Learn the importance and benefits of properly cleaning vehicle wraps and graphics from one of the experts.

The team at 3M Graphics South Africa thought this would be a good opportunity to explain why it is important as well as the benefits of cleaning vehicle wraps and graphics. We’ll highlight the recommended cleaning methods as well as mention a couple of cleaners and waterless washes that 3M Graphics South Africa has found that work well.

Why Clean?

It surprises us how often we see or hear about wraps that are not cared for properly (or even cared for at all), especially when the wraps are being used to advertise a business. We’ve heard stories from wrap companies where they had to do a repair after 6 months and found that the grease pencil marks used by the installer for alignment were still on the vehicle. This is a very good indication that the owner / driver of the wrapped vehicle is not cleaning the wrap. Regular cleaning of a wrapped vehicle will not only help keep the wrap looking good for longer, it is also going to provide a better advertisement for a business. Just think, if someone doesn’t care enough to clean their company vehicle what kind of work can you expect them to do for you?
In addition to keeping the car looking good, regular cleaning of a wrap is important because it can help prolong the life of the graphics. This is especially important in areas of high elevation and congested urban or industrial areas.
In congested urban or industrial areas, increased smog, pollutants and particulates in the atmosphere will cause reduced durability on the horizontal areas of the wrap. The horizontal areas trap the chemicals on the surface of the material and the increased UV exposure results in shorter durability.
These effects can be reduced with regular cleaning which will remove the pollutants and particulates that can damage the wrap. Applying an approved wax, after cleaning, will help to provide added UV protection, especially for the horizontal areas.

Why clean

How to clean?

The best way to clean a wrap is to do it the old fashioned way, by hand with a mild detergent and water. Going through an automatic wash with just spray is acceptable if there is no other way to clean the vehicle. We recommend skipping the wax option at the car wash to avoid wax that contains petroleum distillate, which can damage the wrap. The automated brush wash is an absolute no-no. The brushes may catch the edge of the decal or graphics and create a failure point. The brushes may also cause some scratches in your wrap.
For hand cleaning, use a detergent and water mix with a soft cloth or sponge. 3M Graphics South Africa recommends the detergent be a dedicated car wash product or a mild detergent. The detergent should be free from abrasive components, have a pH balance between 3 and 11, and be free from strong solvents or alcohols.
You can hand wash a wrap just like a painted car. The first step is to rinse the vehicle with clean water, this will help avoid scratching the graphics, and then gently agitate a soapy mild detergent and water solution with a soft cloth or a synthetic or natural sponge, starting from the top of the vehicle and working down. Avoid abrading the film surface with unnecessary scrubbing. It is important to rinse the graphic thoroughly with clean water when finished. Allow the water to dry naturally or dab dry with a chamois or a soft non-abrasive towel, being careful not to lift the film edges.

If you must use a pressure washer, be sure to follow these guidelines:

Keep water pressure below 1200 psi
Keep water temperature below 180 degrees F (80 C)
Keep the nozzle at least 12 inches away from edges
Keep the nozzle perpendicular to the graphic (this will avoid chipping or lifting the edge of the graphics)
Use a nozzle with a 40 degree wide angle spray pattern
Excessive pressure or spraying at the wrong angle with a pressure washer can cause damage and create failure points in your graphics.

Another good cleaning option is to use waterless washes to clean a wrap. These products can help maintain the gloss level and performance of the film. If the vehicle is not overly dirty, this is our preferred option. We’ve found that products, such as Turtle Ice, work well to clean and also put a nice shine on the wrap. If the waterless wash contains wax, do not use it on a matte wrap as that will create glossy spots. Before using any new product on your wrap, be sure to test them in an inconspicuous area of the vehicle before using it on the entire car.
The waterless washes are great options as long as the vehicle isn’t too dirty in the first place. For vehicles that are very dirty, it is recommended to wash by hand first then use the waterless wash for your final touches.
For difficult to remove contaminants, such as bird droppings, bug splatter, tree sap, etc., try to soften them by soaking for several minutes with hot, soapy water then rinse thoroughly. If a harsher chemical is needed, be sure to test first in an inconspicuous area. Avoid using abrasive tools that may scratch the graphics.

Can I wax?

As long as the wax does not contain petroleum distillates then, yes, it is OK and encouraged to wax your wrap. Products like Turtle Wax Ice are actually a combination waterless wash and wax and are a great option as long as the vehicle isn’t too dirty.

Maintenance tips about your wrapped vehicle and products

Matte Films

There are obviously a few exceptions for matte films. You don’t want to wax these films because it will fill in the texture and cause shiny spots. For matte films, Aquinil makes a waterless wash that can be used. We’ve also found that using a 50/50 mix of isopropyl alcohol and water will work well to clean your car. Lighter colours like matte or carbon fiber white are prone to showing more dirt than other colours. If the alcohol and water mix does not cut the dirt, you can try using a hot soapy water solution like we recommended for removing bird droppings and bug splatter, sometimes the soap and water can remove contaminants better than isopropyl alcohol. You can also try an all-purpose cleaner such as Simple Green which can be purchased at your local hardware store.
In all cases, we recommend you clean the vehicle in a shaded area. We found that we ended up with more streaks when we cleaned in the sun versus pulling the vehicle into the garage.
3M Graphics South Africa has found that the following products work well. Reference the bottle and see if they are meant to be a waterless wash, wax or waterless wash/wax combination:

Gloss Vinyl      Matte Vinyl

Turtle Wax Ice
Aquinil Waterless Wash by Croftgate
Croftgate Wrap Care After Care JP
Whoosh Tint & Vinyl Cleaner
Four Star Ultimate Spray Wax Plus
Aquinil Waterless Wash by Croftgate (version for matte films)
Isopropyl alcohol diluted with 50% water
Simple Green

Basically: Keeping your wrap clean and protecting it with wax will help preserve digitally printed and paint replacement car wraps.