We hate to break it to you, but not all car washes are created equal. Some of you obviously know the differences between the quality of car wash you get from your fellow bawah pokok entrepreneur, versus a professional automotive detailer with a proper brick and mortar establishment.

But the majority of people think they both produce the same outcome – clean, sparkly cars, only at different price points. While true, that’s all but a gross oversimplification.

Over the past few decades, the car care sector has grown exponentially larger, now teeming with cutting-edge products and solutions to restore, protect and maintain your prized rides. Plus, the fact that the well heeled are sparing no expense in keeping their cars shiny all year round has made the business far more lucrative than ever.

So, this begs the question: why bother with an RM30 car wash when you can get exactly the same results for RM10? We’re glad you asked.

What’s a cheap car wash like?

We’re pretty much all guilty of having gone to a cheap car wash. They’re everywhere, sometimes sprouting in the middle of an abandoned carpark, playground and even petrol stations. It’s convenient, easily accessible, and a full wash plus vacuum can be done on the cheap in under 30 minutes. Great when you’re in a pinch.

It’s fun, too, sitting in your air-conditioned car with a phone in your hand as you feel the thrill of having your vehicle smothered in thick soapy foam slowly build. That’s your favourite part of the whole process, isn’t it?

The thing is, no one really knows just what sort of chemical is being used. It can be diluted dish washing liquid, or some questionable mixture of degreasing agent with other synthetic solution. Not only may the shampoo harm the clear coat (also known as lacquer), its potency can sometimes strip away waxes and sealants, resulting in a clean, albeit completely unprotected and hydrophilic finish.


Poor washing technique will abrade the clear coat

Using a sponge to wash a car is also no longer advisable, because the pores aren’t large enough to hold dirt. The material is also not designed to pick up debris and contaminants quite as effectively as a microfibre wash mitt, for example. Sponges are great for spreading shampoo, but with fine sands and debris trapped within the pores, it becomes a lot like a sandpaper, ruining your paint with every stroke, even if you don’t feel it.

Cheap car washes entail the use of cheap products. There’s nothing wrong with that, because there is clearly a market for such businesses to thrive. The car wash attendants are also taught no more than the basic techniques and to chase volume, and let’s not forget the occasional “water wax” hard sell.

Again, nothing wrong there. Most people who frequent these establishments either have little to no knowledge about car care, or simply don’t care at all. Improper care and apathy will cause the paint to dull, because most of the clear coat (the actual layer that makes paint look glossy) would have eroded or oxidised.

“Cheap thing no good, good thing no cheap”

Now, the number one thing you’re paying for when getting your car washed by a professional detailer is the years of experience that come with it. These guys typically employ a strict, methodical approach even for something as basic as a car wash, using high quality wash mitts with clear coat-safe shampoo (usually branded, too), along with an invariable form of washing technique.

This means they wash a Kancil and a Ferrari in exactly the same fashion, but not because they’re a pretentious bunch. They do it in a deliberate manner that preserves the quality and integrity of the paint, taking into account things like lubricity of the car shampoo and making sure not to apply too much pressure when washing, so as to not inflict microscratches that mar the finish.

This highly systematic approach is part of their mantra, honed and passed down from gurus with decades of experience detailing just about all sorts of vehicles. You’re paying more to have your darling car attended to by enthusiasts who actually care enough not to take any shortcuts or make compromises.

But as with any industry, you’ll have to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are those in the business just to make a quick buck (it can be a very lucrative business), but there are also true detailers who can’t care less about franchising their esteemed enterprises.

Naturally, the best ones – even a franchise – command a pretty penny, so if you truly love your car and don’t want to risk anything at the hands of the inexperienced, pony up and pay that RM30 (can be more, depends). Otherwise, if you’re up for it, maybe try your hands at some basic car care. It’s the furthest thing from intimidating, and you’ll end up saving a lot of money in the long run.

In the highly complex and technical world of automotive detailing, a car wash is only at the very tip of the iceberg. There’s things like paint correction, car coating, trim rejuvenation, upholstery care, interior coating, including more specialised areas like removing the orange peel effect, paint protection film, and undercarriage cleaning.

With the right car wash technique and a little bit of UV protection, your factory paint job will last for decades, easy. Oh, if we may so much as ask, please avoid the automatic car wash like the plague. Have some respect for your car, will you?