Microfiber Towels, mitts, sponges, and applicators are a crucial tool in a detailers arsenal for washing and drying a vehicle, removing smears from glass, dusting dashboards, cleaning trim, buffing sealants, waxes, or coatings, removing polishing residue, applying quick-detailing sprays, soaking excess detergent from cleaner-saturated textiles, and many more applications besides. These products can represent a significant detailing investment for high-volume professional users, as they can have many hundreds in their collection, and also for at-home detailers as well if they buy premium-quality microfiber. As such it is important to launder your microfiber products properly, in order not to ruin their softness or absorbency, and keep them in usable condition for many years to come.
Over time and use microfiber products lose their absorbency, softness, buffing performance, resistance to linting, and gentleness. Often, this is misdiagnosed as a sign of poor quality and age, but is most often due to poor laundry habits. Microfiber textiles lose their performance as the microscopic fibers get clogged with detailing products or dirt, and or damaged due to heat/friction. Both can be remedied, restoring the performance of the towel, and preventing damage through proper care. Microfiber has its own unique requirements for laundering, and treating it as you would a cotton towel can easily destroy an expensive collection of microfibers in a single wash cycle.
In this guide, I will discuss how to select the chemicals with which to clean your microfibers, how to avoid cross-contamination, how to remove stains, how to avoid developing lint, and how to properly wash and dry them.
Required Tools & Chemicals
To clean care for your microfibers, you will need the following items:
- Access to a washing machine
- Access to a clothing dryer with an air-dry setting (optional) and or an indoor clothes-line/drying rack (mandatory)
- A strong, easy-rinsing, low-foaming, additive-free detergent
- White Vinegar (Optional)
- Clean plastic laundry baskets or hampers
- Clean storage bags or totes
- A clean spray bottle
- A clean 5-gallon/20-liter bucket
Most normal laundry detergents available in stores are geared towards the cleaning of clothes, bed linens, and household towels with the normal soiling/stains that these incur. As such, they are often tailored towards cleaning normal organic soiling from cotton fibers, contain scents, softeners, and brighteners that are left behind on the fabric to enhance the consumer experience.
These types of products are not suitable for microfiber towels, which are a polyester/polyimide or nylon blend, are stained with petroleum, silicone, and heavy waxes, and need a cleaner which rinses completely free with no residue left behind. For microfiber care, a low-foaming, free-rinsing, heavily concentrated automotive-grade All-Purpose-Cleaner, or a dedicated Microfiber Detergent are far more effective at cleaning and maintaining the long-term performance of your towels, wash mitts, and applicator pads. Avoid high-foaming, and low concentrated All-Purpose-Cleaners, as these can cause poor washing performance. Also, not all dedicated Microfiber Detergents are formulated the same, so do not be afraid to shop around and find one you feel performs best whilst remaining economical.
When microfiber towels start to lose their softness, one’s inclination is to add fabric-softener to your wash load, as you would if you noticed the same effect with your bed linens or clothes. With these kinds of textiles, loss of softness is frequently due to the fabric finishes wearing away, but with microfibers it is caused by the fibers becoming stiff with dried product residue. Traditional fabric softeners contain paraffin and polymers to temporarily supplant lost textile finishes, which actually further clogs a microfiber towel. These materials can be almost impossible to completely remove from the fibers if this mistake has been made, and as such, the use of fabric softeners is to be avoided at all costs, as this is a very effective way to potentially permanently ruin your microfiber towels.
Typically, simply cleaning microfibers with a suitable detergent is sufficient to restore their softness. However, depending upon the detergent or level of product buildup, sometimes it helps to use plain White Vinegar as a ‘conditioner’ to help further break-up product residues within the fibers.
When washing microfibers, a commercial or semi-commercial washing machine is preferably for their added cleaning strength, but with extra cleaning/rinse cycles and detergent a normal consumer washing machine will also work just fine. However, avoid using a washing machine with an unknown history of use, as it may contain residues that could contaminate your microfibers.
For drying, you will want a tumble dryer with an air-dry setting (Sometimes called ‘cold air’, ‘air fluff’, etc.), or an indoor line/drying rack to hang them upon after drying. Avoid hanging your microfibers outside to dry, where they can easily become contaminated.
Also, avoid placing your microfibers after use in wicker baskets, or other receptacles that could leave splinters, gravel, dead leaves, or other difficult-to-remove particulates. This will save you hours of picking damaging elements out of your towels with tweezers and a magnifying glass.
Sorting & Separating
Microfiber towels should always be washed on their own, with other microfiber towels, and never with household towels, linens, or clothing for risk of lint contamination. Once a microfiber picks up lint from other towels, it cannot be fully removed, and will leave lint all over your vehicle the next time it is used. This is unsightly, and extremely frustrating, marring what may otherwise be flawless detailing results. Lint deposits on paintwork can also easily be mistaken for swirls by the uninitiated, and can cost you a detailing commission if working professionally.
As you would when laundering your clothing to avoid washing incompatible items together, it is important to sort your microfiber towels, separating them out into separate washing/drying loads to avoid cross-contamination. Each of the following categories should be discriminated prior to washing:
- Heavily soiled, lower-quality towels and wash mitts used for cleaning wheels, tyres, engine bays, and interior textiles with detergents.
- Less soiled, higher-quality towels and wash mitts used for cleaning exterior paint, exterior trim, and interior leather/plastic/vinyl with detergents, or QD’s/dressings that contain low-clogging residues.
- Buffing towels and applicator pads used for the application/removal of waxes, sealants, dressings, and QD’s that contain highly clogging residues.
- Buffing towels and applicator pads used for the removal of polishes that contain abrasive particulates.
- Drying & Glass Towels, which are exposed to no clogging residues; only pure water, or alcohol solvents.
If you do not own a sufficient volume of towels to rationalize into five separate loads, it is possible to consolidate loads 2-4, thus having only three loads. However, microfiber laundry should not be consolidated more than this for risk of cross-contamination.
Detailing microfibers should have their own laundry basket/hamper, separate from other clothing, linens, or household towels.
Pre-Treatment & Stain Removal
In most cases, where normal soiling, cleaners, waxes, sealants, polishes, quick-detailing sprays, etc are involved, a conventional wash cycle should be sufficient to remove all product residues and staining from your microfibers. However, in some extreme cases additional pre-treatment can be required to remove heavy staining, or loosen stubborn residues should a normal wash cycle fail to restore the performance of your microfibers.
In case of isolated staining, fill a spray bottle with an All-Purpose-Cleaner solution, diluted to the product’s strongest recommended ratio for textile cleaning and spot removal. Pre-spray the spots prior to throwing the affected microfibers into the washing machine with this solution, or preferably immediately after soiling, to avoid giving the stain time to set.
In case of heavy product buildup in microfiber towels or applicators, a prolonged soak in a 5-gallon/20-liter bucket of hot water with All-Purpose-Cleaner or dedicated Microfiber Detergent can help begin to break down stubborn residues prior to being placed into the washing machine. Avoid soaking effected items for more than 24-hours to prevent damage to the textile. Regarding product dilution, sometimes dedicated Microfiber Detergents give a pre-treatment ratio on the bottle, but mostly the amount of cleaner added to the water in a pre-soak is at your discretion. When diluting your cleaning concentrate, keep in mind that duration of exposure helps to compensate for lighter detergent loads in solution. Again, the sooner microfibers exposed to detergent resistant compounds enter the pre-treatment soak after soiling, the easier it is to remove the residues. In some cases, even microfibers used to buff semi-permenant nanotechnology coatings can be saved and reused by putting them into a pre-treatment bucket immediately after use, before the coating has a chance to crystalize in the fibers.
Despite your best efforts, there are some stains and residues that will never come out. In most cases, this is fine and does not negatively effect the towel, but in other cases it can reduce performance, and in cases where stubborn clumping of the fibers or hard residues are observed, the microfibers will need to be discarded for fear of damaging your vehicle. Here is a list of some things which can cause permanent stains or residues, and the appropriate action that should be taken:
- Single Stage Paint Pigment (Effect: Non-harmful, ignore.)
- Strong Dyes in Polishes & Waxes (Effect: Non-harmful, ignore.)
- Detergent Resistant Sealants (Effect: Reduced absorbency, towels may become Hydrophobic, but will not cause damage.)
- Residues from Clay Bars (Effect: Clumps of clay stuck to microfibers are permanent, and the towel will need to be discarded to avoid causing potential marring.).
- Crystalized Nanotechnology Coatings (Effect: Towel will develop hard, glassy crystals, and will need to be discarded to avoid severe damage to the vehicle.)
When washing microfiber towels, first insure that your washing machine is clean, and free of fabric softener residues; especially when washing drying and glass towels. To do this, precede your first load of microfibers with large load of laundry that does not require fabric softener, and can be washed with a strong detergent. Less important microfibers, work clothes, or similar items are ideal. Set the machine at the maximum water level, on an intermediate warm water setting, adding the necessary quantity of conditioner free detergent (Low foaming All-Purpose-Cleaner works well for this purpose.), inserting the items requiring washing, and setting the machine to a long wash cycle for heavy soiling.
This above process aids in clearing residues and dirt from the machine that may be harmful to your microfibers. If you are not in the habit of using fabric softeners in your normal household laundry, nor use a laundry detergent containing conditioning additives, you can eschew this step, and proceed directly to laundering your microfiber products.
Before you begin washing your microfiber products, your loads will have been sorted by category, and any pre-treatment of stains or stubborn dirt already performed. Start by setting the machine to an intermediate ‘warm’ water setting, which will help the detergent to work more effectively, but without getting so hot as to potentially damage the fibers. Set the load size to match the quantity of microfiber products in the given laundry load (On a full-size top-loading washing machine, a medium load setting is typically enough to handle 10-20 normal-sized microfiber towels depending upon the pile density.), and add either your concentrated, low-foaming All-Purpose-Cleaner, or dedicated Microfiber Detergent.
Always read the instructions that come with your cleaning chemicals, but as a rule of thumb, 1-1/2 ounces (50ml) is a good quantity to begin with for a medium-sized laundry load. For more heavily soiled cloths, or less concentrated cleaners, you may need to add more solution to the washing machine. However, avoid using high-foaming cleaners, or such a large volume of detergent that the washing machine becomes overfilled with foam. This will reduce washing efficiency, will make rinsing exceedingly difficult, and in certain situations may even cause damage to the machine.
Next, set your wash cycle and duration. For heavily soiled, lower quality, general purpose microfiber towels, do not be afraid to use the longest and most highly agitated cycle on the machine to remove as much dirt and product residue as possible. For higher quality, more delicate microfibers with lower levels of soiling, choose a ‘delicate’ setting to reduce strain on the fibers and help extend their life.
Finally, if your washing machine comes with the capacity to set additional rinse cycles, select this option, as the additional rinses will help to further ensure that all of the detergent is rinsed from the towels. If this is not the case, you will have to manually set an additional rinse cycle following the completion of the normal wash cycle.
If the machine has never had fabric softener added to its softener dispenser, you can optionally fill the receptacle with White Vinegar, to be dispensed into the microfibers during the first rinse. If fabric softener has been used in the dispenser, add the vinegar manually as the machine fills with water during its final rinse cycle. The vinegar will further help to break down detergent residues that may cause stiffening, and reduces absorbency in your towels and other detailing textiles.
After the wash and rinse cycles have been completed, you may need to reposition the towels inside the washing machine, shake out the densely piled ones to remove any matting of the damp fibers, and put them in for a final spin cycle to remove as much water as possible. Ensuring that the towels are fully spun-dry, and are only uniformly and lightly damp when they are removed from the washing machine is crucial for the drying phase of the process.
If your washing machine is a combined washer/dryer unit, do not select a heated dry cycle! This may potentially ruin your microfiber products.
If you are a professional detailer, selecting a washing machine to keep at your detailing facility, it is advisable to select a commercial grade unit, as used by hotels, laundromats, and apartment complexes. These units are more durable, capable of being run for longer duty cycles, and often have more cleaning power. If your area still permits the sale of top-loading commercial grade washing machines with a full-height agitator in the drum, these units are preferable… The water consumption of these particular machines is higher, so in many locations they have been banned from sale, but their cleaning power is substantially superior to the ‘high-efficiency’ consumer machines that often replace them.
There are two important steps to perform if you want to keep your microfibers feeling and performing as good – or possibly better – than new. The first is to fully clean and remove any residues from the textile that may be clogging the fibers. The second, is by employing good drying procedure. Drying is the most dangerous time for microfiber products, as this is the time that careless use of heated drying could melt the tiny and sensitive polyester/polyamide fibers, causing permanent damage. Letting damp towels line dry in a matted state also hampers the performance of the textile (Although only temporarily until they can be properly laundered again.) by compressing the fibers and not letting them expand to their full and voluminous state.
The best way to dry microfiber products is in a tumble dryer using an extended cold air drying cycle, with the heating elements off, simply tumbling the towels in a stream of room temperature air to slowly remove the excess water and fluff the fibers. This can take multiple consecutive timed drying cycles, running for up to 2-3 hours depending upon how much water remains in the towels, but is by far and away the safest and most effective method. The downside is that this method is very consuming of dryer time and fairly slow (Although still faster than line drying.), and not all clothing dryers are equipped with a cold air tumble dry cycle.
If you are fortunate enough to have a tumble dryer with this cycle, use it, and make sure to remove any dryer sheets/balls before inserting your towels. Finally, ensure to clean the lint trap before running your dryer load, and possibly between cycles if your microfibers are new. Before beginning the cycle, shake out all dense-pile microfibers to remove any matting, rotating each towel, and shaking it from all four edges to ensure even results. When tumble drying with cold air, do not make the loads too big, so that they still have plenty of room to tumble inside the machine. Divide your freshly washed towels into multiple loads, and dry them separately if necessary.
If you do not have access to a tumble dryer, do not have access to it for an extended period of time, or it does not have a cold-air tumble setting, you will need to dry your microfibers either on a line or a drying rack. The line or rack will need to be clean, and positioned indoors somewhere that is well ventilated, and where it will not be disturbed. Attach the microfibers to the line or rack if necessary with clothes pegs, insuring that the pegs themselves will not transfer splinters or dirt to the material that may later damage your vehicle’s finish. Before hanging the towels to dry, perform the shaking procedure outlined above to remove any matting, and repeat as necessary during the drying process to ensure that the towels remain ‘fluffy’. The shaking also begins the wicking process, allowing water to exit and evaporate from the fibers more quickly, so when line drying all microfiber products should be shaken prior to hanging; both short and long pile! Also, do not hang the towels over a radiator, or other heat source, as this may damage the textile.
Many sources advise that heated drying cycles are fine for microfiber products providing the heat level is not high. Do not trust these sources. Technically speaking, modern polyester textiles with macro-scale fibers can be dried safely on low heat, which is where this myth originates. However, the fiber size in microfiber towels is on a micro-scale – finer than 1/5th the diameter of a human hair – and is more sensitive to heat and friction than conventional sized polyester fibers. Many detailers do dry their microfiber products on a low heat setting, but over time this does negatively impact the textile. High heat settings simply damage the textile quicker. After heated drying, you may notice that your microfibers start to feel ‘crispy’, have reduced absorbency/softness, build up static, and begin to shed lint during use. This is from the heat beginning to melt the fiber and make it brittle, and the added friction of the water being quickly and completely removed from the textile as it is tumbled.
Of all the negative symptoms microfibers can develop from heated drying, linting is the worst, caused by the textile beginning to shed damaged fibers, and also from the static buildup from the un-damped friction causing the microfiber to attract lint from the inside of the dryer and the atmosphere. This lint is later deposited on your vehicle, marring what otherwise may be excellent results, and becoming very frustrating to remove.
Once damaged by heat, microfibers cannot be restored, and must be disposed of lest they contaminate new, undamaged microfibers with their lint. Detailing-grade microfiber products are not inexpensive, particularly if you invest in quality towels, and as such laundry mistakes like this can get very expensive. Do not grow impatient when drying your microfiber towels, and become tempted to dry them with heat to hasten the process. Launder them correctly, and your towels will continue to function as new for many years to come. Microfiber towels should be a long-term investment, and not a regular consumable.
Finally, when storing microfibers, do so in clean, enclosed plastics totes, or resealable plastic bags to avoid becoming contaminated during storage… It helps if you sort them by category, so that whenever you need a towel, it is easy to find the type you need. This way you can grab a clean, fresh towel without thinking or having to worry, and resume the process of detailing with little loss of productivity.
(1) – Kristin Uhl, Ohio State University Textile Sciences Department, 1982-88
(2) – Thomas Hackner, Microfiber Madness
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