It doesn’t matter if you are a professional car detailer or a certified paint restoration specialist, all of us had to start our automotive cleaning journey somewhere.

But like those clear tail lamps and crazy underglow light kits some of us slapped onto our vehicles during our younger years (coughs nervously and avoids eye contact), beginners are the ones who tend to make the most egregious car cleaning mistakes.

There’s nothing more frustrating than realizing that your car cleaning methods have just inflicted a shit-ton of clear coat and glass damage, and that you have to now pay a professional to repair your mistakes.

So if you are reading this, and you are just beginning to spread your auto detailing wings, heed the following ten warnings.

Mistake #1: Automatic Car Washes

Automatic, conveyor-driven car washes are the easiest way to clean a car, and royally screw-up your clear coat. Just say no to auto car wash damage, and opt to hand wash instead.
Automatic, conveyor-driven car washes are the easiest way to clean a car, and will royally screw-up your clear coat. Just say no to auto car wash damage, and opt to hand wash instead.

Conveyor-driven car washes provide a convenient solution for those looking to clean their vehicles in as little time as possible, without exerting any energy. But where the car washing equivalent of the fast food drive-thru rules in the convenience department, it also leads the way with the amount of damage it can inflict.

Automatic car washes are the public shower of the automotive world, and just like human, traces of the filth from every vehicle that has gone before you can be found in those scrubbing bristles and agitator pads. All those rotating brushes are a haven for impurities, and they can be quite abrasive, even when routinely cleaned and calibrated.

Furthermore, the water sources used, pressure applied, and pH potency of the shampoo being sprayed can all inflict damage, thus rendering even a “touchless” car wash unsafe.

Mistake #2: Scrubbing in Direct Sunlight

Avoid washing a vehicle in direct sunlight, as this tends to encourage the formation of hard water spots and dried soap residue.
Avoid washing a vehicle in direct sunlight, as this tends to encourage the formation of hard water spots and dried soap residue.

Water evaporates a hell of a lot faster in direct sunlight, leaving behind a ring of scum that is packed with minerals and impurities.

But the hard water spots formed by the H2O flowing from your garden hose aren’t the only danger either. Car shampoo is also prone to evaporating, which once allowed to harden, can be a massive pain in the ass to remove.

Always wash a vehicle well away from the Sun’s UV rays. If shade is not available, either complete your wash when the sun is low in the horizon, or purchase a pop-up tent. For more on avoiding sunlight when detailing a car, check out our AvalonKing blog regarding garage alternatives.

Mistake #3: Washing a Car With Household Cleaners

Dish soap is great for cutting grease and decontaminating eating surfaces and kitchen utensils, but it's intense pH balance will make mince meat out of your car's clear coat. Photo Credit: One Good Thing By Jillee/Facebook
Dish soap is great for cutting grease and decontaminating eating surfaces and kitchen utensils, but its intense pH balance will make mince meat out of your car’s clear coat. Photo Credit: One Good Thing By Jillee/Facebook

A lot of household cleaning products and de-greasers are engineered to remove stains, disinfect surfaces, and soften-up leftover lasagna residue. So while the pH balance of these sorts of cleaning products kicks ass in the house, they will kick the ever-loving shit out of your car’s clear coat.

Clear coat isn’t the only thing at risk either. Chrome coated surfaces, clear plastic headlight lenses, and soft rubber door seals have all been known to prematurely fail when routinely exposed to household cleaners.

Don’t make a simple cleaning task turn into an expensive auto body visit. There’s a reason why there are automotive-specific car maintenance shampoos and detailing sprays on the market.

Mistake #4: Not Using Lube

Routinely washing your automobile by hand with a quality car shampoo will help prolong the life of your clear coat, and provide superior surface shine.
Routinely washing your automobile by hand with a quality car shampoo will help prolong the life of your clear coat, and provide superior surface shine.

As your drunk uncle indignantly declared at the family holiday last summer: “There ain’t no such thing as too much lube!”

While squirting a tube of personal lubricant on your car will definitely work to keep those exterior surfaces super slippery, it will also draw some really strange looks from your neighbors.

Keep the KY Jelly in the bedroom, and instead, make sure that your car remains thoroughly drenched with water, car shampoo, or if using a clay decontamination product, a clay lube of some sort.

Mistake #5: Using Paper Towels

Kitchen towels may be ideal for cleaning-up spills, but this paper product will also mar the hell out of a clear coated surface, all while leaving loads of lint in its wake. Photo Credit: Organized Planet/Facebook
Kitchen towels may be ideal for cleaning-up spills, but this paper product will also mar the hell out of a clear coated surface, all while leaving loads of lint in its wake. Photo Credit: Organized Planet/Facebook

Paper towels may seem harmless, but this inexpensive, readily available cleaning product can turn a clear coat into massive pit of regret in a heartbeat.

While dish sponges and bathroom towels will also royally ruin a clear coat, paper towels create their own unique risk. All of those woven fibers that make-up a paper towel disintegrate quickly when exposed to moisture, and if pressed firmly enough, will create “paper cuts” on a hard surface.

The only cloth you should ever use on a car is an ultra-plush microfiber towel. Microfiber not only traps deeply embedded dirt, but it also does a banging job of absorbing moisture, and discourages scratching from occurring in the first place.

Mistake #6: Not Cleaning From Top-to-Bottom

A wash and dry after the clay bar treatment is completed will help rinse away any debris that may have been lifted during the detailing process. Photo Credit: Wilson Auto Detailing/YouTube
A wash and dry after the clay bar treatment is completed will help rinse away any debris that may have been lifted during the detailing process. Photo Credit: Wilson Auto Detailing/YouTube

Not washing an automobile from the roof downward, and scrubbing the lower sections first is only going to encourage all that filth on the roof to trickle down the sides, and contaminate everything you’ve just cleaned.

The lower areas of an automobile also tend to be the filthiest, as they are closer to the road grime, brake dust, bug splatter, de-icing salt, and other forms of contaminant. So save the nasty spots for last, and hit that roofline, windshield, and rear window glass first before moving downward.

Quick Tip: When washing a car, make sure that you scrub and rinse its wheels and tires first. This is the only lower part of the vehicle that should be washed before the roof, as it will prevent the spread of things like mud and brake dust onto your freshly scrubbed fenders, doors, rocker panels, and more.

Mistake #7: Scrubbing and Drying in a Swirling Motion

Swirl marks are almost always the direct result of washing or drying a vehicle in a circular motion, an unsightly issue that can be easily resolved by working in a straight-line method. Photo Credit: Contempo Concept HK Auto Detailing & Supplies/Faceboo
Swirl marks are almost always the direct result of washing or drying a vehicle in a circular motion, an unsightly issue that can be easily resolved by working in a straight-line method. Photo Credit: Contempo Concept HK Auto Detailing & Supplies/Facebook

We don’t give a damn what Mr. Miyagi taught you. Scrubbing or drying a car in a swirling motion is going to cause the creation of… you guessed it… swirl marks.

Instead, start with a side-to-side motion, and then transition to an up-and-down approach. This will create a “crosshatch” pattern, where any tiny scratches that are incurred during the first phase are blended out by the second stage. To further reduce the risk of spider scratch formation, implement this method during the auto claying, washing, and towel drying stage.

Mistake #8: Using Only One Bucket

While having a healthy array of car cleaning supplies and detailing chemicals is important, having more than one wash bucket is equally vital.
While having a healthy array of car cleaning supplies and detailing chemicals is important, having more than one wash bucket is equally vital.

If you are soaping your wash mitt or cloth, and then rinsing it off in the same bucket, you are cross contaminating your cleaning supplies. All that grime you just scrubbed off the surface of the vehicle has just been dumped back into into your car cleaning bucket, and all it takes is one dunk for this contamination to occur.

Having a separate scrub bucket that’s filled with clean water will negate this issue, as it provides you with a decontamination solution. Just a quick dunk, a dash of agitation, and you’ll be ready to reload your microfiber wash mitt with fresh suds prior to the next pass.

Mistake #9: Depending Upon Dirty Towels

A contaminated microfiber cloth is only going to cause additional headaches, so keep a sizable stock of clean detailing cloths on hand, and when in doubt ditch that dirty rag for a fresh towel.
A contaminated microfiber cloth is only going to cause additional headaches, so keep a sizable stock of clean detailing cloths on hand, and when in doubt ditch that dirty rag for a fresh towel.

There is no “5 Second Rule” when it comes to dropped cleaning or surface drying towels. The minute that cloth hits the ground, it goes from sudsy and sanitary, to grimy and unusable. It doesn’t matter if you are standing on a brand new slab of cement, or tip-toeing across a tile garage floor, all of the crap you just blasted off your car is on the ground around your automobile, and that towel just picked it up.

This is why it is always best to buy a multi-pack of microfiber detailing cloths at a time, and order an extra chenille noodle wash mitt and drying towel to boot. Accidents happen and gravity always wins, and being forced to wash a compromised cleaning towel or mitt is only going to make your car wash experience all the more time consuming and labor intensive.

Mistake #10: Conditioning the Steering Wheel, Shift Knob, and Pedals

While there's nothing wrong with cleaning things like your car's shift knob, foot pedals, and steering wheel, conditioning them with oil-rich protectant products can make them slippery, and therefore, surprisingly dangerous. Photo Credit: Micah Wright
While there’s nothing wrong with cleaning things like your car’s shift knob, foot pedals, and steering wheel, conditioning them with oil-rich protectant products can make them slippery, and therefore, surprisingly dangerous.
Photo Credit: Micah Wright

From turn signal indicators and hazard lights, to rev-matched down-shifts, sharp U-turns, and emergency braking, every part of driving has a mechanical component that makes it happen. That being said, any detailing product that could potentially make one of these parts slippery to the touch should be avoided.

Instead of conditioning your pedal assembly or shift knob with an oily, shine-inducing interior detailing product, consider wiping them down with a microfiber cloth that’s been lightly wetted with water and a tiny splash of car maintenance shampoo. This will allow you to clean the surface, without running the risk of making it slippery.

Parting Shots

Proper cleaning etiquette, routine maintenance, and a high quality surface protectant (like Armor Shield IX) will do wonders for prolonging the life of your vehicle and enhancing its appearances.
Proper cleaning etiquette, routine maintenance, and a high quality surface protectant (like Armor Shield IX) will do wonders for prolonging the life of your vehicle and enhancing its appearances.

Just because someone is new to the world of DIY detailing and car cleaning, doesn’t mean that they have to make costly mistakes, or “cut their teeth” on basic maintenance routines.

Remaining mindful of what works best, what should be avoided, and knowing when to hold-off and consult a professional are oftentimes all that is needed to become a better beginner. So clean carefully, follow the manufacturer’s recommended application advice, and hit-up your AvalonKing Help Center or our live chat tab for even more useful information.

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.