How to Wash a Car
Last updated in October 2014
Washing your car...it’s a straightforward process, right? You get a hose, spray the vehicle down, soap it up, rinse it, and you’re done. Not so fast: As with most tasks, there’s a right way and a wrong way to wash a car.
- If possible, wash your car in the shade or on a cloudy day. If you wash your car under direct sunlight, soapy water may dry before you get a chance to rinse it away, leaving the dried soap—and the dirt—on the car.
- Before washing, pre-clean difficult-to-remove dirt such as bird droppings or road tar deposits. Spritz bird droppings with warm water, allow the water to soak in for a bit, and then wipe the area clean with a sponge. Road tar deposits can be removed with specialized cleaners or with household kerosene lamp fluid.
- Fill a bucket with water and soap formulated for washing cars. Most household detergents and soaps aren’t appropriate for carwashing. Dish soap usually contains degreasing agents that can strip wax from your paintwork; laundry detergent or hand soap may be too strong and may also leave streaks. Read the directions to determine how much soap to use. Too much soap can leave a sticky residue, which just attracts more dirt. Create plenty of foamy suds, which will suspend dirt off the car’s surface and help reduce abrasion during washing.
- Give your car a good rinse with a hose, paying extra attention to especially dirty areas. If you’ve been off-roading, if your car is covered in salt and sand from snow treatments, or if your car is otherwise particularly dirty, take your car to a coin-operated or automated carwash to remove as much dirt and mud as possible before hand washing it. If there’s too much dirt on the car, you’ll just drag the dirt around with your dirty sponge instead of removing it.
- To wash, use a large, soft, car-washing sponge or mitt. Rinse out the sponge/mitt frequently—in a separate bucket with plain, clean water. When the water in your rinsing bucket becomes dirty, change it. As you wash, apply only light pressure to the sponge/mitt; too much pressure will drag dirt around, and if the dirt is gritty, it may scratch your paintwork.
- Wash the car in sections, from the top down. Rinse the roof, soap it, and then rinse off the soap. Then move on to the hood and trunk lids, then the sides, followed by the front and rear ends. If soapy water begins to dry in an area where you’re working, rinse off the area before moving on to the next. When rinsing off soap, the goal is to get dirty soapy water off the car as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is to detach any spray attachments to your hose and place the hose nozzle close to the car, so that the water will run off in sheets.
- After washing the car, dry it off using clean, soft terrycloth or microfiber towels (such as towels for drying hair). Leaving water to dry on the car on its own may leave behind calcium residue. As with washing, dry your car in sections so that areas don’t dry out on their own while you’re washing another area.
- Clean tires last, one at a time, and rinse them thoroughly. To get hard-to-remove deposits, pretreat them with a specialized cleaner and use a stiff brush to scrub them clean. Use extra care if you have chrome wheels, which usually have protective clearcoats that can be easily scratched if scrubbed too hard.
- If needed, apply a coat of wax. Waxing covers the paintwork with a thin film of protection against dirt and scratches, making the car easier to wash in the future. You can tell when your car needs wax by noting if water runs off its surface in sheets, as it should, rather than beading up into drops. When waxing, don’t overdo it; apply the wax with a small, soft sponge or applicator pad, and follow the product’s directions. If the pad becomes dirty, discard it and use a new one. If you’re unfamiliar with the product, first test it on a small unnoticeable area before proceeding with the rest of the job; if any paint comes off onto the cloth, you probably shouldn’t use that product. After applying the wax, buff the car’s surface using a very soft, all-cotton, nonabrasive cloth such as a cloth baby diaper. Turn the cloth over frequently so that you’re always working with a clean area of the cloth. When buffing, use a back-and-forth motion, not a circular motion. Avoid getting wax products on windows.
- You can clean your car’s windows with a standard window cleaner and clean paper towels.
- Enjoy the almost-inevitable rain showers.