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Auto Detail Defined

What “Auto Detail” Means

For many, the term “auto detail” means a wash & wax for the exterior and vacuum and wipe down of the interior. However, this is an entry-level auto detail service that most professional detailers offer to acquire a new customer.

While most auto detailing shops offer an entry-level service such as a wash and wax, an “auto detail” implies much more. Within the professional detailing industry, an auto detail includes the use of specialized tools, products, and expertise in services such as paint correction, paint enhancement, protective coatings, and sealants, as well as specialty cleaners and equipment for your vehicle’s interior and glass.

Example of a hand wash and wax

This car is getting a hand wash and wax.

So, when considering an auto detail for your vehicle, it’s worth understanding what you are paying for versus what you expect as the result.

Entry Level “Auto Detailing”

Many professional detailers provide an entry level auto detail service for only a couple of hundred dollars, which typically consists of:

  • Pressure washing the exterior including wheels
  • Towel or blow dry
  • Spray wax
  • Vacuum carpet and seats
  • Wipe down the interior
  • Apply tire dressing

This level of auto detail typically lasts a few weeks before the spray wax no longer protects the vehicle and the shine begins to fade.

Complete “Auto Detailing”

A “Complete Auto Detail”, sometimes referred to as a Full Detail, includes an exterior and interior detail service.

  • Hand wash
  • Hand dry or blow dry
  • Manually cleaning the wheels and wheel bay, sometimes removing the wheels
  • Decontaminating the exterior to remove metals
  • Clay bar treatment of the clear coat
  • Machine buffing the exterior with compound
  • Machine polishing the exterior
  • Coating and sealant
    • Wax, most likely carnauba wax, or
    • A hybrid SiO2 ceramic wax coating, or
    • A professional level ceramic coating followed by a compatible sealant
  • Cleaning carpet and seats
  • Cleaning all trim and seat belts
  • Treating all interior with a protectant
  • Treating the upholstery as appropriate for leather, cloth or vinyl
  • Protecting the upholstery as appropriate for leather, cloth or vinyl
  • Cleaning exterior and interior glass
  • Optional power washing the engine bay
  • Optional treating engine bay plastic with protectant
  • Applying a UV dressing on the tires
Full Auto Detail Wash Step
auto detail
Hand wash
Auto Detail with Hybrid SiO2 wax
full detail
Full auto detail carpet cleaning
Full Auto Detail cleaning seats

This level of auto detail takes several hours and occasionally multiple days, depending upon the type of vehicle and the level of services provided. Professional detailers utilize specialty tools and products, such as dual-action polishers, high quality micro-fiber towels, specialty coatings and sealants, steamers, extractors, specialty glass cleaning towels, drill brushes, wheel and tire brushes and more. Depending upon whether your vehicle gets a hybrid or full ceramic coat, it will maintain a shine for 12-60 months with proper care. In fact, some ceramic coatings come with multiple year warranties.

A full auto detail typically starts at $299 for a daily driver vehicle and can go up to as much as $5,000 for exotic show vehicles. It is up to you, the customer, to communicate what your expectation is for the amount you are willing to invest in your vehicle’s care.

For instance, if your budget is $400, rather than having your vehicle compounded and polished, your detailer might suggest an “All-in-One” compound/polish/shine product that will make your vehicle look fantastic and fit within that budget. Similarly, if your budget is $800 you might opt for a hybrid ceramic wax that will look awesome and cost much less than a professional level ceramic coating, which typically range from $1,000-$3,000. A hybrid sealant will last 6 months whereas a ceramic coating can last several years.

When a professional details an interior, it is more than a mere vacuum and wipe down. It might involve removing seats to treat stains, or a specialty treatment to rid a vehicle of a noxious smell. Or maybe you have a lot of pet hair in your vehicle. This requires a pet hair removal process that involves additional labor hours and money. Once again, talk to your detailer about what you want and what you are willing to spend. Then the detailer can provide options that meet your expectations. And don’t be afraid to ask questions and for a written estimate that clearly shows what you are purchasing.

full auto detailing
Full Auto Detail Service


A professional auto detail is not the same as a wash/wax/vacuum/wipe down. It requires communicating your desires with the detailer and agreeing on a level of service that meets your budget. Labor rates may vary depending on the service provided and the skill level of the technician providing the service. Your detailer can explain the difference in skill levels and associated labor rates. At the end of the day, you are the customer and it’s your vehicle. What you want and what you can invest in your vehicle’s care will determine how the technician approaches the job to meet your expectations.

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