All About Swirl Marks

The short answer: Busy Bee Car Wash did not make the swirl marks on your vehicle’s finish. But we can help you fix them!
We’ve been washing cars since 1969, and we stake our business on producing a clean, shiny car without damage, including swirl marks. With close to 50 years in the car wash business, we feel we can say this with authority. That’s the short answer.

The longer response provides information about swirl marks – what they are, what causes them and other information to help you understand why we can say with confidence that Busy Bee does not create swirl marks.

Let’s first define what “swirl marks” are so that we have the same understanding – when we’re writing and not physically seeing the vehicles paint finish. Swirl marks are circular microscopic imperfections on the surface of 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 clear coat and are a result of imperfections or micro-fracturing in the paint itself. Most cars will develop swirls, cracking, and other surface marring in their lifespans to one degree or another. These can usually be resolved or minimized with professional and regular wax treatments.

Even the most cursory of online search (or dinner conversation) will turn up loads of anecdotal information about automated car washes causing swirl marks and reveals the incredibly strong feelings many people have about the relationship between these abrasions and automatic car washing, in particular with friction cleaning systems. It’s often just assumed as common knowledge that car wash brushes are too harsh, scraping vehicles and marring the clear coat, or the brush material (and sometimes even the water in the high pressure hoses) becomes impacted with dirt and grit, which in turn is spread from vehicle to vehicle, resulting in scratches.

But as usual the truth is more complicated and can be much more interesting, whether you’re a car enthusiast or a car washer!

Car paints, coatings and finishes, and car wash chemicals and cleaning technology have changed and advanced a great deal over the past few decades. Busy Bee Car Wash has the most up-to-date equipment installed in South Florida. The perceptions were created back in the early days of car washes, because up until as recent as a decade, most of the wash power came from scrubbing action rather than liquid solutions or detergent action or wash pressure. When most of the cleaning had to be done with brushes and friction, the degree of friction was ramped up with brushes that took off more of the dirt but had a greater impact on the surface as a result. Older style brushes were more abrasive and often worked with less lubrication, which in combination with single stage paint jobs, made minor scuffing a regular occurrence.

Today it is virtually unheard of when a professional car washer cleans and maintains their equipment. Busy Bee Car Wash has dedicated staff to perform meticulous day and evening maintenance checks, and other safeguards in place to prevent anything that could cause damage to our customers’ automobiles. Some of the safeguards in place are water filtration systems, measured detergent application, water PH level testing and high pressure washing, and all cloth cleaning material has zero nylon.

Back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s was the height of using nylon brushes and were famous for creating swirl marks. Today our cloths rely on a closed cell foam material that lacks any structure that could conceivably capture dirt or grit, in other words: is a highly engineered cloth made from densely woven cotton or polyethylene microfibers. The foam and microfiber (which feels fuzzy like yarn with the consistency of a heavy cardstock and is used for underwater curtains or faux-kelp in major aquariums) are both continually primed with body soap and fresh water, removing any debris and providing lubrication between the brushes and the body of the vehicle. They’re safe to use and the overwhelming majority of patrons never have any issues—even after repeated washing.

But what about the occasional customer who does report scuffing and swirl marks? There are a number of reasons why swirl marks occur and each of which holds truth depending upon the situation.

Single stage paint: 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 in both hand washes and automatic washes. Antique and high end cars should always 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 more easy 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). At Busy Bee, we cringe when we hear people feel that home bucket washing is more “safe” and we know that’s not true.)

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 more closely after they have paid for a car wash, they are more likely to spot preexisting damage and blame it on the wash—even if the type or pattern of damage is clearly inconsistent with the action of the car wash’s components. When we review scratches, we know to compare the scratches or swirl marks to the pattern of our brushes. If the swirl marks go in a different direction, then we know it wouldn’t be possible for our equipment to make them. Additionally, Busy Bee has a surveillance video that reviews the vehicle prior to entering the car wash, and can most times identify any scratches prior to entering the tunnel, so that we can discuss perception bias.

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 these brand new vehicles are driven that wax begins to break down, and when they go through the car wash the first time exposure to detergents and cleaning can actually thin and polish the original wax further, bringing out existing imperfections that had not been visible before (and often enraging the new car’s owners). 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. New car owners typically feel that their new cars do not need wax, but new car owners with black or blue vehicles are typically the customers that accuse Busy Bee of making the swirl marks, and what they are experiencing is this dealer gloss that is wearing thin. Regular waxing eliminates this. (Our wax detailing starts at only $35.)

But how can our customer determine if Busy Bee’s equipment were to make the damage?
If the brushes or chemicals in the wash were to damage a vehicle, the pattern of damage would be expected to follow very specific patterns matching the motion and action of the equipment used, and typical swirl marks usually don’t fit the bill.

It’s also important to note that there is a science, or chemistry to cleaning vehicles. Many believe it’s just soap, water and friction that cleans the car – but it really is a science. The science takes into account PH level of water which allows which allows our cleaning solutions lift most typical vehicle soils up from the finish, always maintaining a barrier between the vehicle’s finish. Home and bucket washing, or using car wash systems that aren’t well maintained (such as the unattended gas station type car washes), unprofessional detailers using old or dirty cleaning supplies are more likely to cause damages.

So now you’ve gotten the long response, and hope you feel comfortable trusting Busy Bee to clean your new vehicle without fear.