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Detailing Chemical Glossary

As has been stated many times, "chemicals are the life blood" of the detailing industry. However, for something so important to an industry it is also an area that is tremendously misunderstood by most.

Few if any detailers really understand the make-up of the chemicals they use; that is, what is in them and why they do what they do. As a professional, you have an obligation to know about the chemicals you are using and why they perform the way they do.

For example, do you know what an MSDS is? MSDS stands for "Material Safety Data Sheet." These sheets list the hazardous ingredients that can cause harm to you, your employees, or your customers. You and your employees are obligated by law to know what hazardous ingredients are in the chemicals you are using and you are required, by law, to know the dangers of these chemicals and what to do if you are harmed by a chemical.

Therefore, if you are expected to know this information to protect yourself, it is reasonable to assume that you should know how the chemicals you use will affect the various parts of the vehicle.

For a detailer to know what products to use for a particular detailing job requires an understanding of the chemicals and chemical terms. The following glossary of terms will assist you in expanding your knowledge of the chemicals you use on a daily basis. With this glossary, you can then ask your chemical supplier what ingredients are used in the chemicals they sell to you.


Abrasive - a finely divided, hard, earthy ceramic material ranging in hardness from 6 to 10 on the Mohs scale. It is used to reduce, smooth, clean, or polish the surface of other less hard materials. In polishes, cleaners and compounds, the abrasive materials are usually of small size *under 325 mesh) and a hardness of between 6 and 8 Mohs. Most commonly, they are composed of alumina, aluminum oxide, silica, or diatomaceous earth.

Acid - a chemical substance whose properties include the ability to react with bases or alkalis in water solutions to form salts. Always has a pH less than 7. Turns litmus paper red. A pH of 1 would indicate a strong acid. Tends to attack metals or glass.

Acid Inhibitors - chemicals that greatly reduce the attack of acids on metal surfaces. Inhibitors can prevent up to 99% of the damage caused by acids.

Acridity - the choking effect resulting from an alkaline-based product. There is no smell coupled with acridity.

Active Solvent - a solvent that can dissolve a resin by itself.

Acute Effects - short range or immediate effects of chemicals on humans.

Additive - any substance incorporated into a base material, usually in low concentrations, to perform a specific function (e.g. antioxidants, stabilizers, colorants, inhibitors, preservatives, thickeners.)

Alcohol - a broad class of hydroxyl containing organic compounds occurring naturally in plants and made synthetically from petroleum derivatives such as ethylene. Alcohols perform several functions in cleaners: control viscosity, solubilize ingredients, and provide low temperature stability.

Alkali - a chemical substance (such as hydroxide, carbonate, sodium, or potassium) which reacts with and neutralizes an acid. Has a pH above 7. In concentrated forms, may attack paint and some metals. Turns litmus paper blue.

Amino-Functional Silicone (Amine Functional Silicone) - an amino functional silicone is a regular silicone fluid that has been modified slightly. Every so often, instead of a dimethyl siloxane unit, an amino functional siloxane unit has been substituted. The amino functional unit creates a spot in the chain where cross-linking can occur.

Amphoteric Surfactant - contains both positively charged and negatively charged groups in the same molecule. Their cationic nature dominates under acidic conditions while they display the characteristics of an anionic surfactant under basic or alkaline conditions. Suitable for use in shampoos and personal care products.

Anhydrous - refers to a chemical that contains no water. For example, caustic soda beads are anhydrous.

Anionic Surfactant - a surfactant derived from an aliphatic or arylaliphatic hydrocarbon and most commonly in the form of a sodium salt, in which the detergency and other properties depend in part on the negatively charged anion of the molecule; hence the name “anionic”.

Anodized Aluminum (Anodic Coating) - an AL O2 coating chemically bonded to an aluminum surface. The objective is to prevent oxidation of normal aluminum. Anodized aluminum usually looks as if it has a satin or colored finish. A magnet will not attract to any anodized or other aluminum surface.

Bi-Metallic Galvanic Corrosion - (dissimilar metals) - this corrosion results in a black streak, occurring when an acid hits aluminum and another type of metal producing an electrolyte much in the same matter as a car battery. This electrolyte causes corrosion and the streak is a result.

Biodegradability - the capability of organic matter to be decomposed by biological processes. Specifically, the rate at which detergents, pesticides and other compounds may be chemically broken down by bacteria and/or natural environmental factors.

Bleach - a product that will clean, whiten, brighten and remove stains on hard surfaces.

Blushing - dulling. A negative effect which caustics and acids can have on the finish of a vehicle’s painted surface, chrome finish, etc.

Booster - a laundry aid available in granular or liquid form that is formulated to reinforce specific performance characteristics desirable in laundering.

Buffer* - a compound or mixture that, when contained in a solution, causes the solution to resist change in pH. Each buffer has a characteristic limited range of pH over which it is effective.

Builder - a material that enhances or maintains the cleaning efficiency of the surfactant in a detergent formulation. The part of a formulation that imparts alkalinity, buffering, corrosion resistance, etc.; generally the non-surfactant portion of a cleaner. Builders eliminate precipitation of minerals in hard water by chelating salts, which keep them suspended, or by ion exchange.

CAS Number (Chemical Abstract Service Number) - anumerical name assigned to chemical compounds by the American Chemical Society.

Calcium Carbonate - an insoluble compound that results from the reaction of sodium (or potassium) carbonate with calcium water hardness ions.

Calcium Hypochlorite - a type of chlorine bleach used in deck cleaning products. Typically used in laundry detergents. Effective against mildew but does little to remove dirt or other surface deposits.

Cationic Surfactant - a surfactant in which the detergency and other properties reside in a positively charged ionic group.

Caustic - a strong base (pH of greater than 8, but generally not higher than 11). The term, when used alone, usually refers to caustic soda (sodium hydroxide). It may also refer to caustic potash (potassium hydroxide.)

Cleaner Break - a component added to industrial cleaner formulations to provide alkalinity and “break” or emulsify grease and oily soils.

Cleanser - a powdered cleaning product usually containing an abrasive, a surfactant, and sometimes a bleach.

Clear Coat - a clear protective finish applied to new cars at time of production. Applied to paint and most wheels.

Cloud Paint - the temperature above which a detergent concentrate or solution separates into two distinct phases.

Combustible Liquid - a liquid with a Flash Point between 100ºF to 200ºF.

Compound - a compound is an abrasive product used to remove scratches and paint defects by abrading away the upper levels of the overall paint surface. Compounds usually have fairly high percentages of abrasive with hardness on the upper end of the scale (8 Mohs). Abrasive grits range from 600 (heavy) to 2000 (light). Compounds can be used to eradicate sanding scratches, shallow chips, environmental scratches, oxidation and water spots. Compounds have good lubricity, cleaning ability and long working time but have no waxes, or other ingredients to provide protection for the surface.

Corrosion Inhibitor - a material that protects against the wearing away of appliance surfaces.

Corrosive - the characteristic of a material that eats away either metals or living tissue.

Deflocculation - the action of breaking up solid aggregates of soil into small particles. The particles are then flushed away.

Degreaser - a specialty product that removes grease and greasy/oily soils. Their main products are surfactants that penetrate or emulsify. They are designed more for hard surfaces than for fabrics. They may be used for pre-treatment or as the sole cleaning agent, but rinsing should always follow.

Demulsify - the breaking down of an emulsion of the insoluble material will form a separate layer (i.e., oil and water).

Detergency - cleaning ability.

Detergent - any cleaning agent. In popular usage, washing and cleaning agents with a composition other than soap that clean by much the same mechanisms as does soap. The term detergent is used to describe both the basic surface-active agents and finished products. Based on a surface-active agent that finished products are synthesized from chemically, a variety of raw materials derived from petroleum, fatty acids, and other sources. They may also contain ingredients such as builders, antiredeposition agents (CMC), corrosion inhibitors (EDTA), suds control agents (defoamers), fluorescent whitening agents (optical brighteners), sodium sulfate (processing aids), water, alcohols, hydrotropes, colorants, fragrances, and pacifiers. Detergent ingredients vary with the type of products, which include light duty detergents, heavy-duty detergents, hard surface cleaners, automatic dishwasher detergents, and cleansers. The finished products come in a number of forms, such as granules, liquids, and crystals.

Diatomaceous Earth (diatomite) - a soft, bulky, solid material composed of skeletons of small prehistoric aquatic plants (diatoms). In the polish industry, the diatomaceous earth that is used has been ground, and divided into various hardnesses and sizes to create abrasives.

Dilution Ratio - the amount of water mixed with the product. 1 to 1, 10 to 1 etc.

Disinfectant* - an agent that kills, inactivates or repels organisms in or on plants, animals or inanimate objects.

Dispersing Agent - a material that increases the stability of particles in a liquid.

Dispersion - see Deflocculation.

Dressings - see Glazes.

Dwell Time - the time involved after the application of a chemical to the surface before rinsing.

Emulsification - the action of breaking up fats, oils, greases and other soils into small particles, which are then suspended in water.

Emulsifier - a compound which will link grease and water together in order to flush away.

Etching - the process whereby an acidic solution will react with the surface it is on (generally metal or glass) and either remove a microscopic layer of the metal or dissolve the glass. Aluminum is brightened through etching.

Fillers - oils with a refractive index that is very close to the refractive index of paint. By matching the refractive index of the paint, indented defects in the paint are rendered invisible. The effect is the same as the windshield chip repair.

Flash Point* - the lowest temperature at which a liquid produces sufficient vapor to ignite with a test flame.

Freeze Point - the temperature where a liquid turns to a solid.

Germicide - any agent that will kill bacteria, especially those causing disease.

Glazes - term referring to products used on car finishes to enhance shine and protect finish. Also called dressings.

Glycerin (glycerol) - a clear, colorless, odorless syrupy liquid. It is used in the polish industry for its lubricity, emulsifying ability, and humectancy (affinity for water).

HLB - a rating that describes the oil or water loving nature of a surfactant.

Hard Surface Cleaner - a product formulated for cleaning painted surfaces, washable floor coverings, plastics, metals, porcelain and other surfaces.

Hydrolysis - a chemical reaction in which water reacts with another substance to form one or more new substances.

Hydrochloric Acid - see Muriatic Acid.

Hydrofluoric Acid (HF) - one of the most potent acids available. HF cleans aluminum by disintegration. It is an extremely dangerous acid to use and proper safety equipment should always be worn.

Hydrophilic - water loving. A descriptive term applied to the group or radical of a surfactant molecule that makes or tends to make it soluble in water.

Hydrotrope - a substance that increases the solubility in water of another material, which is only partially soluble.

Hypochlorite - in its sodium salt form, the active bleaching ingredient in liquid chlorine bleach.

Inert - a surface that will not react to a particular cleaning compound.

Inorganic - a substance that is not made of the combination of hydrogen and carbon.

Lime Soap - the insoluble salt formed by the interaction of soaps and fatty acids with the minerals in hard water (also called soap curd).

Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) - this is the government required form that must be on file for each chemical manufactured. The information contained on an MSDS describes hazards, precautions, ingredients, etc.

Metal Cleaner/Polish - a paste or thick opaque liquid that may hold a fine abrasive in suspension and usually contains an organic acid.

Mineral Oil - a liquid petroleum derivative of solvent with very low volatility, low odor, high clarity, and low toxicity. Mineral oils range in viscosity from 50 poise.

Muriatic Acid - a strong acid used for removing concrete and mortar. Also called Hydrochloric Acid.

Neutral Cleaner - cleaner with a pH of 6 to 8.

Noble Metal Scale - the more “noble” a metal, the less reactive to chemical products. E.g., stainless steel is a noble metal, therefore, very unreactive. Aluminum is very low on the noble scale and therefore, very reactive.

Nonionic Surfactant - a surface-active agent that contains neither positively nor negatively charged (ionic) functional groups, such surfactants have been found to be particularly effective in removing oily soil.

One Step - A one step product is a polish product formulated with more emphasis placed on the protective ingredients so that it provides both slight correcting capabilities and protection. But the protection is less durable than a wax or sealant.

Optical Brightener (optical bleach, colorless dye, fluorescent brightener) - a colorless, fluorescent, organic compound that absorbs UV light and emits it as visible blue light. The blue light masks the undesirable yellow textiles, paper, detergents, and plastics.

Organic - a substance composed of hydrogen and carbon.

Paint Sealant - The term “sealant” has different meanings for different groups. Detailers expect their sealant products to have extra durability, forming a protective film over the paint. Body shops and automobile painters call a product a sealant if 1) they cannot repaint the area after using the product, or 2) it will impair the solvent evaporation from a newly painted surface. Lastly, paint manufacturers call a product a sealant if the product will stop “bleed through” of undesirable properties from lower layers of paint or substrate to the newly painted surface, such as a primer. For a detailer, a sealant product would be one that contains ingredients that will form a durable film over the surface of the paint, creating a barrier on the surface, such as a cross-linking polymer like amino functional silicones. Paint sealants have very little paint surface repair properties.

Peptizing - the breaking up of solid particles into extremely small particles - so small they act as if they were in a true solution.

pH - a chemical symbol expressing the degree of acidity or alkalinity of a solution. Technically speaking, it is the negative logarithm of the hydrogen ion concentration in a water system. On the pH scale, most products run from 1 to 14; the lower numbers are considered on the acidic side and the higher on the alkaline side. A pH of 7 is neutral, neither acidic nor alkaline.

Phosphatized* - chemically treated to provide iron and steel with a gray protective ferric-phosphate coating.

Phosphoric Acid - a relatively safe acid (used in soda drinks, for example) that is commonly used for metal cleaning and rust removal.

Physical State - solid, liquid, or gas.

Pitting - see Corrosion.

Polish - a light grade abrasive product using abrasives on the low end of the scale (6 Mohs) with lower percentages and smaller particle size. In many cases, the powders used in polishes would not be considered abrasive particles. On very soft surfaces such as paint, they have abrasive qualities and will remove very small surface defects such as oxidation and swirls (very fine circular scratches from compounding). Polishes will many times include waxes, silicones, resins or other protective ingredients found in finish products to create a finished look and durability.

Polymer - the simplest definition for polymer is also the most descriptive: “poly” means many and “mer” means unit. So, any chemical that consists of endlessly repeating identical chemical units is a polymer. Polymers include such (now familiar yet somewhat incomprehensible) materials as polyethylene, polyurethane, polytetrafluoroethylene, and polyisocyanate. Notice how the chemical name always starts with “poly” followed by another word. For example, polyethylene is many units of ethylene.

Precipitate - a material that has settled out of solution.

Precipitating Builder - a chemical that softens water by converting hardness minerals to an insoluble form.

Pre-Mix - mixing concentrated chemical with water prior to the product being used in the wash.

Processing Aids - agents used in the manufacture of detergents to prevent caking, to promote flow properties, and to standardize product density.

Reactivity - the characteristic of a material to produce a chemical reaction.

Reduction - the fading of paint and spotting on aluminum through use of harsh acidic or alkaline products resulting in the breaking down of said surfaces.

Reserve Alkalinity (Buffering Capacity) - a measure of the buffering capacity (above pH 9.5) of alkaline cleaning products, expressed as the equivalent amount of sodium hydroxide.

Rinse Agent - similar to the “Jet Dry” used in dishwashers. This is not a “wax”. It aids in the spot-free drying of a vehicle after the wash cycle is ended.

Salt - combination of a halogen and a metal (i.e., Chlorine combined with Sodium yields common table salt.)

Sanitizer - an agent that reduces the number of bacterial contaminants to safe levels as determined by public health requirements.

Saponification - the chemical conversion of soluble fats and oils into soluble soaps. The soluble soap is then dissolved and readily removed.

Sequestering Agent - any compound that, in aqueous solution, combines with a metallic ion to form a water-soluble combination in which the ion is substantially inactive.

Silicone (Polydimethyl Siloxane) - silicone fluid is a relatively short chain polymer called polydimethyl siloxane (note the prefix poly- before the units of dimethyl siloxane). The properties of silicone fluids range from very thin, volatile liquids that look and feel like petroleum solvents to thick heavy liquids that look like crystal clear honey. The only difference between the thin liquid and the honey liquid is the number of units in the dimethylsiloxane chain.

Siloxane (oxosilane) - a straight chain compound consisting of silicone atoms bonded to 4 oxygen atoms, repeating O-Si-O-Si-O. This unit forms the backbone for silicone fluid.

Soap - a cleaning compound made by treating a fatty acid with a caustic chemical.

Soda Ash - a common name for a commercial form of anhydrous sodium carbonate.

Soil Redeposition Inhibitor - a detergent ingredient that aids in keeping soil suspended and dispersed in wash water and thus minimizes the settling or redepositing of soil on fabrics.

Soil Suspending Agent - see Soil Redeposition Inhibitor.

Soluble - capable of being dissolved in a liquid.

Solution - a homogenous mixture formed by dissolving one or more substances into a liquid.

Solvent - a substance capable of dissolving another substance to form a uniformly dispersed mixture at the molecular or ionic level. The commonly used version of the term refers to a variety of volatile organic liquids, organic solvents, used to dissolve and reduce the viscosity of many active ingredients. There are many types of organic solvents with varying degrees of solvency (ability to dissolve).

  • Aliphatic solvents - kerosene, naphtha, mineral spirits, white gas
  • Aromatic solvents - xylene, toluene, benzene
  • Alcohols - isopropanol, ethanol, methanol
  • Ketones - acetone, MEK
  • Terpenes - d-limonene, pine oil

Specific Gravity - the ratio of the density of a material to the density of water.

Super-Concentrate - stronger mixture than a concentrate. This product, when initially diluted, becomes a concentrate that is diluted again before use.

Surface Active Agent - an organic chemical that, when added to a liquid, changes the properties of that liquid at a surface.

Surface Tension - the force required (usually expressed as dynes per square centimeter) to penetrate the surface of a non-agitated liquid.

Surfactants - surface-active agent that increases the emulsifying, dispersing and wetting properties of a solution. (Generally excludes non-synthetic detergent molecules.)

Swirl Remover - a very light grade polish formulated to remove only the lightest scratches with very fine, soft abrasives (below the scale of abrasives) and lots of lubricity. A byproduct of the lubricants is the ability to hide swirls as well as remove them.

Synergism - when two chemicals are combined and the combined effect of the chemical reaction is greater than either one acting independently.

Synthetic Detergent - a term describing washing and cleaning products based on synthetic surfactants rather than traditional soaps.

Talc - a finely divided hydrous magnesium silicate (also called talcum). Talc has the lowest defined rating on the Mohs scale, 1. Talc and many other powders are not considered abrasives, as they do not fall into the 6 to 10 Mohs range for hardness.

Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene, PTFE) - Teflon is a trade name of Du Pont Chemical for a polymer of tetrafluoroethylene. Teflon is powder that melts at 600ºF or dissolves in fluorinated solvents such as Freon. Teflon is one version of a group of chemicals classed as fluoropolymers, which have diverse applications and properties.

Thickening Agents - used to increase the viscosity (thickness) of liquid detergents.

TLV (Threshold Limit Value) - the concentration of a material that is upper limit and is safe for working with continuous exposure for an eight-hour period.

Touchless - the removal of soil with chemical and high pressure only, no mechanical agitation.

Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) - an alkaline substance used as a cleaning compound. Environmental laws prohibit its sale in some regions. Because it contains phosphate, a fertilizer, it encourages growth of mildew and mold.

UN Regulated Material - those chemicals or blends that by their chemical nature are deemed regulated by the U.S. DOT and the shipment of which is closely controlled and permitted only by trained and certified individuals.

USDA Approval - a cleaning formulation that has been approved for use in stated applications, typically in food processing plants.

Use-Dilution - the final concentration at which a product is used.

Viscosity - “thickness” of a liquid. The property of a fluid that resists internal flow by releasing counteracting forces. The capability of a solid to yield continually under stress.

Washing Soda - a common name for a commercial form of hydrated sodium carbonate. It is also called “salt soda” and “soda”. Washing soda is used as a detergent booster.

Water Hardness - soluble metal salts, principally those of calcium and magnesium (and sometimes iron and manganese) that when present in water in sufficient amounts create cleaning problems. In the case of soap, insoluble soap curds are formed. In general, water hardness reduces the ability of surfactants to perform their cleaning function. Hardness is expressed in grains per gallon (gpg), grains per liter (gpl), or parts per million (ppm). One gpg equals 17.1 ppm. Water essentially free of calcium and magnesium is described as soft; if appreciable amounts of either or both are present, it is called hard.

Wax - waxes form a broad category of organic (contain carbon) materials that do not fall into any one chemical family but are generally classed as lipids (for lack of a better place to put them). A material is called a wax if it 1) is a solid at room temperature, 2) melts at a fairly low point (called thermoplastic) and 3) does not fall into the category of polymer. The properties of waxes cover a large span of specifications but the “specs” that are important to automobile waxes are 1) hardness, 2) melting point 3) water repellency and 4) resistance to breakdown by environmental factors. There are many waxes available that fit the specifications for a good automobile wax. They include vegetable waxes (carnauba), animal waxes (bees wax), mineral petroleum waxes (paraffin and microcrystalline), mineral fossil waxes (montan), and (despite the apparent contradiction) synthetic waxes (short chain ethylene polymers).

Wetter - see Wetting Agents.

Wetting Agents - a compound that increases the ability and speed with which a liquid displaces air from a solid surface, thus improving the process of wetting that surface. It reduces the surface tension of water, allowing it to spread - or absorb more freely.

Zephiran - a benzalkonium chloride solution used when skin (not eyes) comes in contact with any acidic product used for aluminum brightening.


*ASTM (American Society of Test Methods) definitions.



Class of Compound

Major Function

Basic Alkalis (e.g. carbonates, caustics, silicates)

Soil displacement by emulsifying, saponifying and peptizing


Mineral deposit control and removal; water softening


Wetting and penetrating soils; dispersion of soils; prevention of soil redeposition

Complex phosphates (e.g. tripolyphospate or pyrophosphate)

Soil displacement by emulsifying and peptizing; dispersion of soil; water softening; prevention of soil depositions

Chelating Compounds

Water softening; mineral deposit control; soil displacement by peptizing; prevention of redepositions


Improves peptizing action of alkalis. Has poor sanitizing action when used at pH above 12


An effective detergent must have the following properties:

  1. Quick penetrating and wetting power.
  2. Ability to control water hardness.
  3. High detergent power for soil removal.
  4. Suspending power to keep the removed soil from redepositing on equipment surfaces.
  5. Rinseability.
  6. Non-corrosiveness to equipment being cleaned.

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