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

The IDA 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

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 to the extremes on the pH scale, which can indicate potentially dangerous chemicals. For example, very low pH chemicals like wheel acid (pH 0-1) and very high pH chemicals like heavy-duty engine degreasers (pH 13-14). A special reminder: diluting extreme pH chemicals does not change the pH —they are still just as dangerous!

This month, we’ll continue the discussion of detailing chemicals with a focus on those that are used for the painted surfaces of the vehicle.

The types of paint issues that we see 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 and talk about how each one works.


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.

This will also reduce the unavoidable micro-scratching or cobwebbing that occurs as a result of normal washing. 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 stand-by, but new technology involves the application of a polymerized rubber coating onto different tools like a microfiber cloth, polishing disk, or a wash mitt. 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 polymerized rubber option does not have this problem because it can be rinsed off if dropped.

Once the vehicle has been washed, detailing clay or other contamination removal devices can be used along with surface lubrication like clay lubricant, quick spray wax, or a new batch of car wash shampoo. Use a back-and-forth and crisscross motion for thoroughness.

Things like paint transfer or scuffing can be safely removed with isopropyl alcohol (available at the drug store) or acetone. Never use paint thinner or lacquer thinner on vehicle paint (or anywhere else on the car, for that matter!). These chemicals may seem to work really well and quickly, but they are designed to remove paint, so why would we put them on the paint of the car? Even light application of thinners may seem okay at first, but they will soak into the vehicle paint and often lead to fading or discoloration in that area down the line.


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 makes 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. Mild abrasives that smooth out the imperfections that dull the paint surface making it shinier. 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 light compounds, and also mild polishes that include swirl removers, as well as “finishing” and “jeweling” polishes.

The purpose of compound is to help remove major paint imperfections.

Compounds are the most aggressive of the products that we use on paint and can have a range of abrasive formulations from mild to strong “heavy-cut” products. 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.

Some of the newer products that offer paint correction contain what are known as “diminishing abrasives.” The freshly applied compound begins as a more aggressive cutting agent, but as it is used in the same area, the abrasives break down into smaller, softer abrasives, turning the chemical into more of a polish. With some of these products, and the correct buffing pad, it is possible to cut and polish an area in one step.

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 are what provides 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 pulverized into powder and then 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, in which case a wax that contains synthetic resins is easier to use and offers similar durability.

Another category of protective products is paint sealants, which use a polymer resin in a solvent base. Polymers are different than resins typically found in wax — once the polymers dry on the paint surface, the molecules cross-link into 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.


Many chemicals available to the detailing industry are by nature combination products. For example, many waxes have some minor polishing capability as well as 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 products one at a time in the correct order. 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. Skipping a step by, for example, waxing a car immediately after compounding will hide compounding scratches that will re-appear the first time the car is washed.


Curable ceramic coatings have been available for use on automobiles since the early 2000s. They are composed of inorganic materials that, when properly cured, become much harder than the organic resins that make up wax or sealant.

The inorganic chemical components that make up a curable ceramic coating start out in a liquid form. When applied to the paint surface, the molecules rearrange themselves as a result of being exposed to air, and the liquid converts or transforms into a solid. As it hardens, what is created is a highly organized repeating three-dimensional pattern of molecules that are held together with strong chemical bonds. The result is a transparent glass-like, super-thin film or “shell” that is super-strong and super-hard.

Ceramic coatings offer excellent protection against chemical contamination like acid rain, road salt, and environmental contaminants. They also provide excellent UV and heat resistance, as well as amazing hydrophobicity. Ceramic coatings are not scratch proof and will wear off over time. Also, vehicles with ceramic coatings do require regular maintenance to ensure the ceramic surface looks good and maintains its strength.


It is common practice to dress tires and trim on the exterior of the car as part of a detail. The common active ingredient in most dressings is silicone, but the liquid that the silicone is suspended in can either be solvent or water. Some argue that solvent-based tire dressings are more effective than water-based, but these are simply transfer agents to allow the technician to spread the silicone onto the surface.

Solvent-based dressings are not recommended for use on vehicle interiors. Water-based dressings, by nature, are going to be more environmentally friendly than solvent-based. Moreover, water-based dressings can be diluted with water to control the amount of shine. Other than that, personal preference dictates the use of solvent-based versus water-based dressings.


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.


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