Regular professional car washes can keep a vehicle looking great for years. And with the state-of-the-art technology in our washes at Tommy’s Express, it’s easier than ever to maintain shine.

So how did we get here?

Car wash materials and cleaning instruments have certainly changed with time.

Previously, most wash power came from scrubbing action instead of detergents or water pressure. The degree of friction was often ramped up with brushes that took off more dirt but had a greater impact on the surface.

Older-style brushes were more abrasive and often worked with less lubrication. Combined with single-stage paint jobs, older-style brushes made minor scuffing or car wash swirl marks a more regular occurrence.

What are car paint swirls?

Car paint swirls are circular microscopic imperfections on the surface of different vehicles, best seen on black or dark blue cars when illuminated by a single light source (like the sun). They are not to be confused with cracking or spider webs, both of which lie beneath the clearcoat and are a result of imperfections (or micro-fracturing) in the paint itself.

Some consumers avoid car washes because they fear damage. Car wash brushes are said to be too harsh, scraping vehicles and marring the clearcoat, or the brush material (and sometimes even the water in the high-pressure hoses) is said to be full of dirt and grit that is spread from vehicle to vehicle, resulting in scratches.

But today this damage is virtually unheard of. Well-maintained modern express car washes have several safeguards in place to prevent car wash swirl marks or customer damage. Advancements have been made in water filtration, detergent application, high-pressure washing, and in the friction cleaning material.

Today’s soft cloths have forgone the nylon brushes that were famous for leaving brush marks in the 1970s and 80s and instead rely on a closed-cell foam material that lacks any structure that could conceivably capture dirt or grit. The foam and microfiber are continually primed with both soap and fresh water, removing any debris, and providing much-needed lubrication between the brushes and the body of the vehicle. They’re safe to use and most patrons never have any issues—even after repeated washing.

What causes car paint swirls?

There are several theories about how car paint swirls show up.

  • Non-standard paint jobs: High-quality foreign cars in dark blue or black are sometimes still painted with old-fashioned single-stage paint, resulting in a more fragile clear coat that is more easily affected by regular washing materials (both in hand washes and automatic washes). The same goes for matte paint. In general, any antique or special high-end car surface should be cleaned with great care.
  • Revealing wear and tear: As a car wash cleans a car, it can reveal imperfections and scratches that had previously been obscured by dirt and dust. The cleaner the car, the easier it is to spot regular lines and nicks that can result from blowing sand, particle debris on highways, and even damage from improper hand washing practices like one-bucket washes, dishwasher soap, and artificial sponge use (which have been shown to be far more damaging to vehicle exteriors than most auto owners realize).
  • Perception bias: Nearly every car on the road has marks of one kind or another, regardless of how it is cleaned or maintained. Usually, you only see them when you are looking for them, and then when you spot a problem it’s all you can see! Because smart consumers look very closely after their car washes, they are more likely to spot preexisting damage and assume it happened in the wash.
  • Wax layering: New cars fresh from the dealer usually have a heavy, brand-new coat of professionally applied wax to protect them from the elements, improve their gloss, and disguise those very same cracks and spider-lines we mentioned in the opening paragraph. As vehicles are driven that wax begins to break down. When they go through the car wash, the first-time exposure to detergents and friction cleaning can thin and polish the original wax further, bringing out existing imperfections that had not been visible before. A fresh coat of professionally applied wax easily corrects the issue, which is normally only present on very dark vehicles or vehicles with certain flat paint tones.

If the brushes or detergents in the wash were to damage a vehicle, the pattern of damage would follow very specific patterns matching the motion and action of the equipment used, and car paint swirls don't fit the bill.

Car washes and car safety

For more information about car wash technology, and how we make a modern wash both safe and effective for customer vehicles, read our blog about car washes and car safety.

With over 50 years in the car wash business, our expert team of engineers and operators know what works and what doesn’t in an express wash. Our research and development drives innovation to produce new, more effective ways to make the wash the best it can be.