- Learn about the different car cleaning products, and how they work.
- Discover the difference between detergents, abrasives, surfactants and solvents.
- See 12 of our advanced cleaners that your detailing kit should never be without.
- Knowledge is power! See the best cleaner to perform each task, and know how it works.
- Learning the products and processes to remove the many different types of soiling safely and effectively is the foundation to any great detail.
Cleaners and the cleaning agents they contain are, as you can imagine, some of the most important products in the whole of the car detailing world. What they do is not only break down and unstick grease, grime and other contamination, but even more crucially for the many sensitive surfaces you find on vehicles, allow any potentially harmful particles to be removed without abrading or scratching the surface below. Apart from all this, and as hard as it is to believe, they even help water to be "wetter', too.
Now, it goes without saying that we stock a host of powerful car cleaning products, designed to tackle particular detailing tasks and tailored to every type of vehicle surface inside and out. But, what's the science behind how these kind of cleaners actually work? Well, allow us to explain…
While there will always be different types of car cleaning products formulated for different types of detailing jobs (which may require the inclusion of certain chemicals and compounds to look after specific types of surfaces such as rubber, plastics, bare metal and fabrics). What's important in the world of car cleaning is how, through chemical action, a formulation can break down and encapsulate grease or grime so it can be safely removed by rinsing or wiping.
The majority of cleaners we use in the car world are water-based, detergent formulas, otherwise known as aqueous agents, which contain special surfactants that take care of these processes - we'll get to those shortly - but it's worth knowing that water-based cleaners are by no means the only type of specialist agents we use in car detailing.
For a start, there are strong solvent-based products, ObliTARate Tar & Glue Remover, ObliTARate Gel and Crystal Glass Cleaner being great examples. These are used to chemically dissolve sticky residues and oil-based contaminants to form a solute - a substance dissolved in a solution. This solute of the sticky contaminant and spent solvent, is far easier to remove than the original contamination, usually just requiring a wipe with your microfibre. The key thing here is that solvents can only be used on certain, solvent resistant, non-oil-based surfaces without causing damage. On paintwork and glass these are mighty effective, but on surfaces like bare plastics and rubber (which are essentially oil-based themselves) these can melt into the actual surfaces. For sure they'll certainly be clean, but not in the way that's expected on a car. In this way, solvent-based products are for targeted use, rather than over a whole vehicle.
Interestingly too, when it comes to heavy degreasers and all-purpose cleaners like Eradicate Engine Cleaner & Degreaser and Verso All Purpose Cleaner, while not classed as solvent-based, do have a relatively mild solvent content to help them power through oil and organic based stains.
In a similar way, abrasive cleaners and cleansers are for targeted use on certain "polishable' surfaces. For the most part, abrasive cleaners do their job through mechanical action (often helped out by chemical action via certain elements included in the formulation), products like Rejuvenate Paintwork Cleanser and Mercury Metal Polish are designed to scrub away contamination and oxidation on a molecular level, removing it and often a - albeit minuscule - layer of the actual surface. Again, these can't be classed as ideal for multiple types of surfaces; you wouldn't use a metal polish to clean a leather seat or a carpet, would you?
Mechanical cleaning shouldn't be confused with the agitation of products, either. There's definitely a little mechanical scrubbing involved here helping to loosen soils, even on the smallest level, but rather than it all being about mechanical action, agitating a cleaning agent such as Verso All Purpose Cleaner, or Total Interior Cleaner is a process that helps it do its job breaking down and encapsulating grime. In many ways it's about moving the solution around ensuring it makes contact with every surface and every recess, and most importantly refreshing the solution, making sure that spent solution (that's already encapsulating grime) is moved away, and new solution is now working on any remaining grime.
With the exception of pre wash cleaners like Citrus Power Bug & Grime Remover and Dynamite Traffic Film Remover, which are first stage products mostly designed to clean away the heaviest soiling without contact (and therefore eliminate the risk of scratching), many cleaners benefit from light agitation with a detailing brush or a microfibre cloth to make them even more effective.
A detergent is classed as chemical substance used to break up grease and grime. Soap and Car Shampoos are examples of a detergents. But, what is it that makes any detergent work? And more to the point, what makes these sort of products safe for cleaning cars? Especially when there's multiple surface materials to consider.
Cleaners designed for vehicles that are for use on a multitude of surfaces, Lather Car Shampoo, Citrus Power Bug & Grime Remover and Total Interior Cleaner for example, have a very specific chemical action performed by the special surface active agents (surfactants) floating around in the formula.
There are a few different types of surfactant, and they tend to be more adapt at shifting different types of soiling. For example high-foaming anionic surfactants are great for lifting and encapsulating particulate soils, while low-foaming non-ionic surfactants can be better for emulsifying oils into solutions - all very complicated you'll agree! But, what's most important to us is the mechanism that makes them actually work. Think of these tiny molecules in the cleaning solution as like tadpoles with hydrophilic heads that are attracted to water and tails that repel water (hydrophobic) but, most importantly, are strongly attracted to contaminants. The polar nature of these surfactants is exactly what makes them lift, hold onto and surround the soiling you're trying to clean away.
On a microscopic scale, huge numbers of these tiny surfactants band together in large clumps to form structures called micelles, you can picture these as like a ball with all the water-loving heads on the outside and the tails on the inside trying to keep themselves away from the solution. Because the tails are attracted to grime particles though, when the micelles come into contact with the grime on the surface of your vehicle they open up and the tails attach themselves to the stuck-on particles. Most crucially here, because the heads are attracted to the water in your cleaner, the dirt is pulled off of the surface and into the cleaning solution. Once the grime is free, the micelles reform, surrounding the particles (in the centre of our ball) preventing them from going back to the surface. Because the outside of the micelle loves water, this allows the whole lot to be rinsed away without scratching.
Surfactants are also used to change the way that water physically behaves. To clean most effectively, the water in any solution (or the water in your pressure washer rushing over your pre-cleaner or car shampoo) needs to be able to spread across and, in some cases like with fabrics, penetrate into the surface. Under normal circumstances water forms beads and doesn't spread or penetrate readily because of the surface tension, but surfactants are used to reduce this surface tension allowing it to be better at wetting, helping it to squeeze itself into smaller spaces, and making the cleaning agent much more effective than water alone at lifting away contaminants.
As we said some cleaners are particularly good at emulsifying oils. This is extremely important when it comes to cleaning fabrics, engines, carpets and other surfaces that suffer from oil-based soiling. These are necessary because water and oils don't normally mix, so these agents break down these large, fatty molecules into smaller molecules that can be removed by the solution.
Many cleaners designed to have a wide range of cleaning ability, will have the presence of an emulsifier along with cleaning agents more adapt to attracting other sorts of grime, like solid particles. As with anything in detailing, the type of grime you're trying to safely remove is always the first consideration.
Despite what you may expect to hear - every cleaning solution, in fact every liquid out there, is either acidic, alkaline, or neutral. The extent of this is denoted on the pH scale which runs from 0-14. The lower the number on the scale the more acidic the liquid, and the higher the number the more alkaline. pH Neutral liquids (like water) are right in the middle with a pH level of around 7.
It's worth noting too, that the majority of acidic and alkaline substances aren't harmful, lemon juice has a pH level of 2, fizzy drinks around 3, and egg whites are alkaline enough to be around pH 9. It's only as you get towards the extreme ends of the scale do you find the heavy stuff such as bleach (pH 13), or battery acid (pH 0).
From a stand-alone cleaning perspective, acids are best at shifting minerals, calcium deposits, metals and inorganic muck, while alkaline products are good for degreasing and attacking fatty oils. Obviously, things are a little more complicated than that when it comes to cars, because of sensitive surfaces it's all about strict moderation. The strong acids at one end of the pH scale and strong alkaline liquids at the other will certainly clean away contaminants, but can also do damage to surfaces and previously applied protection layers. Because of this most cleaners for regular use on vehicles will be somewhere around the neutral mark with some only slightly acidic or slightly alkaline. Heavy duty products can be a little more potent to help them along the way, but not to the extreme ends of the pH scale making them damaging to the vehicle. Heavy degreasers for example, like the ones you'll find in our Eradicate Engine Degreaser, can be a little more alkaline to make them capable of breaking down heavy oils, but these can be formulated so they don't cause damage to any surfaces.
A pH Neutral cleaner such as Lather Car shampoo is specifically formulated with special surfactants so it will clean away the grime but without interfering with previously applied protection layers like waxes and coatings. In this case any strong alkaline or acidic cleaner would quickly strip these layers away leaving paintwork unprotracted and more susceptible to damage.
So, scientifically speaking at least, now you know how they work… but how does all this apply to the multitude of surfaces on your vehicle? Well, that's where we've done the work for you, by developing products for every task out there. So, whether you need to shift that winter grime or you're simply looking to maintain your paintwork without abrading your hard wax layers, here's a selection of our most popular cleaners - our very own Detailing Dirty Dozen…
Designed to break down and remove road grime and grease, Eradicate Engine Cleaner & Degreaser is a real heavy hitter specifically developed for deep cleaning engine bays. Containing a special blend of high-foaming degreasers, it's capable of emulsifying and removing water-insoluble oils, but at the same time has been engineered to be perfectly safe on all surfaces including plastics, bare metal and rubber, making it ideal for use on modern vehicles as well as classics. Shifting the grime is easy here, simply apply this ready-to-use cleaner liberally, agitate and rinse away the dirt suspended in the solution. That's it.
To be an effective alloy wheel cleaner, and capable of safely removing extremely harsh particulate contaminants like brake dust, salt and road grime, the solution has to be extremely powerful. The largest concentration of these kinds of heavy soiling are found on wheels for the simple reason that they're the part of the vehicle that practically touches the ground and they have to endure the most extreme transfer of contamination from the road, not to mention the brakes on the car. The trouble with wheels though, is that they come in all sorts of sensitive finishes, meaning that you really do have to be careful what type of cleaner you put on them. Strong acids can cause damage, even to common painted or powdercoated wheels.
Imperial Acid Free Wheel Cleaner is the answer, this one has been formulated for removal of all these hardy contaminants, even when they're thoroughly baked-on. But by using a special blend of potent cleaning agents and degreasers, we've also kept this one acid-free making it suitable for regular use and safe on sensitive finishes.
This ready to use rubber cleanser has been specifically developed to clean away the heaviest soiling and road grime on contact. Capable of loosening, lifting and removing surface, and the most ingrained, contaminants,Tread Tyre Cleaner cleanses deep down in the rubber, and leaves behind a spotless surface that's ideal for the adhesion of tyre dressings. Tread can be agitated using a Detailing Brush, or vigorously scrubbed-in using a Rubber Scrubber Tyre Brush for the heaviest soiling, and can also be used as a road grime remover on plastics, particularly arch liners and even chassis parts.
A ready-to-use first stage pre-cleaner, Citrus Power Bug & Grime Remover is used to break down, lift and encapsulate heavy road contaminants without the need for agitation. The pre wash is arguably the most important part of the wash stages, this is where sharp, gritty particles are removed from the vehicle before you risk making contact with your wash mitt. The idea is to avoid dragging this potentially harmful soiling across paintwork, which will inevitably inflict swirl marks. Instead, Citrus Power dissolves the grime, suspending it in the solution, allowing it to be safely rinsed away.
Safe on all surfaces including paintwork, glass, rubber and plastics, this is an extremely powerful pre- cleaner, but while it's tough on grime, it's been specially developed so it won't strip away previously-applied protection layers.
Another first stage product, but this time a concentrated, heavy duty "dilute-to-suit' cleaner, Dynamite Traffic Film Remover can be used instead of, or in conjunction with, Citrus Power to remove the worst caked-on soiling, such as mud, traffic films and general road grime. Dynamite will also act as a degreaser on water-insoluble oil-based contaminants, and is safe for use on sensitive finishes and all vehicle surfaces from paint and plastic to rubber and glass.
Dilution ratios vary depending on the intensity of the cleaning required making this an extremely versatile blend of cleaning agents and degreasers, and once again Dynamite will help maintain the most delicate protection layers. One litre of Dynamite concentrate makes up to 10-litres of cleaning solution.
The final process in the perfect swirl-free pre wash, Avalanche Snow Foam is the master at removing the most stuck-on grime without breaking down coatings or wax layers.
Activated, whipped up and applied using a Snow Foam Lance, this thick, citrus-infused foam has been specifically developed to cling to surfaces for maximum dwell time. Due to the fact that it's able to stay on exterior surfaces for much longer than conventional cleaners, Avalanche simply has more time to break down and lift contamination, making it devastating to grime without the need for contact with a mitt. This product is also able to work into panel gaps and crevices to clean out the most awkward areas that may otherwise remain un-touched.
A must have for the ultimate swirl-free contact wash, Car Shampoo is a specially blended formula that contains sophisticated cleaning agents, highly concentrated lubricants and a range of specially selected surfactants capable of safely removing oil-based contamination and heavy particulate soiling.
Designed to create a rich, pH neutral foam that breaks down, lifts and lubricates any abrasive contamination, this product cleans without degrading wax and sealant layers or coatings. Once grime is fully lubricated and suspended in the Lather solution, it can be rinsed away without leaving behind any residue.
Lather has also been formulated purely as a deep-cleansing formula, it contains no waxes, shining agents or rinse aids to create a false finish, or interfere with subsequent detailing processes.
While Iron Out Fallout Remover can act as a cleaner, because the formula is packed with degreasers that can loosen road grime and traffic films, it's more technically designated as a paint decontamination product because it's uniquely capable of dissolving embedded ferrous metal fallout, chiefly derived from brake dust. This is a process that requires a chemical reaction that washing alone can't produce causing the solution to turn blood red (known as bleeding), temporarily highlighting the contamination and indicating that these tiny pieces of sharp metal shrapnel have been suspended in the solution ready to be safely rinsed away.
Primarily designed for safe paintwork decontamination, which is crucial prior to polishing or adding protection layers, due to the way it works and the extra cleaning agents we've added to our formula, Iron Out also makes a great periodical deep cleaner for wheels and under arches where you tend to find highest concentration of the most damaging metal contamination.
Dilute-to-suit and infinitely versatile, Verso All Purpose Cleaner can be adapted to just about any cleaning task. From carpet cleaning to heavy particulate soil removal and degreasing, Verso can be used in dilution ratios from 1:1 to 1:10 (depending on the extent of soiling) and agitated with a brush or microfibre to help break down the harshest grime.
Of course, it's always best to adapt Verso to your own specific needs, but we recommend diluting this extremely powerful cleaning solution in our Pro Mixing Bottle or Pump Pressure Sprayer to around 1:3 for heavy soiling on tyres, arches and other grubby areas, 1:5 for mucky engine bays and 1:10 for lighter cleaning tasks like carpets and fabrics.
A must-have finisher, and kit bag essential, that will cover you for just about any detail, Crystal Glass Cleaner is a highly-concentrated blend of mild distilled solvents designed to cut through fingerprints, grime and greasy films, leaving a smear and streak-free finish, inside and out.
Safe for use on all vehicle glass, along with sensitive polycarbonate, acrylic and Lexan motorsport windows, Crystal is also capable of filling light scratches and acts as a great interim cleaner for lightly soiled glass in between regular maintenance details.
Supplied ready-to-use Total Car Interior Cleaner is a powerful, all-purpose cleaning product that's suitable for regular use on all interior surfaces including sensitive plastics and cleaning Alcantara. Developed as a safe alternative to general purpose APCs - which can be too harsh for many vinyl, soft-touch plastic and fabric surfaces - Total is packed with sophisticated, low-foaming surfactants making it capable of breaking down a huge variety of organic and inorganic material safely, without abrading or staining the variety of materials used in modern and classic vehicles. Effective on all the most common stains and spills including grease, oil, mildew, mould, mud, silicone-based dressings, grass and suntan lotion, this this formula is ideal for general cleaning and sanitising, along with more intensive spot cleaning and deep-cleaning. For deepest, ingrained stains, Total is best agitated with an Upholstery Brush or Interior Detail Brush to leave behind nothing but a natural, factory sheen and a fresh, clean lime fragrance.
Specifically developed to be extremely mild on leather seats, offering a user-friendly alternative to potentially damaging and particularly harsh degreasers and detergents, Hide Leather Cleaner is a mildly-balanced, glycerine-based formula that's capable of targeting deeply ingrained grime, to safely break down and lift particles without impairing or abrading natural or synthetic leather when cleaning leather seats.
Safe for use on vinyl, napa, semi-aniline (coated leather) and full-aniline (uncoated leather) derivatives in any colour, this formula is designed to penetrate pores to deep-clean beyond the surface, and is powerful enough to strip away oils deposited from foodstuffs, sweat and skin contact, and will also eradicate imprecated dye-transfer on light colours from denim clothing, along with harsher marks and blemishes such as shoe scuffs.
A multi-faceted interior cleaner with added disinfectant, Wipe Out kills 99.99% of harmful bacteria and viruses in 30-seconds. Disinfectants, as opposed to cleaners, are specifically designed to wipe out pathogenic bacteria and other germs, including making surfaces safe from invisible and potentially hazardous germs. But, while traditional disinfectants cannot safely clean away solid contamination, by combining them with suitable cleaning agents and surfactants Wipe Out can do it all.
This powerful interior car cleaning product has been specially formulated to deep-clean and disinfect all interior surfaces that see regular contact, eradicating the bacteria, yeast and fungi, along with enveloped and non-enveloped viruses commonly found on areas such as steering wheels, gear shifters, door cards, handles, dashboards and switches. It's also ideal for stopping bacteria build up in unused heater vents and air conditioning systems, and contains advanced anti-static agents to help combat future dust and debris build-up.