Car Detailing vs Car Wash: What Is The Difference?


As winter winds down and the warmer weather starts, many people search for the nearest car wash for a much-needed cleaning.

Most of us in the mid-west can’t wait for the weather to get above freezing so we can finally clean our vehicles — and take advantage of the sun and warmer weather!

Car detailing vs car wash: how are they different? Most car washes offer a variety of packages, and you can’t help but wonder if there’s a difference between having them detail your car versus just a regular car wash. Want to know how they differ and which one is the best option for you? Check it out below!

What is Car Detailing?

Car detailing is a more thorough version of a regular car wash. They’re also not just cleaning the vehicle’s exterior, but also reconditioning and doing some minor cosmetic work. When you look at your clean vehicle, visually, you won’t see much of a difference between car detailing and getting a car wash.

A tunnel car wash is faster and more affordable, as a car detail cleans and reconditions your vehicle to look like you just drove it off of the showroom floor.

Services performed with car detailing

When you get your vehicle detailed, you may have a few packages to choose from. Each one offers different services, which include:

  • Exterior wash and dry
  • Vacuuming
  • Interior Scrubbing and Brushing
  • Polishing
  • Sealing or Waxing
  • Glass Cleaning
  • Paint Claying
  • Steam Cleaning
  • Leather Trimming
  • Perfuming
  • Paint Correction
  • Ceramic Coating
  • Paint Protection Film (PPF)
  • Window Tint

Benefits of car detailing

There are several benefits of having your vehicle detailed versus just a regular car wash:

  • Resale Value — Regularly detailing your vehicle helps to retain its value for when you decide to sell it sometime in the future. Keep your vehicle looking sharp to appeal to a potential buyer.
  • Eliminates Odors — Getting your vehicle detailed helps remove any odors as you remove filth and grime and apply an odor eliminator during the detailing.
  • Protects the Upholstery — Over time, the sun can damage the vehicle’s interior finishes and fabrics. Car detailing involved cleaning the interior to help protect the upholstery to prevent sun damage.
  • Prevent & Remove Stains — Your car’s surface is made from a variety of materials like leather, carpeting, fabrics, plastics, and vinyl. Regular detailing allows you to prevent and remove any stains.
  • Preserve the Paint — There are numerous reasons your vehicle’s exterior can start looking dull. Having your vehicle detailed removes debris to prevent paint scratches while the professional-grade wax corrects the paint and adds a layer of protection to it.

What Is a Car Wash?

A car wash is a facility that washes your vehicle’s exterior automatically. Some locations provide interior cleaning and self-serving car washes, or full-service, where the attendants wash the vehicle, but most are fully automated.

Services Performed With a Car Wash

When you go to a car wash in your area, you can expect a variety of services, such as:

  • Hot Lava wax
  • Sealer wax
  • Rain-X
  • Underbody with rust inhibitor
  • Wheel cleaning
  • Brake dust repellent
  • Tire dressing
  • Interior vacuuming & dusting

Each car wash offers a variety of packages that vary in price and services offered. It’s best to visit their website before visiting to see which package best fits your needs and budget.

Benefits of a Car Wash

There are many benefits to opting for a car wash instead of having your vehicle detailed.

  • Projects the Exterior — A car wash removes bird droppings, salt and grime, bugs, dirt, and much more. Keep your exterior looking fresh and clean through regular car washes.
  • Improve Fuel Economy — Having lots of layers of dirt increases drag, which means you’re using more fuel. Removing the dirt not only removes the dirt, but it will improve your vehicle’s fuel economy because it lets the air move across the vehicle’s surface more easily.
  • Resale Value — Like with car detailing, keeping your vehicle clean through regular car washes helps keep your vehicle’s appearance looking sharp, which also helps maintain its resale value.
  • Convenient — Car washes are inexpensive and won’t take more than 10 - 15 minutes.

Key Difference Between Car Detailing vs. Car Wash

So, how do they differ? It’s all about how in-depth your cleaning gets.

A car wash just cleans the service to remove environmental debris, dirt, and anything that can harm the exterior’s clear coat.

With detailing, it’s working to extend the external and internal components. It’s beneficial to include both services in your vehicle’s car, with car detailing happening once or twice a year.

Scope of Work

As mentioned above, getting a car wash is meant to help keep your vehicle clean from any environmental debris that can damage the paint.

With car washes, there are a variety of affordable packages to choose from, and you’ll have a fresh-looking vehicle in about 15 minutes.

Car detailing takes longer as it involves a more thorough cleaning that works to keep the interior and exterior clean.

There are a variety of packages, but they often cost a little more, and you can expect the process to take a few hours. It’s best to contact your local car detailing location about pricing and packages.

Level of Cleaning

A car wash is pretty straightforward since you’re washing away any dirt, tar, salt, and other debris from the exterior. You can do quick washes right at home using or visit a fully automated car wash that can be completed in minutes.

Tools & Products Used

Let’s take a look at the tools and products typically used in both a car wash and car detailing service:

Car Wash:

  • Mesh Bugh Sponge
  • Standard Waffle Weave Towels
  • Griot’s Garage Paint Cleaning Clay
  • Mother’s Premium Lambswool Car Wash Mitt
  • SIN SHINE Compressed Air 3.0 Multi-Use Electric Air Duster
  • Synthetic Wheel Woolie
  • Foam Wash Gun
  • Gallon Rinse Buckets
  • Grit Guard
  • Grit Guard Washboard
  • Microfiber Cleaning Cloth

Car Detailing:

  • Orbital Pads
  • Microfiber Detailing Towels
  • Car Cleaning & Detailing Brushes
  • Car Detailing & Cleaning Towels
  • Car Wax & Dressing Applicators
  • Wash Buckets

Most car wash tools are available to purchase online if you wish to wash your vehicle at home. If you wish to handle car detailing at home, reach out to your local auto store to see which products to purchase.

Additional Services Offered

Car Wash:

  • Undercarriage Cleaning
  • Spray-On Wax
  • Deodorization
  • Engine Cleaning
  • Scratch Removal
  • Headlight Restoration
  • Wheel Cleaning
  • Leather and Interior Conditioning

Car Detailing:

  • Exterior wash and dry
  • Vacuuming
  • Interior Scrubbing and Brushing
  • Polishing
  • Sealing or Waxing
  • Glass Cleaning
  • Paint Claying
  • Steam Cleaning
  • Time & Cost

Car washes come in a few packages that range between $6 - $20 and only take a few minutes. Car detailing may come in a few packages, but it will cost significantly more than a car wash. Detailing can also take several hours to complete.

Time and cost vary based on the location. It’s recommended to reach out to your local car wash or detail the location about pricing and length. However, car washes shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes when going through a fully automated car wash.


Both options can be done by a person, but car washes are also fully automated. You’ll often find several people working at car washes where they’re cleaning and drying the vehicle.

Which One Should You Choose?

So, which type of service should you choose? This depends on how badly your vehicle needs to get cleaned. Most of the time, a fully automated car wash is enough, but there are times when you need to dig deep down and thoroughly clean your vehicle.

With that said, it’s recommended to have your car wash done regularly and the car detailing done once or twice a year. This helps keep your vehicle in pristine shape, so you can get the most for your vehicle if you later choose to sell it.