with wax or glaze) will not fill in imperfections or have any protective value. Polishes come in many forms, including heavier polishes that are nearly as strong as compounds, and also mild polishes that are designed for use just before applying protection. These include swirl removers and “finishing” polishes.

The purpose of compound is to help remove major paint imperfections. Compounds are typically more aggressive than polishes and contain mild to strong abrasives. With the right buffing-machine pad, a compound can remove light to moderate scratches and help smooth out deeper scratches. But because a compound is so aggressive, it tends to leave behind its own minor scratches, which must be removed using a milder polish. “Heavy-cut” compounds used in extreme paint damage cases may even require the use of a lighter compound before continuing to a lighter polish. Because compounds are the most aggressive paint correction chemical for the paint, they are typically only used when absolutely necessary.

Anytime detailing clay, polish, or compound is used; the surface of the paint is left exposed to the elements and should be coated with a protective product like wax or sealant. A wax is composed of natural or synthetic resins in a solvent base. The resins provide the barrier between the paint surface and the environment. The solvent is simply the liquid that helps you apply the resins, which would otherwise be in a powder form.

Natural resins include Carnauba, which comes from the leaves of the Carnauba palm that grows in Brazil. Carnauba in its non-processed natural state is hard and brittle and must be powdered and mixed with solvents to make it useable for detailing. Because of its hardness, even after processing, it can be difficult working with wax that has a heavy carnauba concentration. Most detailers prefer to work with waxes that contain synthetic resins that can be just as durable as Carnauba but much easier to use.

Another category of protective products is paint sealants. The typical paint sealant uses a polymer resin in a solvent base. The polymers are different than resins typically found in wax—once the polymers dry on the paint surface, the molecules link up in a net across the surface and form chemical bonds to the paint. The resulting layer provides better protection than wax and can last twice as long.

Speaking of durability, wax protects the paint surface from one to six months. Sealants protect from three to 12 months. The shorter ends of these ranges indicate a vehicle that is parked outside day and night and is washed frequently. The longer ends of these ranges can be expected on a vehicle that is garaged day and night in moderate temperatures.

Another note: a true wax or sealant will have no polishing capability. Thus, it may hide minor scratches or swirls, but will not remove them.


Most chemicals available to the detailing industry are by nature combination products. For example, most waxes have some minor polishing capability. Many waxes have extra glaze resins added for increased cosmetic benefit to the paint surface. I have even seen products that combine wax and compound — both ends of the spectrum.

Combination products are handy for one-step processes on vehicles with only minor paint problems or for customers who are not willing to pay for multiple paint rejuvenation steps. Keep in mind, however, that anytime two chemicals are combined, the effectiveness of each individual chemical is somewhat reduced. For example, a polish-wax product will not polish as well as a true-cut polish and will not protect as well as a simple wax.

For the best results, it is better to use the necessary products one at a time. And it is important to use the correct order of steps. For example, a vehicle with heavy oxidation should first be compounded; then polished using an appropriate mid-grade polish, swirl-removing polish, and/or finishing polish; and then protected with wax or sealant. Waxing a car immediately after compounding will hide compounding scratches that will re-appear the first time the car is washed.


The world of detailing chemicals can be confusing, at best. With a basic understanding of the elements of detailing chemicals, however, one can make more informed decisions as to which products to purchase and which to use based on the condition of the vehicle at hand.

The International Detailing Association offers its Certified Detailer program to both members and non-members. It is the only independent certification currently available to professional detailers. The program currently consists of 10 tests that assess the taker’s background knowledge of detailing. This month’s column is one in an on-again, off-again series that is designed to present a study guide for those interested in taking the tests. Get more information or sign up for the tests at

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.