To start things off, allow us to introduce ourselves.
We are a mobile car detailing business that service the Allentown, Bethlehem, & Easton areas who specialized in full service interior & exterior details.
There might be some bias in this article :)
The difference in quality between a car wash and a professional car detailer is quite surprising. Car washes focus on quantity over quality and for car detailers it's vice versa. Car detailers will not end the detail until every speck of dust is removed from your car and it looks better than brand new. They do everything down to dressing the spare tire in the trunk. Sometimes this can take upwards of 8 hours depending on the condition of the vehicle. There is a reason we only provide one interior detail option, our "Signature Interior Detail", it is the highest level of interior detail that one could get. It is because we don't like sending vehicles out that could have been cleaned more. As with car washes, they will spend minutes on a vehicle move on to the next one. More often than not, leaving behind a good amount of debris on the inside and outside of the vehicle. We had a client schedule an appointment with us directly after taking his car to a car wash and getting there highest level package. The bottom line is you get what you pay for.
#2 Safety of Your Vehicle
The safety of your vehicle is of the utmost importance for a skilled car detailer who knows the safest methods to decontaminate a vehicle. As I've stated earlier, car washes focus on quantity over quality. This is very dangerous for a vehicle. Car washes are the number one culprit for swirl marks that are present on many vehicles. They use improper wash methods that scratch the delicate clear coat on cars. Think of the dirt on a vehicle as tiny rocks. If these tiny rocks are removed in an incorrect way they will instill permanent scratches which will cause your vehicles gloss and depth to fade away. We use the two bucket method when washing a vehicle. This is where you do an initial power wash and pre-wash of the vehicle before touching it. Then once most of the contamination is gone it is time for the hand wash stage. We use one bucket with car shampoo and one bucket with a grit guard. Once we wash one panel of your car going top to bottom, we rinse the mitt with the grit guard bucket, then dip it back into the bucket with clean soapy water. This ensures those "little rocks" don't have any chance of rubbing across the paint. If a vehicle has a ton of swirl marks from trips to the car wash, it will then need paint correction. A quote that pretty much sums this section up- "If you pay for a cheap car wash, it will be more expensive than if you got it done the right way in the beginning".
#3 Protection Options Provided
The last huge difference between car detailers and car washes is protection options provided for the interior & exterior of your vehicle. For a car wash, they will just do a quick wipe down of the interior with no protection options. This puts the interior plastics and leather seats at high risk of fading due to the harsh UV rays constantly hitting them. An experienced car detailer will provide numerous options for interior protection. They will offer ceramic coatings for leather seats, cloth seats, and carpets. Also, every interior detail will be finished with a UV protective dressing on all plastics and leather seats that lasts for 3 months. For the exterior, car washes will use car soap that has embedded "wax" to again, make the job faster. Car detailers care that every vehicle that leaves their garage is protected for months to come. There are levels of protection for the exterior of a vehicle. The first is wax that is in car soap, this only provides the vehicle with protection from the sun and contaminants for 3-4 days. The next level of protection is carnauba paste wax. This wax is applied in the old "wax on, wax off" method. This is not used much anymore in the detailing world for numerous reasons. The application process micro scratches the vehicle and it only offers protection for a month at most. Spray wax is the next level. This is the beginning of new age protection. Spray waxes apply to the paint without scratching and provide protection for upwards of 3 months to the vehicle (this is what we use in our Gold Exterior Detail). SiO2, or silican dioxide coatings are the next level. They offer 6-8 months of protection and self cleaning capabilities. These coatings are very hydrophobic. When you drive as it rains your vehicle will clean itself as the rain lifts off the dirt and it beads off. This is not to say that maintanence washes will not be needed, but they will be needed much less frequently. We use Gtechniques version of this coating in our Platinum Exterior Detail and our clients love it! The final level of protection that is offered is ceramic coatings. These are new age nano technology that can provide 1-7 years of protection and have an insane gloss. They are typically only applied after paint correction because they harden the clear coat of the vehicle and make any perfection and/or imperfection semi-permanent underneath. These coatings provide peace of mind to someone who has one on their vehicle. They know that their paint finish is going to be protected for years to come! The importance of having some sort of protection on a vehicle is massive. If a vehicle has none of these protection options, the clear coat will have nothing to protect it against the suns harsh UV rays and contamination. This will fade the paint finish and can corrode the paint finish causing paint chips.
In conclusion car washes and car detailers are very different in the level of quality, the safety precautions taken, and the protection options provided.
Here is a great video that shows how "detailed" car detailers are.
This is a 20 hour detail performed by us.