The science behind keeping a car clean in winter
Sure, cleaning products keep your car sparkly. But how do they work? Get your waterproof lab coat on, because we're getting all science up in here
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As anyone who's watched Breaking Bad will know, understanding science can lead to great things. Unless you're making illicit substances of course, in which case it can lead to all sorts of complications involving gangs and shooting and lying to your family, but we're not talking about that. We're talking about cleaning cars.
It's always a good idea to keep your car clean, not just for vanity but because it'll prolong the life of the car's paint, wheels and other materials. This is especially true in winter, when the harsh conditions – plus treatment used on the roads – can cause trauma to unprotected and untreated paintwork, alloys, and well, everything else on your car.
But all that said, why is this the case? What does cleaning your car actually... do? How do the various products work? To find out, we asked our friends at car cleaning firm Gtechniq. They spend all their time Doing Science to ensure their products discombobulate dirt and excommunicate grime from your car. Our words, not theirs. But if anyone can play Walter White to our enthusiastic but slightly idiotic Jesse Pinkman, it's them. So, here's what does what, and why.
Your car ain't getting clean if you don't get the dirt off it to start with, so a good wash of the paintwork is the best place to start. Gtechniq's W1 Gwash uses, "high quality surfactants specifically designed with the correct hydrophilic/lipophilic balance to effectively disperse the dirt and grime that builds up from driving on British roads," they said.
After nodding in agreement, we looked up some of those words. A surfactant is a compound that lowers the tension between two surfaces; in other words, it encourages the dirt to get the hell out of here. The hydrophilic/lipophilic balance determines how water soluble that surfactant is versus how oil soluble it is, and getting that right is crucial to, once again, telling dirt to scram.
Once you've given the car a first wash, you need to get serious, and that's when you break the foam out, coating the car in suds that'll get to work on the more stubborn grime. Gtechniq's W4 Snow Foam also uses surfactants (they're pretty useful in car cleaning) but they're formulated to produce lots of dense, stable foam, meaning they'll stay in place on your car and keep working, rather than just sliding off.
"The in-can viscosity has been designed to optimise mixing in the snow foam lance," say the experts. "The pH is balanced to optimise the cleansing power of the surfactants to breakdown traffic film while still being 100% coating safe." In other words, it's got an acid/alkaline balance that's enough to eat away muck but not dissolve your paint.
The all-purpose cleaner
Cleaning your car isn't just about the paintwork – you'll need to tackle other parts of the car too if you want to keep it spick and span. A product like Gtechniq's W5 Citrus All Purpose Cleaner mixes surfactants and an oil from citrus fruits to cut through general traffic film and contamination from a range of different surfaces across the car. But don't drink it, no matter how delicious it smells. No, not even with a mixer.
The ironing. Wait, that's not right...
It's not just mud that gets your car all mucky. Whenever you use the brakes, bits of the pads and discs are worn away and hurled into your car. They contain, among other things, ferrous oxide, better known as iron. And what does iron do? It rusts, and expands, damaging your paintwork. Bad.
An iron remover, such as Gtechniq's W6 Iron and Fallout Remover, tackles this issue at a chemical level. Once again, we've got a surfactant that sprays on in microfoam form to make sure it stays in place and gets to work for longer. It also contains corrosion inhibitors that'll help to protect any exposed metal.
"The main active ingredient is sodium thioglycolate, which is a reducing agent," says Gtechniq. This reacts with iron and other fallout particles on the paint surface and dissolves them into a bright purple solution, so you can see just how much nonsense is being washed away.
Tar very much
While the above products can give most dirt on your car the old heave-ho, there are some nasties that can get flung into your paintwork that need some extra work. Tar, used in road surfaces, is especially hardcore stuff, and to get rid of it needs a hardcore product. Think of W7 Tar and Glue Remover as the special forces of car cleaning products.
Tar is a mixture of hydrocarbons (organic compounds) including polycyclics, aromatic hydrocarbons like naphthalene, anthracene and phenanthrene, as well as phenolic compounds, creosote and pitch. In other words, bad news that requires some equally serious science to dissolve it. As we all know from watching too many action movies, to defeat your enemy you must think like your enemy. So, W7's formulation isn't actually that different from the tar itself, and uses aromatic hydrocarbons to soften and dissolve lumps of tar, as well as glue.
Crucially, it does this without the need to agitate the product; rubbing the surface when there's tar on it will do your paintwork finish no favours at all. But this does mean that it's pretty hazardous stuff, and one that you should only put on painted surfaces, as it'll damage plastic, rubber and headlights. Oh, and skin. Don't get it on your skin.
Splattering bugs is an unfortunate byproduct of motoring, and the results are more than just unsightly. The resulting mess is often acidic, which can eat into your paintwork, and it's also prone to bacteria growth that can do even more damage. Get rid of it, especially before the weather heats up and basically cooks the bugs onto your car. It'll make cleaning a dirty grill pan seem like child's play.
A dedicated anti-splatter product, like Gtechniq's W8 Bug Remover, uses emulsifiers, degreasers and anti-soiling compounds. An emulsifier is a type of surfactant. Once again, a good bug remover will be formulated to balance the pH level so that it eats into the bug remnants without eating into the paintwork.