Skip to main content

What is car detailing?

minute read

    Maintaining your car is essential to prevent its deterioration and protect its value. This may involve more than a routine trip to the mechanic — you’ll need to keep your car clean, too. Car detailing, which is an intensive cleaning of your car’s interior and exterior, may be a crucial step on your maintenance checklist to keep your car looking its best. Let’s get into what car detailing includes and how you might potentially be able to do some of this cleaning yourself.

    What does car detailing include?

    Typically, detailing shops bundle services into different levels of packages. However, your standard full-service car detailing package will often include:

    • Washing and drying a car’s exterior.
    • Cleaning exterior paint with a clay bar to remove dirt.
    • Sealing, waxing and polishing the exterior to treat minor scratches.
    • Vacuuming and shampooing interior upholstery and carpeting.
    • Cleaning vinyl and plastic interior trim.

    Based on the condition of your vehicle, you may opt for a premium package that, while pricier, may include additional cleaning services like:

    • Headlight restoration
    • Chrome polishing
    • Stain removal
    • Door jamb steam cleaning

    How much does car detailing cost?

    The amount you pay may be highly dependent on which package you choose (plus any additional add-ons). Prices vary depending on the shop, but you might expect your most basic detailing package to run you a few hundred dollars. This is just a rough estimation, however. How much you actually pay to have your car detailed could change based on:

    • The size of your vehicle: Larger cars, like sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks typically cost more to detail because there is more to clean. Luxury vehicles may also warrant additional charges as they may require an added level of care.
    • Your car’s trim package: If your car is fitted with premium features like leather seats, you may need to purchase a premium package that includes services, like a leather treatment, to provide proper care to your car.
    • Add-on services: Sometimes your car just needs a little extra love. For instance, a car detailing shop may be able to remove tougher car smells, like cigarette smoke, from your interior for an extra fee.

    Getting a car wash vs. detailing

    Routinely taking your vehicle through an automatic car wash may be a quick way to maintain a standard level of cleanliness for the exterior of your car. However, car detailing offers an advanced level of cleaning that treats every nook and cranny of your car’s exterior and interior — surfaces that are often overlooked (or not touched at all) by your usual car wash. Some notable differences between a car wash vs. detailing are:

    • The cost: Car detailing typically costs more than a car wash, as you’re paying for more than a quick rinse.
    • The time: It will take longer to detail a car than it does to run it through a car wash. To be safe, plan to block out at least an hour or two to give cleaning professionals adequate time to treat your car to some extra TLC.
    • The ability to protect your car: Standard car washes don’t usually offer any form of protection for your car. Car detailing, however, may include applying protective measures to maintain the condition of your vehicle — for instance, a paint sealant application which works to limit the impact of harsh elemental conditions on your car’s exterior.
    • The frequency: While you might run your car through a car wash weekly or monthly, you’ll typically only need to detail your car a few times a year to keep it maintained.

    Can you detail a car yourself?

    Auto detailing shops are armed with the supplies and experience needed to treat your vehicle professionally and may be your best option to maintain the cleanliness of your car. That said, there may be parts of the detailing process you can do at home to help keep your car squeaky clean between visits.

    How to detail a car interior

    You may be able to do some basic detailing of the interior of your car by following these six steps:

    • Clean interior surfaces: You may find wiping down your interior with a microfiber cloth and cleaning solution to be generally effective between professional cleanings. Don’t forget to clean those hard-to-see, high-touch areas like the inside of your door handles.
    • Wipe your seats: If you have leather seats, spraying them with a leather cleaner and wiping them down may help maintain the leather. If you have cloth seats, you may use an automotive upholstery cleaner as directed.
    • Target your carpets: Carpets can accumulate a lot of dirt, so it’s helpful to remove your floor mats and vacuum the carpet in your vehicle thoroughly.
    • Wash the floor mats: If you have all-weather rubber floor mats, you could remove them and wash them down with soap and water.
    • Clean glass surfaces: Spraying and wiping down your windows with a glass cleaner and microfiber cloth helps keep the view nice and clean.
    • Add a scented deodorizer: Adding in a lovely scent as a finishing touch may help get rid of those pesky car odors.

    How to detail a car exterior

    With the interior refreshed, you can move on to detail the exterior of your vehicle. A gameplan to follow could be:

    • Pre-rinse your car: A thorough rinse to remove loose dirt can help prevent debris from mixing with wax down the line in your cleaning process.
    • Wash the wheels: Many wheel cleaners can be sprayed on and simply rinsed off. If stubborn brake dust has accumulated, you could scrub your wheels with a brush to remove the debris.
    • Wash the car: You’ll need to start by filling two buckets full of water and adding soap to one of them. Starting from the top of your car and working your way down, apply soapy water with a sponge, then rinse the soapy surfaces with clean water.
    • Dry the car: A microfiber cloth may be highly effective to help dry it off without visible streaks.
    • Wax or apply paint-sealant to the car: Your last step will be to apply wax or paint-sealant to try and give your car’s exterior a nice shine. Simply apply the solution to your foam-pad applicator and gently buff the exterior using small, circular motions. After, wipe your car’s exterior clean with a microfiber cloth.

    In summary

    Just like taking your car to your mechanic for a tune-up, car detailing may be an important step in maintaining the health and longevity of your vehicle. While there are few substitutes for a professional detailing job, you may be able to implement some of their cleaning methods effectively enough on your own to keep your car squeaky clean all year long.

    What to read next