The Paint Protection Film (PPF) has been a popular choice for protecting a car’s surface from chips, scratches, and other forms of chemical and physical damage, coming in the form of thin, clear thermoplastic urethane film that is applied to the car’s exterior.
PPF was originally invented during the Vietnam War in the 1970s to protect helicopter blades from debris, it was then used to protect high-end race cars in the 1980s, but now it’s widely available to the average car owner.
Simply put, PPF is a great investment to improve your vehicle’s longevity and resale value, but it is crucial to know how to clean and maintain it properly.
This article is written for those who have invested in PPF for their cars or are currently considering getting one for their car. We will cover everything you need to know about how to clean PPF (Paint Protection Film,) and we’ll also share some actionable tips for maintaining PPF and dealing with issues common with PPF.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of how to make the most of your PPF, how to maintain your car’s appearance, and how to maximize your car’s resale value.
Without further ado, let us begin:
Understanding PPF (Paint Protection Film)
PPF, or Paint Protection Film, is a thin and clear thermoplastic urethane film that is applied to the car’s exterior to protect the paint job from physical damage (chips, scratches, accumulation of debris) and chemical damage (exposure to acid rain, UV rays, gasoline splash, etc.)
PPF is self-healing. Meaning it can repair scuffs and small scratches on its surface on its own.
Different types of PPF
There are two primary types of PPF available in the market, each with its own unique features and limitations: pre-cut and custom fit. Both types are available in varying thicknesses; the thicker the film, the more protection it offers.
- Pre-cut PPF
Pre-cut Paint Protection Film, as the name suggests, is designed to fit only a specific car model, coming in pre-cut sections that will specifically fit each section of the vehicle (i.e., the fenders, the hood, doors, mirrors, etc.)
Pre-cut PPF is typically cheaper than the alternative—custom fit PPF—making it a great option for those who want to protect their car’s surface and paint job but don’t want to spend too much.
- Custom-fit PPF
Custom-tailored PPF is specifically customized for your vehicle’s unique contours, sizes, and curves, so you’ll get a seamless appearance and fit with no-gap optimal protection. Custom-fit PPF is typically more expensive than pre-cut PPF in return for the precise fit and superior protection.
Similar to pre-cut PPF, custom-fit PPF also comes in varying thicknesses, the thicker the films, the more protection you’ll get. Since it is custom-tailored, it may cover the whole vehicle or can only be applied to specific sections of the car (i.e., only the hood, only the front bumper, etc.)
Which type should you choose?
There are three main considerations when choosing between the two types of PPF:
- Appearance: for certain types of cars with a lot of curves or complex contours, custom-fit PPF may be necessary for a seamless and gapless appearance.
- Level of protection: custom-fit PPF typically provides better protection, but you should also consider the thickness of the film. A thicker pre-cut PPF may provide better protection than a thinner custom PPF for the same budget.
- Budget: how much are you willing to spend on the PPF? Again, custom-fit PPF is typically more expensive than pre-cut PPF, but also consider the thickness of the film.
Cleaning pre-cut PPF vs. custom-fit PPF
In general, cleaning and maintenance procedures for both pre-cut and custom-fit PPF are mostly the same. Both PPF types require regular cleaning to maintain their appearance and to also ensure optimal protection for your car, and in most cases, the basic principles of cleaning/maintenance remain the same.
However, there can be slight differences in the cleaning and maintenance processes, depending on the shape of the car, installation method, or other factors.
For example, pre-cut PPF is already cut to fit specific areas of the vehicle, so it’s typically easier to find the edges of the individual film panel. On the other hand, since custom-fit PPF is typically installed in larger sections, finding the edges can be more challenging, especially around the curves of the car.
Another important consideration is that the installer may have used a different installation technique or type of film that could affect the cleaning/maintenance process, especially with custom-fit PPF. Thus, it’s better to check with the PPF’s installer or manufacturer for specific maintenance or cleaning guidelines.
Cleaning PPF: Do’s and Don’ts
When preparing the cleaning process, there are some do’s and don’ts to follow:
- Use a pH-neutral soap. Avoid acidic and/or hash cleaning solutions that may damage the PPF, reducing its lifespan. If possible, choose a soap that is specifically designed for PPF with neutral pH.
- Clean the PPF regularly to remove grime, dirt, and other contaminants that may accumulate due to day-to-day use. It’s recommended to clean the PPF at least once a month or more frequently if you live in locations with harsh environmental conditions or weather.
- Rinse the PPF thoroughly with clean water after the washing process to remove all leftover soap. When left on the surface, soap residue can dry out and damage PPF.
- Dry after rinsing. After rinsing the PPF, dry it carefully using a clean microfiber towel. Check the cleaning guidelines. Check with your PPF installer or manufacturer for specific cleaning/maintenance guidelines or recommendations.
- Use harsh cleaners. Avoid using acidic cleaners or harsh chemical solutions that may damage the PPF.
- Use abrasive materials. It’s best to use a soft sponge or microfiber cloth to gently clean the surface. Scrubbing too hard and/or with rough materials like rough brushes/sponges can scratch the PPF.
- Use high-pressure washes. While high-quality PPF is strong enough to withstand most types of car washing methods, it’s best to avoid automatic car washes with harsh brushes or high-pressure washes that may scratch or damage the PPF.
- Use abrasive compounds. Avoid using abrasive polishes or compounds that can scratch the PPF.
- Drying using air blowers. Avoid using drying agents or air blowers, which may damage the PPF or cause water spots.
PPF Cleaning Process: a Step-by-Step Guide
While PPF is, in most cases, a very strong and durable material, cleaning the PPF requires special care so you can avoid damaging the PPF’s surface or the car’s exterior.
Here is a step-by-step guide:
Step 1: Prepare the necessary tools and equipment
Before you can start cleaning the PPF, it’s important to gather the necessary tools and make the required preparations.
While the actual tools and equipment you may need may vary, in most cases, you’ll need the following tools:
- A bucket (for water and cleaning solution)
- A sponge or microfiber wash mitt
- A drying towel (preferably microfiber)
- A dedicated PPF cleaner (in most cases, a mild soap will work)
- A spray bottle
- A pressure washer (optional but nice to have)
When preparing these tools, refer back to the do’s and don’ts we have discussed above.
Step 2: Pre-wash the car
Before you start cleaning the car, it’s recommended to pre-wash the car to remove any debris or loose dirt. Simply use a pressure washer or a hose to gently spray the car; start from the top and work your way down.
Avoid using too much pressure, as it can damage the car’s paint job or the PPF’s surface.
Step 3: Washing the car and PPF
After the pre-washing process, fill the bucket with water, and add the pH-natural soap you’ve prepared. Again, use appropriate soap, preferably one recommended by the PPF’s manufacturers. Using inappropriate cleaning solutions (i.e., dish soap, acidic household cleaner) can strip the PPF’s protective coating and leave it vulnerable to damage.
Use the soft sponge or microfiber cloth to gently wash the car with this mild soap solution, again starting from the top and working your way down the car.
When cleaning the car, make sure to use a soft and light touch. Don’t use circular motions, and don’t use too much pressure, as these can cause swirl marks.
Rinse the sponge or cloth frequently as you clean the PPF so you can avoid rubbing accumulated debris or dirt into the PPF—which may scratch the film. It’s recommended to instead use a straight back-and-forth motion to apply the mild shampoo and carefully wash the car until the entire surface looks clean.
Step 4: Rinse the car again
After you’ve thoroughly washed the car (and the PPF), rinse it again.
Make sure to eliminate any soap residue, dirt, and debris left on the surface. Leftover soap can cause water spots or streaking on the PPF (or the car’s paint job.) Also, dirt particles left on the PPF may scratch it during the drying process.
To effectively remove dirt and debris, rinse the car with a pressure washer or a hose. Make sure the water pressure is not too high, which may damage the PPF. Again, start from the top of the car and work your way down to rinse each section thoroughly.
After rinsing the car, it’s best to thoroughly check the surface of the car under bright enough lighting or preferably under direct sunlight. If you notice any streaks, water spots, or soap residue, rinse the section again until it’s 100% clean.
You may need to repeat this step several times, and it may take longer than expected. However, this step is necessary to make sure the PPF is thoroughly cleaned and especially ready for the next step: the drying process.
Step 5: Dry the car
Once you have thoroughly rinsed the car after washing, in this step, we will dry the car.
Don’t underestimate this step, as properly drying the car and the PPF can be just as, if not even more important, than the washing process. When not dried properly, air-dried water droplets can leave water spots on the PPF or even the car’s paint surface.
Here are some best practices on how to effectively dry your car:
- Use a dry, fresh, and clean microfiber towel to dry the car. Avoid using a damp or dirty towel, which may leave scratches and even damage the PPF.
- Just like washing or rinsing the car, start drying from the top, and work your way down. This practice will effectively prevent water from running down the car, which is the common cause of water spots.
- Do not rub the towel on the car/PPF’s surface, but use a blotting motion to absorb the water droplets. Avoid using circular motions, which can create swirl marks or scratches on the surface of the PPF.
- Dry the PPF properly. Even small remaining water droplets can leave water spots on the PPF’s surface. Pay extra attention to the edges of the PPF that may accumulate water.
Step 6: Clean specific parts of the car
After you’ve washed, rinsed, and dried the car and the PPF surface, you may still need to clean specific parts of the car (i.e., the hood, bumper, fender, etc.). Identify parts of your car that may be prone to dirt, bugs, and debris, and clean them more thoroughly.
Here are some tips and best practices to do so:
- When cleaning these parts, make sure to pay extra care not to damage the PPF layer.
- Do not apply the cleaning product/solution directly onto the PPF, but apply it to a sponge or microfiber towel first. Letting the soap/shampoo/other cleaning solution sit on the film for too long may damage the PPF’s surface.
- Use gentle rubbing motion with the cleaning solution, and allow it to sit on the PPF’s surface for a few minutes to help break down any stubborn grime or stains. Avoid circular motions.
- After cleaning, rinse the area thoroughly with water. As usual, make sure to remove all water and traces of the cleaning solution. Use a dry microfiber towel to dry the area.
Step 6: Apply a PPF-safe Detailer
After the PPF is thoroughly cleaned and completely dry, you can apply a car detailer to enhance the appearance of the PPF’s surface and add extra protection against contaminants and UV rays. Make sure to choose a detailer product that is specifically formulated for paint protection film (PPF).
When done correctly, regular application of PPF-safe car detailers can help in maintaining the longevity and appearance of the PPF.
Here are some tips on applying a PPF-safe car detailer:
- Make sure the PPF surface is already clean and dry before applying the detailer. Work in small sections so you can carefully ensure even coverage.
- Use a clean and dry microfiber towel to apply the car detailer. Again, do not apply too much pressure that may scratch or damage the PPF.
- It’s critical to work in a cool and shaded area when applying the detailer. Direct sunlight or too much heat may cause the detailer product to dry too quickly, which may leave residue or streaks. When you do notice any streaks or spots, simply wipe them out with a dry microfiber towel.
- Do not spray the detailer onto any of the car’s surfaces not protected by PPF, which may cause discoloration or damage.
- Avoid over-applying the product. If the detailer causes buildup, it may attract more dirt and debris, which may be counterproductive.
- In general, follow the detailer manufacturer’s instructions and recommended application frequency to ensure the best results.
Additional Tips and Tricks for Cleaning PPF
By following the steps we’ve shared above, by now, you should have a solid knowledge of how to properly clean PPF.
To further maintain the PPF’s appearance and improve its longevity, here are some additional tips and tricks you should keep in mind:
- How to remove tough stains
If you encounter tough stains when cleaning the PPF (i.e., tree sap, bird droppings, etc.), you may need to put extra effort and attention into removing them.
Start by washing the affected area with a gentle Ph-neutral soap and water solution and follow the steps we’ve shared above. If the stain persists, then you can try using a specialized PPF cleaner such as tar remover or a clay bar.
Apply this cleaner solution using a clean microfiber towel or sponge, and apply gentle pressure. Generally, you’d want to avoid circular motion not to create swirl marks on the PPF, but if the stain is very persistent, you can gently wipe the PPF in a circular motion but be extra careful not to scratch it.
- Have a cleaning and maintenance schedule
To keep your PPF looking its best and prolong its longevity, it’s important to clean and maintain it regularly.
How often you should clean and maintain your PPF will depend on a variety of factors, including but not limited to the environment/climate you live in, how frequently you drive your car, how dirty your environment is, etc.
However, in general, it’s recommended to clean and maintain your PPF at least once a month to prevent potential damage and maintain its appearance.
- Dealing with water spots
If you notice any water spots on the PPF’s surface after washing it, there’s an easy way to remove them.
Simply mix equal parts of vinegar and water in a spray bottle, then spray the affected area. Let this solution sit for a few minutes before gently wiping it off with a clean and dry microfiber towel.
Repeat as needed, but do it gently.
- Park your car in the right places
An important aspect of maintaining your PPF to keep it looking its best is to protect it from the elements.
Try to avoid direct sunlight when parking your cars, and also avoid areas that could be exposed to extreme temperature changes and/or harsh weather conditions (i.e., strong winds, hail, etc.)
To summarize, maintaining a clean PPF (Paint Protection Film) and regularly cleaning it is essential for preserving its appearance and prolonging its longevity. In turn, a well-maintained PPF can help you preserve your car’s appearance and resale value.
By following the steps outlined in this article, you can ensure your PPF stays in optimal condition so it can continue to protect your car’s appearance and pain for years to come. We’ve also shared some actionable tips and tricks you can use to remove tough stains and maintain the PPF’s condition
For more information on PPF, or if you are currently looking to install PPF to protect your Tesla, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche or Audi, check out ID Protection. ID Protection specializes in PPF installation and can provide expert advice on how to install, maintain and protect your PPF.