When a wash is just not enough: decontaminating your car's paintwork
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Thanks in part to the movies (and maybe Covid), the mere mention of the word “decontamination” and images of people in Hazmat suits being hosed down in shower cubicles spring to mind. Thankfully, contaminants on your car paintwork are not contagious, however, they can be fatal for those that want a flawless finish.
Contaminants are made up of lots of (often tiny) particles which are harmful to your paint. They can range from bird poop, to tree sap, tar and bitumen from the highway to well no end of ‘other’ materials that are somehow attracted to your vehicle. These corrosive substances not only make your vehicle look dirty but can also eat into the clear coat and beyond.
Sure, keeping your car regularly washed can help with the removal of these particles, but many of these contaminants cannot be removed by washing alone. Simply put, contaminant-free paintwork should not only look good but should feel “as smooth as ice” to touch after washing, if not then you have “bonded” contaminants that need to be removed.
In order to restore your perfect blemish-free shine you need to first ascertain what contaminants you’re dealing with. Those visible to the naked eye are usually made up of organic materials such as aforementioned bird droppings, dead insects (particularly in summer), road tar, etc. Their physical location varies (particularly bird poop) but more often than not the tar spots are found around the lower third of your vehicle whereas dead bugs are found on the vehicle’s nose.
Caught quickly, these contaminants require minimal elbow grease but issues like Insect remains/bug splatter are amplified if left baking in the sun for days and due to their acidic nature can be corrosive.
Inorganic dirt such as brake dust or paint over-spray can bond both physically and chemically, they can accumulate over time until you can physically feel them, in the form of rough paint, and see them, in the form of poor surface finish and lack of water beading/sheeting due to the contaminated layers of protection. Over time they oxidise and corrode, harming the clear coat and paint below, causing etching and discolouration.
So now you know what you’re dealing with, how do you get rid of it? Safe removal of bonded surface contamination requires special tools (cleaners) and techniques.
Strong “all purpose” cleaners may partially remove some of the organic matter but would struggle to remove many inorganic particles, as they are largely insoluble. Alternatively, abrasive polishes will remove contaminants, however, multiple applications will over time remove the clear coat and expose the paint below.
Ideally the solution lies in both prevention and cure. An additional layer of protective ceramic coat will provide a “non-stick” offering, making it harder for contaminants to adhere to the vehicle, plus there are products on the market such as tar removers and detailing clay.
Tar removers are mostly simply spray on and rinse off. They remove contaminants chemically rather than physically, by dissolving them and then rinsing them away it virtually eliminates the risk of any marring. It’s also worth pointing out that paintwork treated with tar removers will still need to be clayed afterwards, as inorganic particulates are not usually soluble and therefore rarely removed by chemical means alone.
Detailing clay is a mixture of a soft plastic resin (polybutene) and various grades of abrasive particles. The bonded surface contaminants sit above the surface of the paint so they receive greater abrasive forces than the surrounding surfaces when the clay is used and are therefore removed. Please note that the clay must be used in conjunction with a suitable (clay) lubricant. Heavier duty waterless wash products are also ideal as they contain a greater concentration of lubricating oils.
So if you’re looking to be contaminant free (well your paintwork at least) and have a super smooth finish, then often a two stage decontamination process is required to fully clean paint. Comprising an initial chemical treatment to safely and effectively remove bonded organic contaminants, followed by a physical treatment with a clay bar to safely and effectively remove bonded inorganic contaminants - you’re welcome.