What is Car Detailing? (Complete Guide)

Car detailing is the process of deep cleaning a vehicle, enhancing the appearance and protecting the finish. Both the interior and exterior of a vehicle can be detailed with the aim of achieving a finish which is as close to new as possible, and in some cases better than new.

Car detailing involves three main processes:

  • Cleaning the surface
  • Correcting & enhancing the appearance
  • Protecting the finish

In the next sections I’ll explain what’s involved in each aspect of the detailing process and the rationale behind it.

Thorough Cleaning

Auto detailing goes a few steps further than basic valeting and hand-washing by giving the vehicle an exceptionally deep clean. The aim here is to get the car back to showroom condition to leave it feeling refreshed and prepare it for the enhancement and protection stages.

In terms of the exterior, several steps are involved to give the car an ultra-deep clean:

  • Thorough clean of all the wheel surfaces including the barrels and arches (rather than just the tyres and alloy faces)
  • Areas such as the door hinges and fuel filler cap are cleaned
  • The rubber seals along the windows are brushed to remove and prevent algae
  • The tight areas around the badges are cleaned using a water spot remover to tackle hard-water build-up
  • Tar deposits are removed using a dedicated chemical
  • Iron fallout deposits (accumulated from brake discs and industrial fallout) are removed
  • The paintwork and glass are treated with a clay bar to remove any remaining contaminants and leave the surfaces completely smooth
  • Polishing the glass to remove chemical and hard-water staining to improve visibility

With regards to the interior, here are some of the key steps involved:

  • Specialist vacuum attachments and brushes are used to remove pet hair and sand
  • Fabric mats and seats are cleaned using steam and a wet-vac extractor
  • Difficult to reach areas such as the pedals and vents are deep cleaned
  • Steam is used to clean the surfaces and remove odours
  • Dedicated interior cleaners are used to sanitise the surfaces

Safe Cleaning Methods

Not only does the auto detailing process involve giving the car a deep clean, but it also does so in a way that is safe for the interior and exterior surfaces.

The difference here between detailing services and roadside/ automatic car washes is that extreme care is taken to avoid damaging these surfaces. This involves using safe chemicals and wash techniques.

If safe-wash techniques and tools are not used, this leads to unsightly blemishes are highly visible in direct sunlight and cause the paintwork to look dull and flat. These blemishes are often referred to as clear coat scratches and swirl marks (see image below).

The first step involved in the safe-wash process is a thorough pre-wash. This involves using snow foam and citrus pre-wash sprays to lift as much dirt as possible from the paintwork before moving onto the hand-washing stage. Dirt and grit are very abrasive and will cause swirl marks if dragged along the paintwork during the hand-wash, so by incorporating a pre-wash stage the chance of inflicting this damage is drastically reduced.

Using tools such as sponges and brushes to wash a car are very damaging and cause scratches and swirl marks in the clear coat layer of paint.

Instead, when detailing a vehicle microfiber wash mitts and towels are used to touch the paintwork. These are specifically designed to be as gentle as possible on the paintwork and prevent the infliction of clear coat scratches. I personally use towels and mitts from The Rag Company who are highly regarded as industry-leaders when it comes to producing the highest quality microfiber.

Another popular safe-wash technique is the “two bucket method” which involves using separate buckets for the wash solution and rinse-water. This helps to keep the wash mitt clean throughout the process.

Finally, careful consideration is taken when determining what chemicals are used to clean both the interior and exterior surfaces. Cheap roadside car wash stations often use highly aggressive, caustic chemicals which can cause staining and dulling of the paintwork and trim, and even promote rusting if used repeatedly.

Professional detailers instead use safe chemicals which are designed to effectively clean the surfaces but without causing damage. Auto Care HQ uses premium detailing-specific chemicals including:

  • Alloy wheel cleaner: specifically formulated to remove brake dust
  • Tyre cleaner: designed to remove old dressings and pull grime out of the rubber
  • Citrus pre-spray: to remove as much traffic film and dirt from the car before hand-washing
  • Snow foam: to soak and soften dirt during the pre-wash process
  • pH neutral car shampoo: to gently remove any remaining traffic film from the vehicle during the hand-wash
  • Tar and iron fallout removers: used in our deep clean valets to safely remove environmental contamination
  • Automotive glass cleaner: safe on tinted windows (unlike many household glass cleaners)
  • Interior cleaner: to clean plastic, fabric and rubber surfaces
  • Leather cleaner: specially formulated to prevent damage to leather and safely remove grease and sweat to leave a matte, non-sticky finish

Paint Correction & Enhancement

One of the most crucial stages in the detailing process is paint correction and enhancement. As mentioned previously, improper wash techniques and tools result in swirl marks and scratches in the clear coat layer of paint that sits above the colour coat.

Even brand-new vehicles typically are littered with these clear coat imperfections which are usually inflicted when the vehicle is prepared for collection. Even if you ask for your new vehicle not to be washed prior to collection (which I’d recommend doing!), it’s highly likely that some defects will be caused at the factory or during delivery.

In order to remove these defects and achieve a mirror-finish, the paintwork must be polished. This process can be done either by hand or using a machine. Machine polishing is far more efficient and yields better overall results in the vast majority of cases compared to hand-polishing.

So what does polishing involve?

Polishing removes the layer of damaged clear coat in order to reveal a fresh layer. This fresh layer is nice and flat which means it reflects light evenly and looks ultra-glossy. Here’s a diagram to show the process.

There are several types of paint correction techniques:

  • Polishing: used to refine the gloss and remove minor swirl marks and scratches
  • Compounding: used to remove moderate clear coat damage
  • Wet-sanding: is the most aggressive form of paint correction and removes severe clear coat damage. 

A single-stage machine polish can be used to remove the majority of clear coat defects efficiently. However, to tackle more severe defects, a two-stage of even multi-stage machine polishing service may be carried out.

Two-stage machine polishing first involves a compounding stage to tackle moderate defects, and then a polishing stage to remove any haze left by the compounding stage and refine the gloss.

Multi-stage machine polishing typically involves a wet-sanding stage to address deep defects, followed by a compounding stage and finally a polishing stage. The aim here is to get the paintwork looking as perfect as possible.

Protecting the Surfaces

Once the paintwork has been machine polished, it’s important to lock in all that hard work using some form of protection.

The paintwork can be protected using one of the three types of products:

  • Wax
  • Sealant
  • Ceramic coating

Waxes are usually the least durable (usually lasting 2-3 months) but offer a nice warm glow, sealants typically last for longer (4-6-months on average) whilst ceramic coatings are by far the most durable option and last 3-years on average.

At Auto Care HQ, the Exterior Deep Clean package which does not involve machine polishing comes with a 6-month sealant application. The detailing packages which include machine polishing come with the choice of either a 12-month or 3-year ceramic coating.

Ceramic coatings offer the following benefits:

  • Keeps the car cleaner for longer and makes the car easier to clean
  • Provides UV protection, wash marring resistance and chemical resistance
  • Leave a long-lasting high-gloss finish
  • Excellent durability

It’s not only the paintwork that can be protected though. Auto Care HQ offers the following protection services which can be added onto the detailing services:

  • Glass ceramic coating: repels water to help improve visibility when driving in the rain
  • Wheel ceramic coating: keeps the wheel cleaner for longer and helps prevent corrosion
  • Soft-top convertible roof sealant: to protect from dirt and UV
  • Plastic trim coating: to restore the black finish and protect against UV
  • Interior plastic coating: protects against spills, UV and leaves an anti-static finish
  • Leather conditioner and sealant: helps to prevent cracking and spillages

What are the Benefits of Car Detailing?

Car detailing is a service aimed at vehicle owners who take pride in the appearance of their vehicle and want to keep it looking as new as possible for years to come. Detailing offers several benefits including:

  • Enhanced vehicle appearance – having a vehicle freshly detailed will ensure it really turns heads
  • Improved resale value – protecting and maintaining the car means it will command a higher price when it comes to selling
  • Protection – detailing a vehicle ensures it stays protected against environmental contaminants and looks newer for longer

How Much Does Car Detailing Cost?

Auto Care HQ is based in Cheshire, UK. Here are the prices of each detailing service available.

  • Maintenance detail (from £60)
  • Exterior deep clean (from £90)
  • Interior deep clean from (from £100)
  • Single-stage machine polish (from £400)
  • Ceramic coating (from £400)
  • Two-stage machine polish (from £550)
  • Glass ceramic coating (from £40)
  • Wheel ceramic coating (from £80)
  • Soft-top convertible deep clean & protection (from £50)
  • Faded plastic trim restoration (from £40)
  • Leather and plastic interior coating (from £60)

For more information, please visit the price list.

Car Detailing vs Valeting

Valeting involves deep cleaning both the interior and exterior of the vehicle. Detailing goes a step further by restoring and protecting the finish to get the car in the best condition possible. Hence, most detailing services usually costs 2-3 times more than valeting services.

For more information, check out this in-depth comparison between detailing and valeting.

Auto Care HQ offers both detailing and valeting services to cater for all budgets and requirements.

If you want a thorough deep clean of the interior and exterior of your car, or just need someone to maintain your vehicle and keep it refreshed, please visit the valeting services page.

If on the other hand you are looking for detailing-specific services such as machine polishing and ceramic coating, please visit these pages:

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to detail a car?

Detailing services typically take between 1-3 days to complete depending on the work involved. Interior and exterior deep clean packages can generally be completed within a day. Single-stage machine polishing and ceramic coating services will usually take 1-2 days and multi-stage corrections often take several days to complete.

Is car detailing worth it?

Having your car detailed is worth it if you take pride in your vehicle’s appearance and want to improve the resale value.

If you want your new vehicle to stay looking as new as possible for as long as possible then detailing services are an excellent investment to make.

Equally, if you are craving the feeling of a brand-new car, then opting for an interior and exterior detailing service will soon make you fall back in love with your vehicle and forget all about taking a trip to the dealership!

Do new cars need detailing?

New cars benefit from detailing for several reasons:

  • When new vehicles are transported they collect environmental contaminants (namely iron fallout) which causes the paintwork to feel rough and if not dealt with, will lead to the formation of small rust spots on the surface. The detailing process removes all types of contamination including iron particles.
  • When a new car is prepared for collection at the dealership it is almost always washed improperly leading to scratches and swirl marks being inflicted. Detailing a new vehicle will remove these defects and enhance the gloss.
  • In order to keep a new car looking as new as possible for as long as possible, it needs to be protected. Having your vehicle professionally detailed will ensure protection is applied to both the interior and exterior surfaces so they stay in excellent condition.

Why choose a professional detailer?

Car detailing is a skilled service which goes way beyond basic valeting and hand-washing at a local station. Here are some of the main advantages of choosing a professional detailing service like Auto Care HQ instead of a DIY-approach.

  • Professional car detailers have an eye for perfection. We have worked on hundreds of vehicles and know which areas to pay special attention to which less experienced car cleaners won’t spot.
  • Detailers also have access to high quality chemicals and invest in expensive equipment to ensure high-quality results.
  • Services such as machine polishing and ceramic coating require experience and knowledge to avoid damaging the finish.
  • Hiring a professional detailer saves time and effort. Not only is the detailing process labour intensive, but professional detailers have also spent years improving their skills to achieve the best results.

Get in Touch

To get your vehicle booked in for a detailing service or to ask a question, get in touch with Heather via one of the methods below

Email: heather@autocarehq.com

Fill in the contact form below



Heather is a professional car detailer & valeter based in Cheshire and the owner of Auto Care HQ. A familiar face in the car detailing community, she has written over 200 car detailing guides on autocarehq.com and has produced over 165 videos on the Auto Care HQ YouTube channel.

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