A Beginner’s Guide To Car Detailing


Since AutoDeets started as a car care website, we get asked a ton of questions. The biggest one that we keep getting, though, is “What is the difference between car detailing and car washing?

For many people that aren’t as enthusiastic about cars, they probably don’t care all that much about the difference. The truth is that if you’re a car owner, whether you’re an enthusiast or not, you should look at getting your car fully detailed every once in a while. You should also perform smaller details regularly to make sure your car holds up well over the years & looks it’s best 100% of the time.

So we wanted to help our readers understand the numerous benefits of car detailing, otherwise known as auto detailing. We will run through what you can expect when you choose to have your car detailed, as well as a general overview of how to detail a car yourself. If you read through this article thoroughly, you’re never going to go back to normal washing!

What is Car Detailing?

If you’re really new to the detailing game, you’re probably asking yourself “What is Car Detailing” or “What is Auto Detailing?“. To put it rather simply, getting your car detailed is going to mean a complete top-to-bottom cleaning of your vehicle using very specialized tools and products. A detailer is typically also going to include some minor cosmetic touch ups, but this doesn’t include jobs that would require paintwork or body repairs.

Car detailing is, first and foremost, cleaning and reconditioning the interior & exterior of your car. The primary goal of this is to restore the finish of your car by eliminating scratches, swirl marks, & contaminants to make the car look like you just drove it out of the dealership.

While your typical, everyday car wash gets rid of dirt on the outside of your car (mostly), and a vacuum is going to do a decent job cleaning up the interior of your car, car detailing is going to take things so much further. Every time a car is detailed you’re buffing, polishing, vacuuming, or steam cleaning every last imperfection. You’re left with a car that is equally fit for both the showroom & the road.

One thing to keep in mind though, is that there aren’t set guidelines when it comes to car detailing. Different detailers are going to offer different services for different prices, much like a restaurant menu. Some car detailing companies might have a detail package that includes clay treatment, high end wax, an advanced interior cleaning with steam cleaner stain removal, leather treatment, and dressing on all the plastic parts. Others might offer even more than that, with some opting for less. We aren’t going to try to predict the menu & prices of car detailing companies around you, but we can give you an idea of what to expect from the services that are offered.

What is the difference between Auto Detailing and a Car Wash?

Now that we’ve talked about what auto detailing is, we are going to briefly outline the main differences between a car wash and auto detailing. We’ll also talk a bit about why car detailing is such a good idea for both your car & your wallet.

The first main difference is obviously going to be cost. Your typical car wash is going to range anywhere from $12 to $45, but it is only going to cover a fraction of what actually needs to be cleaned in your car.

So what does your typical car wash include?

Your typical car wash takes between a couple to twenty minutes from washing to trying. A car wash can be either done by hand or by automated machines that run bristles, power washers, soap, & water like a drive through car wash to clean your car’s exterior.

Car washes are going to be a superficial cleaning, while an auto detail is going to be much more thorough & restorative.

What are the steps in Auto Detailing?

If you’re going to invest in car detailing, you’re going to notice two primary phases: interior detailing & exterior detailing. Each phase is obviously a bit different & requires different services & equipment. We’ll break down both of the phases so you don’t get surprised at all when you get your car detailed. If you’re still wondering about anything in particular, be sure to ask your detailing technician. They are often very passionate about what they do & their processes, and most of them will love to share what they’re doing with you!

Exterior Car Detailing

This process always starts with a top-to-bottom wash to remove as much dirt as possible. Car detailing technicians use foam cannons, and it’s not just because it looks cool! As the soap foams, dirt & mud are lifted off the surface as they soften.

After that, special brushes and wheel cleaning products are used to take all the dust & debris off the wheels. This includes everything from brake calipers, lug nuts, tires, and more. Believe it or not, the wheels of your car are normally the dirtiest part!

Once the tires have been cleaned, the entire car is exhaustively washed & dried using washing mitts and those microfiber towels you’ve heard so much about. Once that is done, the paintwork is clayed using a clay bar kit that works to remove microscopic debris & contaminants from your car’s clear coat. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you read our article on clay bars you’ll discover why this is so important.

If the paint surface is bad enough, it might require polishing to eliminate those light scratches, minor oxidation, and to remove swirl marks. This can be done either by hand or with the use of a car buffer. Often times this is the most time-consuming portion of the car detailing process, depending of course on the car (a Ford F150 is obviously going to take longer than a Honda Civic) & the amount of restorative work that needs to be done.

Last is the car wax! Aside from washing your car, this is probably the most well known step in the car detailing process. There are many different types of wax, from high-quality carnauba based paste wax to synthetic wax for cars. Different waxes might be used depending on the color of your car. For example, there are specially formulated blends to wax black cars and for white car wax to give you the best possible finish. Finishing things off with a coat of wax is going to give your car a shine that you thought was only reserved for a showroom at the dealership!

Then the remaining exterior parts like windows & the plastic trimmings are polished and cleaned. This adds the final touches to your car’s body & exterior trim, making sure your car looks better than it ever has before!

Interior Car Detailing

Interior detailing for cars is exactly what it sounds like – cleaning the interior of your car. The car detailing technician goes to work vacuuming & shampooing the interior of the car to remove any stains and dirt. If you have leather seats they will be cleaned & conditioned to remove that dirt that is deeply entrenched in the leather. All the plastic & vinyl in your car will also be thoroughly cleaned using plastic restorer and some great dashboard cleaning products.

Once that is done, the glass on the inside of the vehicle will also be properly cleaned & polished.

A Critical Optional Step

Something that people often forget to clean is the engine bay. Whether they don’t think about it, or they simply don’t care what things look like under the hood, it simply doesn’t end up getting done.

Just because people don’t think about it doesn’t mean it isn’t important though! A clean engine bay can make identifying engine problems easier & significantly earlier. Your mechanic loves working on a clean engine, and if you’re thinking about selling your car you should definitely consider getting your engine bay cleaned. Any potential buyers are going to check under the hood to see how things look. By having a clean engine bay you’re only giving yourself more leverage for a higher selling price, as you can visually show that the car is well taken car of.

That isn’t to say that cleaning the engine bay is easy though. Space is almost always tight, and you or your car detailing technician will have to take some steps to protect certain components from wear & tear. As the engine bay is being cleaned, it will be lightly sprayed with water and then wiped down with a degreaser before giving it another rinse to finish the cleaning. After things are properly dried, you or your car detailing technician will want to properly dress any plastic & rubber components to keep them from drying out & cracking. This is super simple to do, and taking the time to do it is going to ensure that these parts don’t wear out in the future.

What are the benefits of getting your car detailed?

The main benefit of a complete car detailing is that it is going to bring your car to it’s best possible condition. Between those complete detailing jobs, you can also perform smaller detailing jobs yourself to keep your car looking like new.

Your Car’s Value

This goes without saying, but a car that’s in great condition is going to be worth significantly more than one that isn’t. By detailing your car, you’re helping preserve the quality of both the interior & exterior. This is especially true when it comes to exotic or classic cars. Going through a car wash isn’t going to give you nearly as good of results as a solid car detailing technician.

Protection For Your Car

This certainly affects your car’s value as well, but auto detailing does a great job of helping protect your against the elements. If you’re routinely applying quality wax to the exterior of your car, it’s going to protect against contamination from debris & also oxidation.

Attention to Detail

With car washes you’re going to get exactly that – just a car wash. With automotive detailing you’re working with a technician (or doing it yourself), meticulously inspecting & cleaning every inch of your vehicle. A car wash simply can’t do that!

How much does a car detail cost?

At this point you’re probably pretty well convinced that getting your car detailed is a good idea, but you’re dreading how much it’s going to cost. According to this article here (along with common sense) the size of your ride is going to make a huge impact. After all, your Ford F150 is obviously quite a bit more work than that Toyota Prius in your neighbor’s garage. The interesting thing, though, is that there isn’t as much of a difference as you might think.

On average, a basic car detailing package is going to range from $50 to $125 for your average sized car. An SUV, van, or truck is going to be a bit higher, ranging between $75 & $100. You should note though, that there are add on services that can increase the price quite quickly. This can include clay bar treatment, leather conditioning, pet hair removal, and even the quality of products that you’re going to use for auto detailing. So if you’re got a furry friend riding around in the back seat, make sure to get them a dog seat cover!

Mobile Car Detailing Prices

While it is obviously significantly more convenient, opting for a mobile car detailing service to come to you at your convenience is going to be a bit more expensive. This is where you just have to ask yourself what your time is worth, since these services are going to save you the trouble of driving all the way to a detailing shop & waiting around until your car is done being detailed. You can expect the average mobile auto detailing service to take anywhere between 1.5 to 3 hours, depending on how dirty your vehicle is and any add-ons you’ve opted for.

How to Choose a Car Detailing Service?

Once you’ve decided to get your car detailed by a professional, and you know about how much it’s going to cost, you’re going to need to look into where to take your car. As you can imagine, you’re going to want to look for the quality & experience of the detailer. We would never say that someone new can’t do a great job, but you want to make sure there haven’t been a large number of bad experiences with your car detailing technician.

Start out by figuring out what you’re wanting done to your car. The best way to go into finding a car detailer for your car is to know about what you’re looking for before you ever pick up the phone. Once you know that, take a look at the different packages that each auto detailing company offers, and see how they line up with what you’re expecting. Don’t be afraid to be picky when you’re picking a car detailing company near you. You’re entrusting them to take great care of your car, so no one is going to blame you for taking your time to choose!

  1. Services Offered

A great start is to look for a car detailer that is offering exactly what you’re looking for. A great example is that dog hair in the back seat. If you want that cleaned up but the company doesn’t offer pet hair removal, well, that’s not going to work out very well.

  1. Pricing

The thing about car detailing is that it can quickly become very expensive. From paying for labor to the high-quality professional cleaning products there are being used, you’re going to want to find someone that is going to provide the best bang for your buck. One thing to remind yourself of though is that the short-term investment is absolutely worth it because it will save you a ton of money down the road!

  1. Reviews

With the evolution of Amazon and other e-commerce sites, reviews have become something that a company absolutely has to have in order for people to trust them. Car detailing companies shouldn’t be any different, and they should be able to provide you with some testimonials or reviews to make you feel like you’re getting someone that really knows what they’re doing.

So take a look at sites like Yelp, Google, and others to get an idea of what the best car detailing companies near you are. It’s a bit unreasonable to expect only 5 star reviews across the board, but if the company has shown a willingness to make things right, there is a good chance they are a great option!

  1. Convenience

Life these days can be very hectic. From constantly being pinged on your phone and email, to the constant hustle & bustle of everyday life, it often seems like there just isn’t enough time in the day. Look for an auto detailing company that is willing to work with your schedule. There are so many options out there, from making an appointment at a physical car detailing shop to a mobile car detailer, that you should be able to find someone that makes getting your car detailed as easy as possible.


We’ve really only begun to get into detailing, but the world of auto detailing is pretty exciting and definitely very detailed. If you’re looking to detail your car yourself you can dive deeper into the car detailing space of our website, or simply ask other people that are as enthusiastic about taking car of their car as you are!

Let us know if you have any questions about auto detailing that you’d like us to respond to in the comments section below!

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