Swirl Marks at the Car Wash – What’s Really Going On?

People LOVE their cars and rightly want to see them taken care of. According to the ICA (International Car Wash Association),  properly understanding the threats to vehicles (both cosmetic and functional) and how to head them off is key to keeping a car running and looking great for decades to come.

Nothing is more infuriating than seeing those circular microscopic imperfections on the surface of your vehicle, also known as swirl marks. But why are they there? Did the car wash put them there? The answer is complicated.

Most cars develop scuffing to one degree or another over their lifespans and they can be resolved with professional treatments. Swirl marks, however, are very rare when you visit a modern car wash.

Car wash materials and cleaning instruments have changed with time, leading to advancements in water filtration, detergent application, high pressure washing, and in the friction cleaning material in particular.

Back in the early days of car washes and up until recent decades, most of the wash power came from scrubbing action rather than chemical or detergent action or wash pressure. When most of the cleaning had to be done with brushes and friction, the degree of friction was ramped up with brushes that took off more of the dirt but had a greater impact on the surface as a result. Older style brushes were more abrasive and often worked with less lubrication, which in combination with single stage paint jobs, made minor scuffing a regular occurrence. (Read more).

Today’s soft cloths have forgone the nylon brushes that were famous for leaving brush marks in the 1970s and 80s and instead rely on a closed cell foam material, meaning that they lack any structure that would capture dirt or grit. Another option? Highly engineered cloth made from densely woven cotton or polyethylene microfibers.

The foam and microfiber are both continually primed with body soap and fresh water, removing any debris and providing much-needed lubrication between the brushes and the body of the vehicle.  They’re safe to use and the overwhelming majority of patrons never have any issues—even after repeated washing.

If you’re getting scuff and swirl marks at the car wash, there are a few theories from the ICA which may explain wy it’s happening:

  • Single stage paint
  • Revealing wear and tear
  • Perception bias
  • Wax layering

Read the full article to learn more about swirl marks at the car wash.

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