How To Clean A Car

Cleaning your car is one of the most important maintenance jobs, but do you know the proper way to wash it?

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• Automotive: DIY • Automotive: How-To
• Automotive: Maintenance • Automotive: New Cars
• Automotive: Tips & Tricks • Automotive: Wash & Detail

Matt Anderson's Take
Ask anyone if they know how to wash their car and they'll probably answer with a "yes". It seems like a silly question, don't we all know how to wash a car? It's not exactly rocket science.

While that's true, there is quite a bit of science to washing a car the right way versus washing a car the wrong way. Rather than screw up your car's paint and interior bits, read along as I explain the proper way to wash your car to keep your car looking new longer. If you have a new (or new to you) car, you'll also want to read Car Care Basics.

Car Care Products


In order to do a proper job you need the proper tools and cleaning products. At the very least you'll want the following items:

5 Gallon Bucket
Don't have one? Run to your local Lowes or Home Depot and buy one for a few bucks. Label it "Car Wash Only" with a marker so it never, ever gets used for anything else.

Sponge
Get a good car wash sponge. Don't waste your money on car wash glove that fits onto your hand, those are just silly.

Soap
Don't try to use dish soap here, it's not the same as actual car wash soap. The real stuff isn't expensive and a big bottle will last a long time. If you can find an environmentally friendly (biodegradable) option then go with that.

Tire & Wheel Brushes
I like a stiff brush for my tires (that's the black rubber part only) along with a sponge for the wheels and a detail brush for the lug nut area. Sounds a little excessive but worth it.

Tire Dressing
Tire dressing is a chemical that you use on the tires only. It shines them up and protects them from UV damage caused by the sun that can lead to dry rotted tires. All you care about is that it makes your tires look like new.

A word (or three) on chemical wheel cleaners: Don't buy them. You don't need them, a little elbow grease will do just fine. But the real issue is the mess they make. They often stain your driveway so it's just not worth it.

Interior Cleaners
You'll want a general interior cleaner along with something for your seats. For example, of they're leather then get yourself a good leather care kit.

You'll also need a vacuum to clean out the interior and trunk areas. I love the Hoover Garage Utility Vacuum and can't recommend it enough.

Drying Towels
You have to dry your car after washing so get some good microfiber towels. I use four every time I wash my car so a good six pack like this is worth it. Remember, when washing microfiber towels don't use any bleach or fabric softener and let them air dry. Ignore that advice and they may not absorb water so well.

Hose & Nozzle
Obviously, you need a hose to wash your car but don't do the thumb over the end trick to create pressure, buy a good nozzle. As for the hose, get a good one that is kink free like this Tuff Guard one that I love. Avoid those "as seen on TV" hoses that expand and collapse on their own, they're garbage and don't last long.

Get Setup

Only wash a car when it's not too hot out and never wash in direct sunlight. Mornings are best, especially if you can work in a shaded area. Make sure all windows are rolled up, the sunroof is closed, and all doors fully shut.

Get your supplies out and ready so you're not running around for everything later. Toss all brushes and sponges in your 5 gallon bucket, add an ounce of soap (or whatever the bottle suggests), and fill with water. The goal is to create lots of soap suds so use pressure when filling the bucket and stop when it's almost full.

Rinse the car using pressure. Start at the top and work your way down, soaking the entire car with high pressured water. Blast off any dirt and debris. The idea is to get anything abrasive off your car so that you're not later smearing that stuff into your paint as you wash it.

Make sure to really blast away in the wheel wells, tires, front grill, and inside your rims / wheels.

Begin Washing


Washing isn't that complicated but you have to remember a few simple rules.

The Ground Is Your Enemy
Never, ever put a sponge or towel on the ground and then onto your car. If you drop a towel, use a new one. If you drop your sponge, clean it really well. A wet towel or sponge hitting the ground will instantly pull up grit that will work like sandpaper on your car paint. Be extra careful.

Top Down
Always start at the top of the car and work your way down. Get the top area clean and move down. You don't ever want to wash a lower part of wheel and then go back up to the hood. The lower bits of your car are the dirtiest and you'll just be bringing that dirt back to the top, leaving paint scratches in the process.

When washing, use your sponge to grab suds off the top. It's the suds that do the actual cleaning work.

Dip Often
Wash small areas of your car then flip the sponge over to repeat. Now dip the sponge in your bucket several times, shaking it under the water to loosen and release any dirty it pulled from your car.

Rinse Often
Especially on warmer days, rinsing often is key. Wash an area then give the entire car a quick rinse. The idea is to keep the entire car wet to avoid water spots which occur when drops of water dry on your car. Washing a car in full sun is a sure way to have tons of unsightly water spots on your paint so stick with shade or very early mornings.

Wheels Last

Wheels are covered in brake dust and brake dust is nasty stuff. Give each wheel a good pressure wash with the hose then using your tire brush clean the tire. This brush is only for the tire, the rubber part, nothing else. Now use your wheel sponge to clean the wheel (inside and out) and your lug nut brush to, well, clean your nuts (wheel nuts that is).

Final Rinse
All done? Then rinse all of that soap and loosened guck off the car with one last rinse.

Dry Top Down
Just as with cleaning, you dry from the top down. Take your microfiber towel and start on the roof then do the windows then the hood and doors and so on. Keep folding the towel so you're using clean, dry parts. As the towel gets wet, switch to a new towel.

Once the outside is dry, open the doors, trunk, and hood. More water will drip down so dry it as it does and get in the nooks and crannies of the doors (etc). As your towel gets dirty, switch it for a clean one and never reuse a dirty towel on the car paint.

Tire Dressing
I usually do this last, after the interior cleaning, but I'll mention it here. Try dressing is easy to apply, use an old dish sponge. Get it wet and wring it out. Spray the dressing onto the sponge and rub it all around the sidewall of the tire (the part facing you, never the part that will contact the ground).

Interior Cleaning


The outside is done and drying so get started on that interior. Vacuum everything out but watch the vacuum hose when you do so it's not whacking away at your car paint. See XPEL Door Sill Guard Installation for a great way to protect the paint on your door sills. Vacuum seats and then carpets, pulling out the floor mats to vacuum them outside the car.

A glass cleaner will clean any filthy windows, otherwise a dry microfiber will do the job on its own (or with a little added water on it). Use your automotive cleaner on the dash or other approved bits, always spraying on the towel and not the car parts. Q-tips work great for hard to reach areas like air vents.

If you have leather seats, follow the directions for your leather cleaner. It usually involves putting some on a towel and wiping it on and then wiping it back off (wax on, wax off).

Finishing Up


Clean up your mess and put the sponges and towels in your washing machine. Again, no bleach or fabric softener here and let those microfiber towels air dry. Rinse the bucket and other brushes, let them dry, and then store them in the bucket.

Finally, I like to take a test drive. Drive around the block or something short to help knock the remaining water off the car, otherwise you'll park it in your garage and find puddles all over a few hours later.

You did it, you washed your car like the pros do. Speaking of the pros, if you don't want to wash your car yourself or feel it's time to have a full detail then check out gAuto.com to find a mobile auto detailer in your area.
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Matt Anderson
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