You enjoy the feeling of driving a freshly washed car as much as the next guy. After all, the cleanliness of your ride says as much about you as the way you keep your house, your landscaping, or your personal appearance. A clean, well cared for vehicle projects confidence and professionalism, and the act of hand washing your car can be therapeutic and relaxing.

But as we engage in this quintessentially All-American weekend activity, are we doing more damage than good? Although most of us have spent countless hours over the years washing our cars, odds are we’ve gone about it incorrectly. Using the wrong liquid cleaners or materials can result in dulling paint and a surface full of those awful swirls. Not only does an improper carwash dull and damage your paint, it also reduces the overall value of your vehicle. So before you head out to your driveway this weekend with a bottle of dish detergent and a bucket in hand, please give this article a good read and learn how to best go about washing your car so that it looks its best and retains its value.

Before washing your car:

Don’t wait for a layer of dirt to accumulate before washing. Dead bugs, bird droppings, and chemicals from the atmosphere all leave acids that can strip away wax and damage your car’s paint. Wash off dead bugs, bird droppings, and tree-sap mist as soon as possible. Other than this, a weekly car wash will keep the finish in its best shape.

Wash your car when it isn’t hot. If the body of the car is hot either from being in direct sunlight or from running around town, the heat will speed up the drying of soap and water and can leave you with soap spots on your car.

Car wash worker doing his job, vertical

You aren’t washing dishes so never use household cleaning agents like dishwashing detergent on the paint. These aren’t formulated for use on a car’s paint and may strip off the protective wax. Instead use a dedicated car-wash product, which is milder and specifically designed for use on automotive paint. Apply the suds with a large, soft natural sponge or a wool mitt.  The wash mitt is best and easiest to use. The thick material holds in the dirt preventing you from dragging it across the car.

 

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Horizontal view of tired man cleaning car

Spray the car down. Rinse all surfaces thoroughly with water before you begin washing to remove loose dirt and debris that could cause scratching. Start at the top, and then work your way around the car. Pay special attention to the wheels and surrounding area as grease, rubber, and road-tar deposits picked up from the road often accumulate around those areas. Spray areas that have dead bugs or other stubborn to remove deposits with a bug-and-tar remover. Use a soft, nonabrasive cloth to remove them and quickly rinse remover as it can damage the finish if left on too long.

washing a car by hand

Use two buckets. Fill one with your soapy water and another with clean water. Make sure you have plenty of suds as this will provide lots of lubrications on the paint surface. Put your sponge or mitt in the soapy water and concentrate on one section at a time. This will ensure you have time to rinse off the soap before it dries. Work from the the top of the car down since the bottom is where most of the dirt and grime are. After each section rinse the sponge in the bucket of clean water before moving onto the next one.

Vertical view of man cleaning his car

Don’t move the sponge in circles. This can cause light, but noticeable scratches called swirl marks. Instead, move the sponge lengthwise across the hood and other body panels. If you happen to drop your sponge or mitt on the ground, make sure your rinse it thoroughly before using it. The sponge can pick up dirt particles that can scratch the paint. When rinsing off the soap use a hose without a nozzle and let the water flow over the car from top to bottom. This creates a sheeting action that helps minimize pooling of water. Try to keep the entire car wet to prevent leaving water spots.

 

Man's hand washing a mag wheel on car

Clean the wheels last. Use a separate sponge and/or brush to clean the wheels and tires, which may be coated with mud, brake dust, and other debris that could damage the car’s finish. Mild soap and water may work here but we suggest a dedicated wheel cleaner as it will make the job much easier. Rinse all the soap off the wheels before moving on.

A man hand cleaning car with microfiber cloth.

Don’t let the car air dry and don’t expect a quick drive around the block to do the job either. Doing so will leave watermarks caused by minerals in hard water.  Just like washing the car, don’t use an abrasive towel or other material that can leave hairline scratches in the paint. We recommend a chamois (natural or synthetic) or soft terry towels. If you choose towels, you may need several. It’s best to blot the water up instead of dragging the towel or chamois over the paint.The key is to work quickly. Start with the windows and mirrors first especially if it’s hot out. Work your way around the car collecting water with your drying towel. Frequently squeeze the water out.  Don’t forget to open your doors and dry the door jams and molding areas. After the body of the car is dried, towel dry off the wheels and use a few rags to clean and buff the rims.

car care, polishing the red car

Now that your car is clean, its time to protect the paint.  Besides dirt and bugs, your car is exposed to the sun and its harmful UV rays. If you want it to keep its shiny finish you have to regularly polish it. We don’t recommend rotating polishing machines as they can damage your car’s paint if used incorrectly. It’s also recommend that you wax your car at least once per season.