Plush to waffle weave, glass towels to wash pads, and even more recently polishing pads, microfiber has forever changed how shine freaks keep their cars looking great and how detailers correct, protect, and care for customers cars. The argument could be made that no single advancement in the world of car care has had a larger impact in the last decade than microfiber. Professionals and enthusiasts alike all keep a hefty supply of a wide variety of towels on hand at all times, but despite its omnipresence in the car care world there is still a fair amount of mis-information and mis-understanding as to how they should be cared for.
In this FAQ article I'll be covering the basics of cleaning and care for your microfiber towels and a little bit of background on what makes them the preferred choice of detailers.
WHAT IS MICROFIBER?
What good is it to get into all the minutia of microfiber if you don't first have an understanding of the materials composition and history?
Microfiber can be composed of many parts, most commonly in the detailing / car care industry we use a combination of polyesters and polyamides. These microscopic laboratory born fibers are around 1/100th the diameter of a human hair, this ultra fine thread is what gives microfiber its delicate touch and super soft feel. To put that size into perspective, if you were to think of a regulation basketball as the equivalent of the diameter of a human hair, an individual strand of microfiber would be smaller than an M&M chocolate candy!
Why is this important? While you might see a fluffy towel with your naked eye on a microscopic level there is a very tiny, but very uniform and durable strand there. Almost all microfiber will share an identical fiber structure, regardless of weave or pattern. How the fibers are laid out will impart different characteristics to the material (plush for delicate surfaces, waffle weave for drying, flat for glass, suede for coatings, etc)
Each individual strand has a star-like structure and all strands are virtually identical across the entire surface of a towel. If you could pull a fiber from one towel, and another from a different towel of similar quality and cross section them you'd likely not be able to tell them apart. This leads to a uniformly soft towel that performs the same regardless of fold or what portion is in contact with the surface. This is in stark contrast to the wild inconsistency of cotton fibers which can vary in shape and size from one strand to the next. (see the image below)
The star shaped structure on each strand allow microfiber to trap small particles, dirt, moisture and debris making them very effective for cleaning. Compared to the inconsistent, tube-like, shape of cotton which is absorbent, but not ideal for cleaning microfiber has a clear advantage.
WHERE DID MICROFIBER COME FROM?
These tiny man made textiles were actually being produced back as early as the 1950's though the applications were extremely limited. Technology at the time limited the had its limitations and it was next to impossible to produce long continuous strands in a consistent manner making it not only very expensive, but also very time consuming to produce. Technology began to catch up in the late 1960's when a team of Japanese researchers were able to produce microfibers in long continuous strands. This breakthrough lead to the adoption of microfiber for a variety of applications in the 1970's in the textiles industry. By the 1990's microfiber would gain popularity in the cleaning products market, but mostly in the janitorial and hospitality industries due to its sanitary properties and low tendency to shed or lint.
In the early 2000's I personally had my first experience with this new 'micro towel' a friend of mine had gotten his hands on. It was softer than the cotton diapers we were all used to using in those days and in the coming years we began to see more and more variety in towels available. A good friend and fellow detailer actually began importing these towels as a side business around 2002 and instantly the SoCal detail market began to change. Everyone wanted these incredible new towels.
In the years after that microfiber would explode and become widely accepted as the best option for any kind of detailing. The towels continued to improve and find new configurations - waffle weave, glass towels, foam core towels, applicators, and most recently the microfiber buffing pads. Its funny to think back on a time before microfiber, when a cotton diaper was the best option now, and even stranger to think that it wasn't all that long ago.
WHAT DOES 'WEIGHT' MEAN?
GSM or "Grams Per Square Meter" or "g/m2" is also referred to as the towels "weight". This measurement dictates the materials fiber density. In other words the relation between the mass of a towel and how much space or volume it takes up. Usually the higher the GSM the softer the towel. Plush owels for use on delicate surfaces should be at least 360gsm, but I personally prefer towels at least 460gsm or higher. Towels in the 200-350gsm range are best suited for non-delicate surfaces and tasks, like scrubbing leather seats or wiping off things under the hood.
Now, the GSM rating isn't always the best way to define a towel. For example a waffle weave towel may have a lower GSM, but thats due to the way its constructed not as much due to the quality of the material.
To be safe always buy your towels from a reputable source, and before jumping in with both feet test it in a small area to make sure its delicate enough for the job you're about to do. If you use a low GSM towel all over your car without first testing you'll have a lot of paint correcting to do!
USE THE RIGHT TOWEL FOR THE JOB
Because microfiber marks such a substantial investment in your detailing collection its important to do your best to preserve them to get the most use from them before they are retired. To this end its always a good idea to segment your towels into various types.
Plush or deep fibers are generally best for extremely delicate jobs, like wiping or polishing clear coat, while shorter or looped fibers have superior scrubbing and cleaning power. Waffle weaves offer the best absorbancy gram for gram and flat weave towels are ideal for non-delicate surfaces where streak free performance is paramount.
But don't just section your towels off by type! Sort your towels out in your collection for the jobs they're best suited for. Don't waste a good towel on a dirty job like wiping a door hinge or polishing metal. Preserve your best towels and retire old or stained towels to less important jobs.
WHATS CONTAMINATING YOUR TOWEL MAKES A DIFFERENCE
When you think about the contamination thats in your towels after a use you're talking about a pretty thick cocktail of polymers, waxes, oils, and other stubborn residues that need strong detergents to remove. For example waxes and sealants are products that BY DESIGN resist removal from detergents, water, heat, etc on your paint. A "good durable" wax or sealant is defined by its ability to resist detergents thru more than a few washes. These products behave no differently when buried deep within the fibers of your towels. Anyone whos tried to strip wash a sealant knows that sometimes it takes a pretty aggressive mix of All Purpose Cleaner to get it completely removed.
So knowing what kind of fight these products put up on your paint, why assume they'd be so much more easy going when bonded to a towel fiber? They aren't. This is why a stronger detergent or dedicated microfiber cleaner like Adam's Microfiber Revitalizer & Brightener is key to maintaining your towels. Removing product residues is just as important to your microfiber as any other part of their care and MFR&B was designed specifically to break down the things most commonly found in detailing towels.
The types of contamination found in automotive detailing towels will be far different than the soil, food, and grime found in other towels around your home. While a dish towel might have a combination of last nights spaghetti sauce and that mystery food goo from the fridge, your detailing towels will be full of polish, wax, and sealant residues. Because of this the type of detergent you choose is important.
Regular laundry soaps are still an effective option - most good detergents can remove most anything you find, or at the very least break them up enough to be effective. We've all seen the TV commercials where brand X removes grass stains, wine stains, ground in dirt - but I haven't seen one yet that says it'll remove carnauba wax and polymer sealants. Removing a grass stain from your socks is a much different proposition to removing a sealant from your towels.
The option to avoid, and one incorrectly recommended by amateurs all over the web, are 'delicate' detergents like woolite. Products in this category are lacking in the areas needed to really remove all the residues found in your towels. Sure, if you need to clean a silk shirt or delicate unmentionables by all means reach for your woolite, but we're dealing with tough residues embedded deep into very tiny fibers - use a detergent capable of getting the job done. While microfiber is important, and should be cared for appropriately, it is fairly durable stuff and can handle stronger detergents to make sure they are 100% clean. Weaker detergents will continually leave behind a small amount of detailing contamination, leading to a slow buildup and eventually hampered performance.
Your microfiber should be cleaned after every use. While it might be tempting to let that drying towel sit and use it again next weekend you run the risk of contamination causing swirls or letting something set into the towels that will be more difficult to remove later. Cleaning microfiber is usually the least enjoyable part of a detail, but in the end staying on top of your laundry just ensures that your towels will be at their best and ready when you are.
MICROFIBER PADS & APPLICATORS
HEAVY STAINS AND CONTAMINATION:
No matter what there is going to be occasions where a towel becomes extremely contaminated or stained from either something you removed from a vehicle (grease, oil, tar, etc) or it becomes saturated with a product to the point there is some discoloration. In these situations pre-treating or at the very minimum pre-soaking the microfiber to keep these stains from setting in is key. Obviously, you can't stop mid-detail and clean your microfiber accessories, so here are some quick tips to help with heavier contamination on the fly.
Where your towels are kept when they are not in use is just as important as how they are cared for, so make sure you have a solution for keeping your towels out of harms way and dust free between uses. Plastic storage totes are an inexpensive solution - the lid will keep your towels from collecting dust in an area like a garage and will also minimize the amount of crawly insects that might find a new home buried in all that plush softness.
Always be sure your microfiber is completely dry before storage. Mildew will form on towels in some climates if they are even slightly damp. This is especially true of microfiber applicators and pads. The foam backing and cores is a magnet for moisture avoid using air tight containers for anything with a foam core or backing unless you are completely confident it is dry all the way through.
BOILING YOUR TOWELS:
Over time your microfiber may become contaminated past the point it can be completely cleaned using traditional methods. Typically this will present itself during use - drying towels will begin to feel less absorbent. Plush towels may lint slightly or smear products more than remove them. This is an indication that the fibers are 'full' either from residues deposited during use or things like fabric softener accidentally introduced during cleaning.
In any event, if your towels begin to loose their performance or just don't feel as good as they did new boiling is the solution, the last resort, to bring them back. NOTE: this process applies only to towels and microfiber without foam cores or backing. Never boil pads or applicators.
NOTE: Should boiling fail to bring absorbancy to a towel or the towel continues to lint then you are most likely dealing with a towel at the end of its lifespan. Retire the towel to less important tasks and replace with a new one for future use.
HOW LONG WILL A TOWEL LAST?
There really is no set answer to that question. Depending on how frequently they are used, how well they are cared for, and the types of products they're used with a towel can last for a very short or very long time. On average a towel should last the average user at least a year or two. Understand that no towels are good forever, they wear out eventually like any other product that sees frequent use.
If you experience diminished performance after some time and try the recommended boiling method it might be time to retire that towel and replace it with a new one. Your vehicle is a big investment and towels by comparison are a relatively small price in making sure it stays looking nice.
One thing is for certain - the better care you take of your microfiber towels and accessories, the better they'll do at caring for your vehicles.