A car is usually the second-most expensive thing you’ll buy after a house. You’re proud of it and so naturally you like to keep it looking clean and shiny, but actually some wash methods and products can be detrimental to your car’s exterior surfaces if used regularly.
In this post, we’ll guide you through some basics of what’s good and bad when it comes to keeping your car clean. This isn’t an in-depth ‘detailer’ type guide, but a basic one that’s easy to follow and useful for the everyday person.
Automatic car washes are a brilliant invention, right? Insert a few coins into the machine, drive in, and then sit back as your car is squirted with foam, some big rotating brushes make their way across your the bodywork and glass, and finally dried off with a bar producing high-pressure air.
Driving out, your car looks impressively clean and shiny (apart from the wheel spokes, annoyingly, which it can’t get to) once more, and that’s it – you’ve not got cold or wet, but simply sat in your warm car while a machine does the hard work.
However, there are negative factors to this. Ever left your wing mirror open going through the wash? Often, it gets pushed shut with the force of the brushes. If it’s got the power to do that, imagine what your paintwork is going through when being slapped and whacked by the brushes or materials strips (depending on the machine)!
If you like to keep it clean with this method and do it on a regularly basis, the paintwork will without doubt suffer as although only barely noticeable fine scratches will appear in the finish at first, these will build and build until the paint becomes dull and flat. I’ve seen cars just a few years old have badly faded and dulled paint because the owner likes to keep it clean, and without fail takes it through the car wash once a week.
If you’re not massively fussy about your car, the occasional automatic wash is fine but if used regularly, the above could result.
What about products? A highly common one is for people to squirt a large amount of washing-up liquid/detergent into a bucket, before scrubbing away with an old sponge, cloth, or worse a vehicle brush (cringe), then throwing the remainder of the dirty water over the car, before rinsing the car down. Again, it’ll look clean but it’s not good for the paintwork at all.
Washing-up liquid is made for one thing: cleaning away all the grease and baked-on food from your plate, and it does so very effectively, leaving them squeaky-clean. The problem is, when used on a car the detergent strips away any form of protection on the paintwork and plastic and rubber trim, leaving it way more vulnerable to fade-inducing UV rays from the sun, and harmful industrial and natural fallout (bird muck, road grime etc).
Usually, the wash is followed by an enthusiastic rub-down with a bottle of old-school car polish with an old rag, but we’ll mention that in the next section. One more thing, and that’s about the interior. Over time interior plastics will fade and crack, so it’s vital to more than just wipe them down with a damp cloth.
Below is a quick ‘Do and Don’t’ guide for cleaning your car inside and out. Doing just these few easy things will keep your car looking great, protect the surfaces, and also add value when it comes to selling it.
Do not… take your vehicle to an automatic car wash regularly. This will damage the paint and trim over time, fading it and causing layer-upon-layer of light scratches.
Scratches caused by automatic machine car wash or using a dirty sponge or brush.
Do not… use washing up detergents. These strip away any protection on the paint or trim, leaving it susceptible to UV and fallout damage.
Do not… clean your car using an old rag or car brush. They will only add scratches and swirls to the paintwork.
Do not… throw the gritty and dirty remaining water over the car before rinsing. It’s pointless, and you’re only risking adding further scratches to the paintwork.
Do not… use a rubber squeegee to dry off the car. These are really bad, as they tiniest bit of grit will be pushed along the paintwork, causing clearly-visible scratches.
Do not… use polish regularly. Many old-school polishing products are designed to get rid of light scratches and scuff marks, and although they make the car look shiny you’re actually rubbing away the lacquer/paint layers slowly but surely. Plus, they do not add protection back to the paint either, and they also consume time and energy unnecessarily.
Do not… use strong acidic wheel cleaners or ‘brick acid’ products on your alloy wheels. Doing so can have an irreversible damaging effect on the finish. Also avoid using a normal yard-type brush on them, as this will scratch badly.
Do… wash the car yourself using good quality products (listed further down). If you’re incapable of doing this or simply don’t have the time, at least pay a valeter to do it or take it to a ‘hand car wash’. If possible, ask them to use microfibre cloths to dry the car, rather than the dreaded grit-scraping rubber squeegees.
Do… dry off the car quickly afterwards. If you don’t, the paintwork will have runs and watermarks galore, and they are a pain in the ass to shift.
Do… use a spray wax/quick detailer after each wash. This will maintain the high shine and also protect the paintwork and trim.
Do… apply high quality wax every few months. Wax not only adds lustre and depth to the paintwork, but protects the bodywork too. It also makes future washing far easier and less time-consuming.
Do… use an acid/alkaline free wheel cleaner for regular alloy cleaning. If you have badly baked-on grime, then you may have to for the first deep clean. After that, choose the above option to avoid any damage.
Do… pay a bit more for your products. Cheap definitely isn’t best when it comes to keeping your car looking great. There are loads of smaller, independent-type car cleaning manufacturers out there, and you tend to find some very innovative and higher quality products over those in the big car accessory stores.
Products you will need
– Car shampoo. Preferably one that is wax-friendly, pH-neutral, and dilutes well to give you more value.
– Wash mitt. Even a cheaper one is better than a sponge, but there are some really good quality versions out there, and worth buying to minimise scratches and swirls.
– Bucket with a ‘scratch shield’. Sounds complex? It’s not. Simply put, when grit and grime goes into the bucket, it then drops below the ‘shield’, keeping the water above cleaner.
– Microfibre drying towel. Buying a super-absorbant car-specific drying towel means less effort for you, and less chance of watermarks.
– Bottle of spray wax/quick detailer. Essential for maintaining a quick and easy high shine and good paintwork protection.
– High quality car wax. Good wax should be easy to apply and remove, and it should last at least 2 months. There are many to choose from, so perhaps ask the seller what they would choose.
– Choose the correct alloy wheel cleaning products for your specific wheels. Genuine split-rims and chrome wheels need extra care, and there are products developed for these, but most acid and alkaline-free versions will be safe. Always check the product description and ingredients first.
– Soft wheel brush. Choose a none-damaging and chemical-resistant brush for the safest way of cleaning your alloys.
Chris Davies is an award-winning motoring journalist writing for CarProductsTested.com
Hosepipe and sponge: Some rights reserved by devinlynnx
307 Detail (scratches): Some rights reserved by cupra_jamie
307 Detail (car shampoo suds): Some rights reserved by cupra_jamie
TVR Tuscan detail:Some rights reserved by cupra_jamie
- Choosing a selection results in a full page refresh.
- Press the space key then arrow keys to make a selection.
Use code 15%sale for
15% off your order