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Everything You Need to Know About Car Cleaning

Everything You Need to Know About Car Cleaning

Did you know that we spend billions each year on keeping our cars clean? From weekly trips to the automatic car wash, spending money on car cleaning supplies, to having a professional detailer come to you, maintaining a clean car is an expensive and time-consuming process.

But, like any other car care project, there are steps that can be followed to reduce mistakes, headaches, and save a ton of money – especially if you’re a do-it-yourself type of guy or gal.

So, if learning everything you need to know about car cleaning is on your bucket list – this article is for you. This is what we’ll be covering today:

1. Car Cleaning Preparation

car cleaning supplies

Cleaning a car is so much easier with effective preparation. However, with so many opinions, blogs, and YouTube.com videos creating a minefield of inaccurate information, how do you weed through the BS?

Fortunately, we’ve done the hard work for you.

In the information below, we’ll lay out some facts about car cleaning preparation, provide some basic advice on how to prepare for cleaning your vehicle so it continually looks like a new car. If you’d like to learn more about how to pick the right car cleaning supplies, we’ve got a great article for you to read.

But first, let’s explain a few important rules about auto detailing that should be followed to ensure your car cleaning experience is a positive one.

  • Don’t let anything touch the ground: This includes any wash mitts, upholstery cleaners, towels for drying, or anything that physically touches your car.
  • Always keep your wheel cleaning supplies separate: Brake dust is comprised of microscopic particles of metal. When you clean a car with the same supplies as the wheels, it opens the door to scratching and damaging paint. This also includes keeping your Armor All and other tire shine or wheel cleaning supplies in separate areas.
  • Always use clean supplies: Cleaning a car with supplies that are dirty just doesn’t make sense – does it? This includes using fresh car detailing supplies and not using expired products. Also, if you use a leather cleaner or tire cleaners that are expired – throw them away. That 20-year-old can of turtle wax could be thrown away also.
  • Don’t wash a car in direct sunlight: Sunlight creates heat, which evaporates water – including soap. This makes it difficult to effectively wash the car. Washing a car in the early morning or close to sunset is always best. If you want to take a break and detail the car seats and car interior later, that won’t impact the overall results.

Now that we have a clear understanding of the rules for cleaning your car, let’s outline the steps that should be followed.

Step 1: Place Your Car in the Right Location

car washing

We indicated above that you shouldn’t wash your car in direct sunlight. However, there are a few other exterior wash best practices that should be followed. First, make sure to situate your car on an even surface; such as a driveway. Second, if you can – try to wash the car in shade. Finally, make sure to leave yourself plenty of space to work.

Step 2: Position Your Car Cleaning Supplies

car washing supplies

Cleaning a car is so much easier when you’re not tripping over shit. By placing your supplies and materials in easy to access locations, you’ll reduce mistakes and produce better results.

The first step here is to uncoil your hose. This will ensure there are no kinks, which is time-consuming to resolve during the car washing process. The next thing to do is place your wash and rinse buckets, wheel cleaning supplies, soap, and other materials in places that make it easier to access.

Step 3: Prepare Your Wheel Cleaning Supplies

wheel cleaning supplies

The initial area you’ll clean while washing a car is the wheels. It makes sense to prepare your wheel cleaning supplies first. Remember a few of the rules above – never use the same cleaning supplies or materials for washing your wheels and the car. To wash wheels, you’ll need the following: a wash bucket, wheel, and tire washing brush or wash mitt, and wheel washing soap.

Step 4: Prep the Remainder of Supplies

car washing supplies

Washing the car should be completed after washing wheels. But, being proactive by gathering and placing all of your car washing supplies will save you time. There are several individual steps to complete including:

  • Prep the wash and rinse bucket: For a full service car wash, you should use two buckets (one with clean water filled halfway, the other with clean water and soap). If you’re confused about how to complete the two bucket method of washing a car, here is a great video to watch.
  • Gather wash mitt and drying towels: Since you don’t want to allow cleaning supplies to touch the ground, it’s a good idea to use a storage box or cleaning cart. Whatever you choose, make sure you have them all set up near the wash buckets for easier use.

2. How to Wash Your Car

So, we’ve laid out our supplies, outlined a few important rules to remember, now it’s time to wash the car. It’s important to remember that we’re talking about exterior detailing here. If you want to clean your floor mats, use glass cleaner to do the windows, or complete other interior detailer tasks – that should be done after washing the outside.

The intent of washing a car in the first place is removing dirt, debris, bird shit, bug guts, and more. As such, it’s important that you gather the right car cleaning materials, supplies, and products that are going to allow you to accomplish this objective.

While we are going to provide a few recommended steps below, let’s be real – you’ve got the freedom to pick and choose what methods or steps works best for you.

Before we dive into the four steps of washing your car, let’s throw out a few simple reminders.

  • Make sure to remove jewelry, rings, watches, or any other items that can potentially scratch or damage your paint.
  • If you’re going to wash your car, do it all at the same time. Don’t start washing in the morning and finish up later in the afternoon.
  • Remove the old air fresheners from inside the car and use a new one when you’re done.

Step 1 – Prewashing the Car & Washing Wheels

pre-washing car shower

This is the easy part. Before you begin to apply soap to any portion of the vehicle, it’s smart to give your car a pre-washing shower. Just spray clean water over the entire vehicle. This will remove light debris from the vehicle and provide you with lubrication to wash the car – which helps to reduce scratching and improves your ability to clean the car. Prewashing is absolutely vital as it also helps to minimize the swirl marks during the washing phase.

Once you’ve sprayed down the car, the next item to complete is washing the wheels and tires. This will ensure you remove all the brake dust, road grime, and other contaminants from the wheels and tires.

During this phase, you’ll likely make quite a mess – with soap flying all over the car. Well – that’s why we wash the wheels first – and not after washing the car. Since you’re going to make a mess anyways, it makes sense to wash off the excess crap off your car after doing the wheels.

Here are the steps you should follow for cleaning your wheels and tires:

  • Spray on your wheel cleaner and let it soak in a bit. This will allow the cleaner to penetrate the caked-on brake dust and make it easier to remove.
  • Scrub the wheels with your wheel washing mitt or brush.
  • Rinse off the wheels completely.
  • Repeat this step 4 times.

Step 2 – Use the Two Bucket Method or Washing a Car

two bucket method

After you’ve washed your wheels, spray down the entire car again with fresh water. This allows you to have a fresh canvass to work on. If you followed our advice earlier, you’d already have your washing supplies, both buckets set up and ready to begin the washing process. If you didn’t – review that section again and come back when you’re ready.

Now, in order to wash the car completely, it’s important to follow a few important steps:

  1. Wash your car in sections: It’s always best to wash and rinse your car in sections, such as the hood, driver side quarter panel, doors, the rear deck lid and so on.
  2. Wash from top to bottom: When you’re washing the car, make sure to start on top, then work your way down to the bottom. This allows all the dirt and crap to flow downhill – which reduces cross-contamination and scratching.

Outlined below is the two-bucket method of car washing process that should be followed.

  • Fill (2) buckets with water. One bucket will be filled 2/3rds of the way full with only water, while the other will be filled with soap and water. You’ll use one bucket for soaking your wash mitt with fresh soap, while the other one is used for rinsing that wash mitt after each application on the car. Again, if you’re confused, watch this video to see how it’s done.
  • Soak the wash mitt in the soapy bucket. This loads your wash mitt with fresh soap for improved lubricity.
  • Begin washing the car. Work in sections as we indicated above. Start on top and wash the car from left to right, not in a circular motion – go side to side Daniel-San.
  • Place the used wash mitt in the clean water bucket and agitate it at the bottom to remove dirt and debris.
  • Rinse off the section you just completed and repeat these steps until you’ve completely washed the car.

Once you’ve finished washing the entire car, complete a final rinse over the entire car, to remove any excess soap.

Step 3: Drying the Car

dry your car with a microfiber cloth

Once you’ve completely washed the car, your final step is drying. There are a few important things you DON’T want to do. First, don’t dry the car down the road or air compressor hose to dry off the car. This will just throw more crap back on your car. Second, only use scratch-resistant drying materials. Finally, like washing, go side to side and resist the urge to dry in a circular pattern.

The steps for drying a car include:

  • Always use a microfiber cloth, chamois, or automotive drying towel.
  • Dry off the vehicle the same way you wash – top to bottom and each section at a time.
  • Use multiple drying towels – and replace them when they get wet.

These steps are general in nature. So, if you want to learn more about the proper ways of cleaning your car, review our car detailing guide.

3. DIY Car Cleaning Tips

car washing

There is much more to washing and waxing when it comes to cleaning and protecting your vehicle’s paint. Sometimes, you’ve got to bust out the old elbow grease to produce the best results. However, there are a few DIY car cleaning tips videos that help explain how to best accomplish this task.

Let’s break em’ down below.

Tip 1. How to Super Clean Your Car

In this awesome video from ChrisFix, he’ll go over everything you need to know how to Super Clean your car and make the paint go from old, dirty, and dull, to clean, glossy and bright.

Tip 2. Engine Bay Cleaning

Here is another video from ChrisFix. Learn how to Super Clean your engine bay so that it is so clean, you can eat off of it! I show you how to clean and detail the engine bay in a simple 5 step process that will NOT damage your engine or electrics.

Tip: In case you are short of cleaning products a mix of baking soda, water and vinegar can really help you de-grease cheap and fast.

Tip 3. Super Clean the Windshield

In this video, our pal ChrisFix is back at it to show you the 3 step method to clean the inside of your windshield so there is no streaking and it removes the oily film. This is the easiest and fastest method to get a truly streak-free windshield.

Tip 4. Clean Cloudy Headlights

Using toothpaste for headlight restoration. This video will show you how to clean headlights with toothpaste and restore yellow headlights so they are clear again. Headlight lens restoration using regular toothpaste actually works. It doesn’t take much effort, and you can get great results. Watch to see how to get your ugly headlights clear again.

Tip 5. Fix Cracked Nasty Leather Seats

Using cheap ingredients bring back the old shine and look to your leather seats. Watch this video to learn how the cracks are filled in and the seats almost magically restored. This can be done on any leather seat no matter how bad it’s cracked up.

Tip 6. Shine the Body

The video here will show you a secret DIY mix for cleaning the dirtiest car carpets is revealed. Just soak the carpets, follow the instruction on how to make a simple extractor and voila your carpets will be looking brand new no matter how dirty they were.

Tip 7. Clean the Nastiest Carpets

Learn how to remove Human Slime from the interior of your car with steam cleaning. In this video, they’ll show you how to restore the original look of the factory seats and interior using an intergalactic steam cleaning robot from out of space.

4. The Most Common Car Cleaning Mistakes

microfiber cloth used to dry a car

So here is the thing – the tips posted above can significantly reduce the potential of screwing up your car cleaning projects. But nothing is foolproof. In fact, sometimes we’ll make some really stupid mistakes that are done by mistake or to ‘save us time’.

Here are 10 of the most common car cleaning mistakes you should attempt to avoid.

Mistake 1. Taking your car to a car wash

This may be the lest obvious one but it could be the one causing the most damage out there. The rotating brushes in car washes are full of dirt and that dirt will scratch your car. Not only that but the high pressure washes often cause scratches, as well as the pressure, can be too high and a lot of them contain abrasive particles in the water that do help clean your car easier but inevitably leave more and more scratches on your vehicle.

Mistake 2. Cleaning your car in direct sunlight

Not only is it harder to spot dirty streaks in direct sunlight but the immense heat will cause the water you are using to clean your car to evaporate before you clean it off and therefore leaving nasty dirt spots.

We recommend to always wait for the sun to start going down or washing your car in the shade when it’s not too hot outside.

Mistake 3. Using dish detergent on your car

All these products severely damage your wax coating and do more harm than good. Also, a lot of kitchen cleaning products and de-greasers are not pH balanced and not only would they remove your wax coating but would also damage your clear coat leaving your paint fully exposed to the weather and outside particles during driving.

After using dish soap a few times your car pain will start deteriorating fast and unless protected soon it would expose your car body to rusting and corrosion.

Mistake 4. Not using lubrication when cleaning

Removing any dirt from your car with just a dry towel, no matter what type of dirt, is a big mistake. In the process of removing the dirt, the hardened dirt particles will scratch not only the dirty part but the whole stroke path as you clean it.

Be sure to use at least water but spray wax or any other specialized lubricant for car cleaning is best.

Mistake 5. Using paper towels

Paper towels, old t-shirts, dish sponges (especially the rough side) or any ol’ bathroom towels. The only cloth you should ever use is a nice and soft microfiber towel.

Microfiber traps dirt deeper as you clean and won’t allow it to scratch your car as you wipe it.

Mistake 6. Not cleaning from top to bottom

People often start cleaning the car by first doing what the most convenient for them… that would be the doors, sides and the hood. The hardest part to wash as its hard to reach by hand completely is, of course, the roof. If you leave the roof for the end, no matter how good you clean the rest of your car, all that dirt from the roof is gonna trickle down and ruin your hard work.

Most of the dirt would also transfer through your cleaning towel and as the roof is the cleanest it makes sense to start at the top. Even if you rinse off the dirt that falls down from the roof to your previously cleaned parts of the car, dirt particles are still going to stay and they will make it easier for more dirt to build up faster.

Mistake 7. Cleaning in a swirling motion

It’s common understanding to clean your car in a swirling/round motion, but it’s actually not correct. When doing so, you’re more likely to see scratches at different angles. So instead, pick a direction and stick to it. We recommend going from front to back. Front of the car, to the rear of the car.

Mistake 8. Using only one bucket

This is a basic that 90% of people get wrong… If you are soaping and rinsing in the same bucket you are starting to do harm after the first rinse. The dirt will just circulate and will embed itself in your wash cloth.

Not only do you risk damaging your paint you are also wasting your time as just rinsing in the same bucket takes more time and makes you slap the dirt back on your car so you have to rinse it after again.

Mistake 9. If your towel drops to the ground, do not pick it up and use again

We had to be clear in the title on this one as so many people do it not realizing how bad it really is. There is no 5 second rule when it comes to sharp dirt particles, they will embed themselves in your cleaning towel in an instant and if you pick it up you may as well wash your car with razor blades (note: do not wash your car with razor blades).

If you don’t have more cleaning microfiber cloths on hand its always best to go to the kitchen, wash it completely and only then use it on your car again.

Mistake 10. Conditioning your steering wheel, gearshift or pedals

Anything that makes your car controlling parts slippery is just a plain bad idea. It won’t help as much as it can hurt and that is our guarantee so just plain don’t do it.

5. Car Cleaning Hacks

how to dry your car

There are a lot of car problems that can be solved with a little elbow grease and some ingenuity. From removing small dents to saving loads on cleaning, here are 11 of the best DIY ‘car hacks’ collected from across online that all drivers need to know about.

Each is relatively easy & cost between $5-50 or use standard household goods but save hundreds in potential repairs or cleaning. Today we’re going to go over these inexpensive and helpful small “hacks”:

Hack 1 – Remove small dents with a plunger

Time to Do: 1-2 minutes
Cost DIY: $0 – Assuming you have a toilet plunger?
Cost Professional: $75-$400
Savings: $60-350

Those annoying small dents don’t only look bad they can amount to hundreds of dollars to fix.

But a simple hack that works for most small dents is to use a toilet plunger by placing it over the area of the dent and getting the air pressure tight and giving it a nice little tug. Works for small and medium-sized dents most of the time.

Do note that this won’t work for heavy damage and only applies to smaller dents.

Tip – The plastic can be stiff. Solve this issue by boiling some water in a pot and splashing it on the plunger and dent first.

Hack 2 – Polish cloudy headlights with regular toothpaste

Time to Do: 10 minutes
Cost DIY: $2
Cost Professional: $50
Savings: $45

Modern vehicles are plagued by unsightly, clouded and yellowing headlight lenses. Not only are they ugly, but they’re also unsafe.

This tip is really easy but requires a little arm strength. Use some toothpaste and rub it all over the plastic cover over your headlights. Let it sit for a bit then rinse with clean water and dry. Your lights will shine brighter than ever before.

Tip: If you want to keep them that way, polish with car wax to keep them clean.

Hack 3 – Make your car “self-cleaning” by using a ceramic coating

Time to Do: 1-2 hours
Cost DIY: $50-100
Cost Professional: $750+
Savings: $500+

You want your vehicle to look as good as it did the day you bought it. But despite your constant washing, swirl marks, chips, and stains start to populate on your vehicle’s exterior. Not only that, water spots, dirt, and grime start clinging to your car the day after you give it a thorough wash.

The answer is ceramic coatings.

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Once, it was only available via high-end detailers and cost an outstanding $500-2000 to apply, it’s recently become available in consumer form with relatively simple DIY kits.

Applied by hand, the ceramic coating forms a microscopic glass like ‘sacrificial’ layer over your car, meaning that mud and grime don’t stick to your vehicle’s paint, water just beads off, and overall washing is 10x simpler.

Hack 4 – Remove rust using Coca-Cola

Time to Do: 15 minutes
Cost DIY: $2
Cost Professional: $250+
Savings: $200

Rust can be a serious problem and can spread like a rash. Besides being a real eye-sore it weakens the structure around it.

One of the best ways to get the rust out of anything – a car, a metal bar, a suspension bridge – is to spray regular cola on it, and then simply wipe it off.

This is due to the fact that cola has a whole lot of acid in it which is great for breaking down rust. All you need to do it spray it, wait, and wipe it off of the rusty part of your car.

Hack 5 – Free frozen locks with hand sanitizer

Time to Do: 30 Seconds
Cost DIY: $3

Even if it’s only parked out front, getting from the front door to your car in the middle of a harsh winter can be pretty miserable. It’s worse if you get there only to find the door locks are frozen shut. Hand sanitizer is your key to getting inside.

The alcohol in hand sanitizer will melt ice very well and getting a bottle lets you spray it directly into the keyhole for the lock as well as the key itself. The alcohol works to thaw the ice, so you can hop in and get the heater turned on high.

Hack 6 – Shine your body with a clay bar

Time to Do: 45 minutes
Cost DIY: $20
Cost Professional: $150
Savings: $130

Constantly cleaning your car but never quite getting it to shine?

If you want that showroom finish and shine but without the showroom prices for that shine, a great way to “cheap out” but get that same exact look is by using a clay bar on your car’s body paint. This is due to the fact that the clay picks up the leftover gunk on your car’s body while leaving a clean, shiny finish

It’s what the pro’s use.

Tip: Add a ceramic coating layer on top to make the shine last for years.

Hack 7 – Polish your dashboard using olive oil

Time to Do: 20 minutes
Cost DIY: $5
Cost Professional: $35
Savings: $30

Your dashboard accumulates all sorts of gunk and dust. The sun shines directly on it and plastics crack and fades over time if they’re not cared for.

Keep your dashboard looking shiny and new with a little olive oil. Rubbing it into your dash will keep it looking nice and it will help keep some moisture in the material. That way, over time, it’s less likely to crack.

Hack 8 – Remove stickers using a razor

Time to Do: 20 minutes
Cost DIY: $0
Cost Professional: $50
Savings: $50

Use a razor blade to remove old stickers from your car. Hold the blade (carefully!) at an angle, and gently push it under the edge of the sticker. Keep pushing until you’ve removed a section, then repeat until the whole sticker is gone.

Hack 9 – Hide small scratches using only WD-40 spray

Time to Do: 10 minutes
Cost DIY: $12
Cost Professional: $100
Savings: $88

Quick fix for those nasty parking fender bender scratches. Just spray the WD-40 spray and wipe up nicely with a dry towel and the scratches dispensary almost completely. It’s worth noting, that it doesn’t actually remove the scratches, just hides it to the blind eye, until you wash it thoroughly again.

Hack 10 – Get your rims looking brand new and remove brake dust

Time to Do: 10 minutes
Cost DIY: $0
Cost Professional: $25
Savings: $25

A simple piece of plastic can make your life a whole lot easier. Just soak the rims good as you clean them letting the brake dust soak up a bit. Then just rub the plastic on the dirty areas and voila, the hardened impossibly to clean dirt just comes right off.

If you enjoyed this article, then you'll love AvalonKing's automotive care products for Do-It-Yourselfers. We create "No B.S products" for an affordable price. And the best part, we treat our customers like family, so if you have any questions or just looking to chat about cars, we're only an email or call away. Check out our homepage here.

Tim Charlet

Tim is part of the AvalonKing team as a content editor. A 30-year automotive guru, marketing super freak, and accomplished publicist & columnist, “Timmah” is also a licensed NHRA Drag Racer, a proud dad of two, and loves a good Guinness two-part pour.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I had no idea that brake dust is made of metal! That’s really important to know when cleaning a car because, as you said, you don’t want to scratch your car. I’ll have to get some separate supplies for my breaks so I can make sure my car is well cleaned.

  2. Good article overall but…you knew there was a but didn’t you “)…I am quite surprised to see you recommend cleaning foggy headlights with toothpaste. That is a big NO NO in the headlight restoration business. It doesn’t last. As such it is not in line with the lasting quality of your Armor Shield ceramic coating to recommend a toothpaste “polish” on the headlights.

    At the very least you should make it known that the headlights of today need protection like paint does from the destructive effects of further UV exposure and that they must be coated to achieve that protection perhaps with your Armor Shield.

    For what it’s worth.

    Carlos

    1. I’ve long suspected it’s not UV exposure that damages the headlights of many cars. I’ve never seen the taillights of any car look as bad as the headlights. Most cars seem to use the same type of plastic on the outside of each assembly.
      I believe its the heat from the lamps that damages the plastic.
      I’ve done a few headlight restores using kits of fine sandpaper and polish and was generally pleased with the improvement. But ultimately ,the only way to get new car quality is to replace them, Luckily the cars that I’ve done were not prohibitively expensive.

  3. The paintwork of the vehicle is consistently under attack from a number of rivals, including- dead insects, road grime, tar, bird droppings etc. A dirty windshield can cause accident now and then. So, it is recommended to keep your vehicle clean. Vehicle is a prized possession. Keeping it clean has long-term benefits. Also, keeping your vehicle clean increases its resale value, extends its working life, and makes it easier to sell. So, hire a car professional and do cleaning whenever it is needed.

  4. Oh god! Never knew that cleaning a car in direct sunlight can affect so. It is high time to clean both the interior and exterior of my car. I was thinking to take it to professional wash. After reading your blog I think cleaning it my own will be a good idea. My car is full of nasty dust and pet hair and was thinking to blow them out. Another blog on the best vacuum for car helped me to find the best vacuum cleaner for my car. Now I can clean my car up.

  5. Actually excited to wash my new car !

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