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5 Simple Ways to Use Isopropyl Alcohol in Detailing

Of all the products used in auto detailing, isopropyl alcohol—also called isopropanol or IPA for short—might not even be on your radar. This extremely common liquid does have its place in certain detailing applications like paint correction.

In any pharmacy, you’ll typically see isopropyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol sold in a 16-ounce container. A bottle of rubbing alcohol typically contains a lower percentage of isopropyl alcohol mixed with water and other additives.

For detailing purposes, opt for pure isopropyl alcohol labeled as such. Isopropyl alcohol contains alcohol and only at anywhere from a 70% to 99% alcohol-to-water ratio.

Why isopropyl alcohol is used in detailing

Many detailers and hobbyists use isopropyl alcohol because it’s a cheap and easy way to remove greasy or oil substances that tend to cling to glass or paint…and can’t be removed with soap alone. On a molecular level, isopropyl alcohol can remove non-polar compounds like fats, oils, and gasoline.

Quick Tip

Always dilute isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle using distilled water as a first step. This ensures contaminants found in tap water won’t get mixed in.

Now that you know the basics, here are 5 safe ways to use isopropyl alcohol as part of your detailing process.

1. Prepping a car’s paint before polishing or adding protection

Many people use isopropyl alcohol before the scratch polishing process because it cleanses the paint of old wax or oils. When using a compound or polish product, you want the abrasives in these products to cut through your car’s clear coat to remove the scratch. After all, scratches are just microscopic jagged grooves in the clear coat layer.

wax

When substances like wax are left on car paint, they can cause polishing pads to slide instead of cutting. Wax is great because it hides scratches…unless you’re trying to remove them via polishing.

Isopropyl alcohol preps paint for ceramic coatings

If you plan to apply a ceramic coating to exterior surfaces like paint or chrome, isopropyl alcohol will remove wax or oils so ceramics or graphene coatings bond better.

Many people also clay their vehicle’s exterior surface before applying a paint sealant or coating, because the clay picks up surface contaminants. Think of a clay bar in this case like exfoliating your car’s skin; tiny jagged particles get lodged in your car’s skin (clear coat) and can cause the surface to feel rough to the touch.

Once clayed, it’s a good idea to use diluted isopropyl alcohol to cleanse the surface of clay lube or any soap remaining after hand washing.

2. Removing haze from a windshield, car windows, or mirrors

Isopropyl alcohol is a quick way to remove light grease or oil on your windshield when glass cleaners are ineffective.

haze on windshield

Detailing sprays do help remove water spots on a relatively clear surface, but often won’t remove grease and oil. When using isopropyl alcohol on windshields, just be careful not to get any on trim pieces as it may discolor them.

Detailing a vehicle with a bunch of old car stickers or decals on the back glass? Products like Goo-Gone work pretty well to remove sticky residue, but isopropyl alcohol can work well in some cases. I’ll often use isopropyl alcohol to remove the greasy film left behind by an adhesive remover.

3. Removing sticker residue or tree sap

If you need to remove tree sap and other sticky substances, isopropyl alcohol is much safer than products like Goof-off and other acetone-based products that can damage painted surfaces.

sticker on sticker

4. Headlight lens restoration

Headlight lens restoration kits can work wonders, but they do get messy. Isopropyl alcohol is a good product to use in between wet sanding stages to evaluate your work.

sandpaper on headlight lens

Check out our tutorial on clearing up hazy headlight lenses to learn how to clear up your headlights in a few simple steps.

All you need are a few clean microfiber towels, a sandpaper kit, and an isopropyl alcohol solution.

5. Removing polish residue

You can also use isopropyl alcohol to remove car polish. Once a compound or liquid polish does its job of removing a scratch, you’ll want to cleanse the surface of all polish residue.

polish

With a quick IPA panel wipe, you can see whether or not the scratch has been removed.

Frequently asked questions

Can isopropyl alcohol damage paint?

Isopropyl alcohol at full strength can damage paint for classic cars that didn’t come with a clear coat. While clear coats on modern vehicles do act as strong protective coating, even these coatings can become weak when exposed to strong acids. If used at higher concentrations continually (like every week), isopropyl alcohol can slowly chew through the clear coat until you reach the paint layer.

What is an IPA wipedown?

An IPA wipedown is the term people use that refers to spraying on and wiping off diluted isopropyl alcohol to a vehicle’s clear coat. IPA-or isopropyl alcohol-is diluted in a spray bottle with water, sprayed on, and wiped off with a microfiber towel.

What isopropyl alcohol dilution ratio is best for detailing?

A 50% to 50% water to isopropyl alcohol ratio is generally a good starting point for detailing, but only for clear-coated vehicles. For best results, start with a 1/10 to 5/10 isopropyl alcohol to water ratio as a good starting point.

When should you not use isopropyl alcohol on a vehicle?

If painting a vehicle, you’re better off using a professional paint prep product instead of isopropyl alcohol. Isopropyl alcohol evaporates pretty quickly whereas paint prep products are a bit easier to apply as they stay in liquid form much longer.

Tips for using isopropyl alcohol in detailing

  • Always dilute isopropyl alcohol. Undiluted isopropyl alcohol can eat away at your clear coat over time.
  • Use isopropyl alcohol on an as-needed basis…not after every wash.
  • Don’t apply pressure when wiping…the alcohol will do the work.
  • The alcohol percentage does not matter as long as you dilute it correctly.
  • Purchase a spray bottle and distilled water; a 24-ounce spray bottle works well.
  • Avoid contact with eyes and wash your hands before removing contact lenses.
  • Don’t use isopropyl alcohol to clean interior surfaces; alcohol can discolor vinyl, leather, and other surfaces
  • Wear protective gloves so your hands don’t dry out

Just getting started with auto detailing? Start here

New to detailing and have a long way to go? You’re in the right place.

At Carwash Country, our mission is to make washing and detailing easy. With over 200 free guides, we hope you’ll be encouraged to learn new things that lead to impressive results.

If you’re a beginner, check out our video course, Washing and Detailing for Beginners.

It’s the perfect place to start for an immersive educational experience to learn the best way to wash and detail your vehicle. Happy detailing!

Ready to improve your washing and detailing skills?

This video course unpacks the fundamentals of washing and detailing. From exterior cleaning and blemish removal…you’ll learn the secrets that will give you spotless pro-level results!

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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