9 Simple Differences That Make Car Detailing Superior To Car Washes

You might be wondering why there’s a big fuss about car detailing. A car wash is cheaper and faster, and in your eyes, it does the job. Surely, there’s no need to spend more money and time on car detailing—or is there?

The key differences between car detailing and car washing are:

  • Car detailing is safe for your car, and car washes are not. 
  • Car detailing can involve paint correction. 
  • Car detailing involves some sort of paint protection.
  • Friction car washes scratch cars and destroys paint. 
  • Car washes are not as thorough as car detailing. 
  • Car washes do not clean the car’s interior.
  • Car washes are much faster. 
  • Car detailing needs to be performed less often than washing. 
  • Car detailing is crucial for high-end cars to retain value.

Below, I look at the above differences in greater detail. As a bonus, I will include a section exploring the role of wax in car detailing. 

Car Detailing Is Safe for Your Car and Car Washes Are Not

It’s hard to imagine a car wash not being safe: car washing removes dirt, bugs, salt, and environmental debris from the surface of your car. How can it be unsafe?

Your car’s paintwork consists of three layers: primer coat, base color coat, and clear coat. The clear coat protects the base color from oxidation and degradation. 

Car washing uses chemicals and techniques that degrade the clear coat. Different car washing methods destroy the clear coat at different rates. 

Tunnel car washes with rotating brushes are notorious for degrading a car’s finish. 

Soft-cloth car washes, which people prefer these days, perform far worse than rotating brushes. The cloths retain abrasives like grit from previous cars, which damage the clear coat. 

Car wash attendants rarely (if ever) clean washing brushes or clothes after a car passes through. Therefore, the grit they retain brushes on the next vehicle, causing faster clear coat deterioration. 

Touchless car washes use an approach that doesn’t make direct contact with the car’s paint job. However, some dirt and grime require scrubbing to come off, rendering touchless car washes a touch ineffective. 

Automatic car washes are relatively cheap. Therefore, the more cars they wash, the more cash they bring in. 

They sacrifice quality for quantity, and the cars suffer for it. 

Car detailing, on the other hand, is gentle to your vehicle. It’s meant to make your car look showroom fresh and protect the car’s paintwork. 

It takes longer and costs more than car washing because it’s designed to give your car a new lease of life and shield it from harm. 

Car Detailing Can Involve Paint Correction

As much as you try to prevent it, your car will need paint correction at some point. 

Paint correction removes imperfections such as swirl marks, paint scratches, and water spots. Some of these blemishes come from automated car washes. 

Most car detailing services involve paint correction. The process starts after a deep and thorough clean of your vehicle. 

Car detailers use polishers and different types of polishes to give your car a shiny look. 

A car that’s undergone paint correction produces clear reflection with no apparent stains. 

I advise you to avoid cheap shortcuts when removing paint blemishes. These shortcuts involve using fillers to cover the imperfection. 

After the job’s complete, it will look like the technique has worked, but the blemish remains beneath. Once the filler washes off, the blemish will reveal itself again, much to your frustration. 

Car washes do not involve paint correction. 

Car Detailing Involves Some Sort of Paint Protection

Paint protection happens after thorough washing and paint correction. It involves waxing, ceramic coating, or applying paint protection film (PPF). 

Wax prevents water and contaminants from sticking to your car’s surface and protects the clear coat from UV damage. It is relatively cheap but wears off rather quickly. 

Synthetic sealants offer longer-lasting protection to your car compared to wax. However, sealants don’t possess the high-quality glossing properties of wax. 

You can opt to use both to enjoy the best of both worlds. 

Ceramic coating and paint protection film are costly newcomers, but they offer longer-lasting benefits to your car. 

Silica-based ceramic coating bonds with the paint surface, protecting it from grime and UV rays. Paint protection film or clear bra provides more robust protection to your car’s exterior for much longer than ceramic coating. 

PPF is more expensive than ceramic coating, but the protection it offers is worth the investment. 

Car washes don’t offer any type of paint protection. 

Friction Car Washes Scratch Cars and Destroy Paint

Friction car washes use cloth-like material attached to industrial-strength rotating machines that scrub your car’s surface. 

Despite being advertised as gentle to the car’s surface, these materials are built for longevity rather than gentleness. 

Therefore, they are highly abrasive to the car’s surface, especially if left unwashed – dirt and grime stick to the cloth’s surface, which can then get transferred onto your vehicle. 

The grime combined with the cloth’s rough surface can also scratch the car, destroying the paint. 

Cars coming through friction car washes regularly emerge with paint chips, swirl marks, and other kinds of paint damage. 

Car detailing removes paint damage caused by friction-based car washes. Professional detailing also protects your car from further paint damage. 

Car Washes Are Not As Thorough As Car Detailing

Automatic car washes, no matter how high-tech they are, can’t wash even the outside of your car thoroughly. The machine will inevitably miss some spots. 

Car detailing usually starts with a thorough wash of the car’s exterior. Most car detailers wash the car by hand as it’s the most effective method

All exterior surfaces get a thorough cleaning, including the underbody, engine compartment, and door jambs. Detailing also removes stubborn stains and involves the application of degreasers. 

Professional detailers also repair dents, restore headlights, decontaminate the ventilation system, and clean and dress the tires. 

Car washing doesn’t offer the above benefits. It’s easy to differentiate between a car that’s been detailed and one that has been merely washed just by looking at the exterior. 

Car Washes Do Not Clean the Car’s Interior

Car washes, especially automatic ones, do not clean your car’s interior. They deal with the car’s exterior and leave you to sort out the interior.

Your car’s interior can get filthy quickly if you neglect it. Food particles, spills, and anything that drops on your car’s hard-to-reach places can become a breeding ground for bacteria. 

This study about bacteria in car interiors found that the accumulation of human skin in vehicles can cause unpleasant odors. Some bacteria from accumulated human skin can cause severe health conditions. 

Furthermore, it can spread diseases as anyone entering the car can leave with the bacteria. 

Therefore, it’s imperative that you get your car’s interior cleaned thoroughly by car detailers. 

Car detailers explore every nook and crevice in your car, removing all foreign matter and leaving it spotlessly clean. 

Air vents, cup holders, windows, door jambs, console, dashboard, seats, floor, and interior roof all get a deep clean. Furthermore, detailers vacuum every spot that can hide dirt, leaving your car’s interior looking fresh. 

Some detailers also include steam cleaning to remove toxic residue.

Car Washes Are Much Faster

Automatic car washes clean your vehicle faster than any other type of car wash. It only takes three minutes for a touchless car wash to finish the job.

Soft-touch car washes take a minute longer. 

Such car washes attract people because they execute the job quickly at a low price. However, anything done fast and cheap is almost always of low quality. 

You’ll spend five minutes at the car wash and leave with a car that’s not clean. It’s better to pay someone more money to hand wash your car than use an automatic car wash: hand washing is more effective than machine washing. 

It will cost you more and take more time, but it’s worth it. 

Car detailing will take far longer and cost more, but the benefits are priceless. In the long run, car detailing might save you money. 

Car Detailing Needs To Be Performed Less Often Than Washing

It’s recommended that you clean your car at least once every two weeks. Irregular dirt like road salt and tar requires immediate cleaning to prevent car damage.

Detailers suggest that you detail your car two to three times a year, depending on how you treat your vehicle. 

If you wash, clean, and wax your car regularly, two trips to the detailer annually will cut it. If not, consider visiting the detailer three times a year. 

You are best placed to determine the frequency of your detailing visits, but there is little chance that your car will need detailing every two weeks. 

However, your car needs washing at least once every two weeks. 

Car Detailing Is Crucial for High-End Cars To Retain Value

Car detailing protects the resale value of your vehicle in ways that regular car washes can’t.

Detailing keeps the interior and exterior in top condition, allowing it to retain its value. Detailing serves as proof of proper maintenance, reducing your car’s depreciation rate. 

Furthermore, detailing ensures that the car works better for longer while maintaining its value and looks. 

It’s never too late to discover the value of detailing. If you want to sell your car or trade it in, invest in thorough detailing and watch as the value of your vehicle rises. 

High-end cars depreciate faster than ‘normal’ vehicles, making detailing crucial for such vehicles. Detailing is a no-brainer if you own a high-end vehicle. 

This YouTube video by Milan Mastracci explains that taking the extra step to detailing makes a massive difference to your car:

Does Car Detailing Include Wax?

Waxing is an effective method of keeping the outside of your car looking shiny and clean. It involves applying naturally occurring Carnauba Wax secreted from palm trees in Brazil. Wax quality increases with an increase in Carnauba concentration

Car detailing can include wax if you want it applied on your car. Wax adds a protective layer to your car’s paintwork that protects against minor scratches. It also protects the paint from exposure to weather elements. 

Waxing also prevents the formation of water spots as water beads off the car surface. 

Furthermore, it adds a glossy finish to your car, making it look brand new.

Waxing is a cheap way to protect your car’s paintwork from damage. However, wax wears off quickly, which is why you should consider alternatives. 

Alternatives To Wax During Detailing

Wax is a good option during detailing, but it has some disadvantages. Thankfully, there are alternatives to wax you can consider. 

The alternatives to wax during detailing are:

  • Ceramic coating
  • Spray on waxes
  • Paint protection films

Let’s look at the above options in greater detail:

Ceramic Coating

Ceramic coating is a polymer solution applied to your car’s paintwork to prevent damage. It blends with the paint to create a layer of protection. 

It breaks down slower than wax, but it is more expensive. Ceramic coatings can last from two to five years, depending on the brand. 

Spray on Waxes

Spray on wax is easier to apply than wax and is cheaper than having wax applied to the car. 

You can also apply it on other surfaces, including rims. Spray on waxes wear off faster, but they are a cheaper, multipurpose alternative to wax. 

Paint Protection Films

Paint protection films are the gold standard when it comes to car paint protection. 

A PPF is a transparent polymer that protects the paint from environmental elements and scratch damage. Paint protection films have healing qualities that fix minor scratches. 

Paint protection films are the most expensive and durable alternative to waxing. 

Key Takeaways

  • Car detailing protects your car’s paint while car washing doesn’t.
  • Car detailing corrects and protects your car’s paint.
  • Car detailing involves interior cleaning while car washing doesn’t.
  • Friction car washes do more harm to your vehicle than good. 
  • Car washes are faster but of poor quality.
  • Car washing happens far more often than car detailing.
  • Car detailing helps preserve the car’s value.
  • Car detailing can include waxing.
  • Alternatives to wax include ceramic coatings, spray on waxes, and paint protection films.


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Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash: What’s the Difference Between a Car Wash and Detailing

RAPID MTS: Does your car need a wash or a detail?

Pristine Mobile Detail: Why is Car Detailing Better Than Washing: Evidence-Based Guide

Taylor & Francis Online: Elucidation of bacteria found in car interiors and strategies to reduce the presence of potential pathogens

Donald’s Detailing: What is the Difference Between a Car Wash and Auto Detailing

Shiny Car Project: How Long Does An Automatic Car Wash Take?

Jan-Lucas Ganssauge
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge