Towels are an essential tool for detailers. However, there’s no one towel to rule them all. A single towel won’t be effective for all parts of the vehicle — nor should one towel be used for an entire vehicle. In this article, we’ll explore the best types of towels to use on the different parts of a vehicle as well as why you should keep them separate.

Towels versus chamois

Have you ever asked yourself, “Is it better to use a towel or a chamois?” If so, the best way to answer this question is to understand the difference between the two.

According to Alisa O’Banion, textile specialist at Texas Microfiber Inc., a chamois is a non-woven textile that can be made from virtually any type of fiber, whether natural or synthetic. The most common chamois are made from leather, cotton and polyester/polyamide fibers.

“A non-woven is a cloth that is ‘felted’ or compressed utilizing heat, agitation and moisture to bind the fibers together to create one cohesive cloth that can be cut and washed without unraveling,” O’Banion explains.

Although chamois are, in general, somewhat absorptive, Juliette Silver, CEO of Carwashworld/Panaram, does not suggest using a chamois to clean automobiles. “A chamois acts like a squeegee and pushes the water off the car, [whereas] a microfiber absorbs the water. This can be problematic, because the chamois will not absorb any water or wax that may be left on the surface. If there are a few particles of dirt left on the surface, you will be dragging that dirt all across the surface of [the] paint and cause fine scratches.”

Microfiber towels, on the other hand, both absorb water and remove dirt, trapping the filth in the towel so that it does not scratch surfaces. In this way, a microfiber towel can be used successively on a few cars. To that end, Valerie Sweeney, vice president of sales for ERC Wiping Products, notes that chamois are not a popular option in the car care industry. “The main types of towels sold to the carwash industry are cotton terry towels, lint-free huck towels and microfiber towels (which are both absorbent and lint-free).”

The case for pre-moistened towels

The next question you might ask yourself is: Should I use a pre-moistened towel imbued with chemicals or use a dry towel to which I apply chemical? The case can be made for either option.

According to Silver, “We never recommend using a dry towel on the surface of the car or the window.” Why? Silver states that a dry towel is more likely to move dirt around the car and windows as opposed to cleaning or buffing, and dry towels may also cause minor scratches on the paint.

Silver adds that washer extractors are pre-programmed to wash and extract at the perfect formulation, resulting in the towels being neither too soggy nor too dry for use. “[These] machines extract the towel to the exact dampness for optimum use in cleaning the windows and body of the car. A pre-injected window towel also utilizes less chemicals, which will save money,” she says, also noting that her company offers a patented formula that injects window cleaner onto the towels during the wash cycles.

“The moist towel will clean and buff the window much better than a dry towel. Using a damp microfiber towel, especially injected with hot glass window cleaner, will produce perfect windows every time and save on labor and chemicals. If you use a dry towel, you must use a spray bottle or can to add chemicals to the car’s surface or window. As indicated, this requires extra labor and will never produce a perfect window,” Silver states.

Related: How to clean automotive glass without scratching it

On the other hand, O’Banion argues, “Pre-moistened towels have their advantages, but they can dry out. Once the drying process starts, then the product’s performance becomes inconsistent from one vehicle to the next.” For that reason, the company O’Banion works for suggests using dry towels applied with chemicals, which it claims can also result in cost savings, since some chemicals can be diluted to serve for the detailer’s experience and craftsmanship as applied to each individual vehicle.

What to use on the body and windows

O’Banion notes that due to the “softer” automotive paints being used these days, whether as a result of environmental issues or to create special effects, “There is one thing we can all agree on, and that is a soft, absorptive and long, open-ended yarn is best for a smooth, non-scratching application or removal of detailing products.”

For instance, waterless carwashers use chemicals that do significant heavy-lifting to pull the dirt off the vehicle, but the cloth needs to pick up both the dirt and liquid in just a few motions for the sake of both efficiency and a better finished product.

For the body of the vehicle, O’Banion recommends a 600 gsm (grams per square meter) hi-hi, open-end yarn, sonic edge cut, microfiber cloth, which offers maximum absorbency and a smooth-handed wipe, resulting in a mirror finish on paint surfaces.

Both O’Banion and Silver specifically suggest the waffle-weave microfiber towel for all aspects of the car, including its dashboard, body and windows.

“[Waffle weave] technology is created by utilizing little squares to absorb water and dirt from the surface of the car. The squares trap the particles rather than move them around the surface, leaving a film or minor scratches,” notes Silver.

O’Banion adds, “This cloth is capable of removing the dashboard off-gassing ‘haze’ that is so familiar to us and our customers. You can literally remove all hazing with a dry cloth.”

According to O’Banion, waffle weave towels are woven as opposed to knitted, like typical microfiber cloths are (the latter are good for removing dust and debris). “These [waffle weaves] lay the microfiber on their sides and tightly weave the microfilaments together to create a stiffer hand, which provides that glass-cleaning performance.”

Sweeney notes that microfiber towels are the most popular choice for windows, as they are lint-free and won’t leave streaks, so long as they are cared for properly. Huck or surgical towels are the second most popular choice for windows; they are 100 percent cotton as well as lint-free. According to Sweeney, huck towels were the bestselling window towels in the past, but microfiber is now more widely used.

For drying the body of a car, Sweeney recommends using cotton terry towels or large microfiber towels, each typically sized at 16 by 27 inches.

Color-coding

One best practice Sweeney recommends that all carwashers and detailers put into place is color-coding their towels in order to assist in streamlining efficiency, preserving towel life and ensuring cleaner cars. For instance, many carwashers and detailers will buy at least two different colors of towels: one for windows and one for the car body. Or, some prefer to use terry towels on the body and microfiber or huck towels on the windows. “It is also suggested to use a lower-cost towel for tar and bug removal and wiping wheel wells and door jambs,” Sweeney adds.

The following are three reasons why Sweeney suggests color-coding towels:

  • The combination of chemicals in soaps and waxes don’t necessarily mix well with window cleaners.
  • The grease from door jambs and wheel wells can be difficult to remove from towels and will often cause streaking on glass.
  • Soaps and waxes build up and clog cotton fibers over time, making them less absorbent and more apt to streak.

As such, Sweeney adds that having distinct containers for your dirty towel disposal will keep the chemicals from each towel separate at all times. You also need to keep them separate when washing, and when doing so, you must drain and use fresh water for each load to keep chemicals completely separated.

Furthermore, Sweeney recommends keeping an inexpensive box of wiping rags around for maintenance work as well as a box of spill-control pads for spills, leaks and drips to reduce the chance that employees will use towels for the wrong purpose.

“In order to make sure that your coding is effective, it is necessary to train your employees to know which color, size or style is used on which part of the vehicle,” Sweeney adds.

In addition, you can have a separate bin with courtesy towels that your customers can borrow or a towel-exchange program at your carwash, where customers purchase a towel, use it for as long as they want and then exchange it for a new one on another visit. Towels in either of these cases should be monogrammed to remind customers where the towel belongs or where it should be returned to. Make sure to keep these separate from your other towels as well.

In conclusion, while the experts can present the cases for different types of towels, in the end, the ultimate choice of which towel to use is up to you. “Most detailers have a very specific way of applying and removing product,” O’Banion concludes. “They should try different types of cloths to assist in improving their experience with the ever-evolving chemicals and products being introduced into the marketplace.”