Posted by bhans on October 30, 2020

Really? I mean, come on, how hard is it to wash a car?

It's not hard at all, actually. But, how are you washing your car? And, how much accidental and potential damage could you be inflicting on your car?

You can unintentionally be causing damage to your car. Damage can come in many forms from improperly washing your car: scratches, swirls, water spots, wheel finish damage, hazing, and more! These problems can be caused by technique, products you are using, and frequency of washing.

How often should I wash my car?

Depends...I know, it’s the greatest non-answer.

The more you use your car, the more often you will probably need to wash it. As a rule of thumb, if you have a daily driver, it will probably need washed weekly to bi-weekly. Use it less often and wash less frequently. If you encounter road hazards like salt or mud at least try to rinse it off as often as you can until your next wash. Also while you are at it, we recommend vacuuming out your car when you wash at least every 2 to 4 weeks. Vacuuming helps to keep dirt, dust, and other things from really getting deep in the carpet and fabric.

Wash about every week to two weeks, depending on usage

How should I wash my car?

Let’s get a couple things out of the way.

Firstly, PLEASE do not use a touch automatic car wash. EVER. Technology has come a long way and the brushes are much better than they were even 5 years ago. A lot of them use modern foam brushes that on their own are much less potentially damaging. But, some of the dirt and contaminants that was on every car that was washed before yours is now embedded in those brushes. They don’t clean those brushes between every car wash, if ever. All of that embedded dirt will then be forcefully brushed against your car. Consider the high speed rotating brushes against your car. All of this WILL cause scratches and swirls, no question. Also look at the disclaimer before you enter the car wash about them taking no responsibility for damage caused by the automatic wash. There’s a reason for that disclaimer. Also, the chemicals they use to clean are usually caustic, and protection chemicals are very short lasting.

Secondly, only use a no-touch automatic wash if you have to. You won’t get scratches and swirls from the brushes. You can still have damage from the high speed jets possibly breaking something, less likely. But, they invariably use much more caustic chemicals to do the work without the brushes, and they don’t always rinse off perfectly. It is better than letting a salt covered car sit for a week.

Your best option to clean your car without damaging is to wash by hand.

Get your car out of the sun and make sure the body panels are cool. If you wash a hot car the soapy water will dry on the paint and windows creating water spots. You can even use a manual car wash bay if you don’t have a shady spot at home on the day you are washing. Don’t use a pressure washer or high pressure in a car wash bay as it can strip car wax and paint sealant. We will discuss products in more detail later in the article.

Here is a simple process to ensure best results and least accidental damage.

Here is a simple process to ensure best results and least accidental damage.

Rinse the entire car from top to bottom. You want to dislodge as much dirt and contaminants from the car as possible using just the water. You shouldn’t use a jet spray or high pressure to get a lot of it off. Start on the roof, work down the car. Don’t be in a hurry, work the dirt off with the hose sprayer. Get in the nooks and crannies of the bodywork. Spray up in the wheel wells, on the wheel facings and in the wheel barrels, even under the body. The more dirt you can get off the car with water, the better. Especially under the wheel wells and under-body; dirt and mud will trap moisture against the body. That trapped moisture is what starts to create rust.

Clean off any bug residue and bird droppings the rinse didn’t get. Use a good safe bug cleaner for both. Spray the cleaner on, let work per product directions, you may need to agitate with a clean microfiber with very light pressure. Use a clean section of the microfiber for each area needing clean or use a new microfiber towel. You don’t want the dirt to possibly damage another area, that’s why you always use a clean section of microfiber. Then rinse off all the bug cleaner.

Wash the wheels and tires before you wash the upper sections. You don’t want all the dirt, brake dust, etc from washing the wheels to be left on the rest of the car. It will splash up. Spray your safe wheel cleaner, more on this later, on the wheel and tire. Usually let it work for up to 5 minutes, follow the cleaners directions. Use a wheel safe brush or microfiber towel to agitate where necessary; clean the towel and brush between each wheel. You can use a normal plastic bristle brush on the tires. Keep the bucket, brushes and towels you use to clean the wheels and tires separate and only ever use them on wheels and tires. You don’t want these chemicals and contaminants to ever touch your painted surfaces.

We highly recommend a two bucket system. You will have one bucket with rinse water and the other bucket with shampoo water. Very highly recommend at least a grit guard in the rinse bucket, best in both. A grit guard is a plastic grill that sits in the bottom of your bucket that you rub your wash mitt against and it helps to separate and trap contaminants from your wash mitt into the bottom of the bucket. These contaminants that came off your car get into your wash mitt. Left in your wash mitt, you will just rub the contaminants back up against your car and create scratches. Remember the brushes from the automatic car wash above, you end up doing the same thing just not as forcefully. With a two bucket system you will load your wash mitt in the wash bucket, wash a section, rinse your mitt making sure to rub the grit guard well, then back to the wash bucket, and so on. You can do a one bucket method with the shampoo water and grit guard. You will rinse your mitt with the hose after washing a section to dislodge contaminants and dirty shampoo, then back in the wash bucket rubbing the grit guard well.

Start at the top of the car. Don’t try to wash too much at once, usually one or two panels is good. You do not want the shampoo water to start drying on the car. The hotter it is the quicker it will dry. Direct sunlight is a no-no. Rinse off the panels just cleaned. You can minimize water left on the car by using a sheeting technique, see below. Clean/rinse your wash mitt, load up and go to the next couple panes. When you get to the side panels we recommend splitting them into top half and bottom half. The bottom half of the car gets the dirtiest, so do them last. Depending on how dirty the car is, you may want to even have a second mitt just for the bottom half. The point is to keep as much of the contaminants from potentially scratching another section of the car. That’s why you want to start at the top, usually the cleanest, and work down to the bottom, the dirtiest.

Sheeting technique

Make sure you have completely rinsed all shampoo off your car first. Either set your nozzle to a free flowing stream or remove the nozzle. Start at the top of your vehicle and let the water freely flow down, create a cascading effect moving left and right and slowly down the vehicle. Water molecules are attracted to each other so as the water flows over the droplets on the surface they rinse away with the stream and leave less and smaller droplets for you to dry afterwards. Keep practicing it and you will get better at it and get a feel for it.

Make sure you have completely rinsed all shampoo off your car first. Now use a sheeting technique to rinse off the car. This method will minimize the amount of water droplets left on the car before drying. Either set your nozzle to a free flowing stream or remove the nozzle. Start at the top of your vehicle and let the water freely flow down, create a cascading effect moving left and right and slowly down the vehicle. Water molecules are attracted to each other so as the water flows over the droplets on the surface they rinse away with the stream and leave less and smaller droplets for you to dry afterwards. Keep practicing it and you will get better at it and get a feel for it.

Now that the car is washed, you are not done. Nope, not yet. It’s time to dry it. You want to dry it so as to not cause water spots. Water spots can not only make a mess looking through the windshield, but can actually physically cause damage to the clear coat from hard water. Again, start at the top and work down. Use a waffle weave microfiber towel, probably two. Use a blotting technique, do not wipe it. Wiping can just cause scratches that we are trying to avoid through this whole washing process. Take the towel, lay it out on the section and let it soak up as much as it can. Remove the towel and then blot any remaining water. Ring out as much as you can and continue until it’s all dry. Switch towels when you need to. You can also use a leaf blower to blow water off prior to towel drying. Especially around crevices, joints, emblems, and mirrors; they all like to hold water and drip, drip, drip.

What should I use to wash my car?

There are many options for products to use to clean your car out there. Some are better than others; some are safer than others. Our recommendations are not the only products qualified for use. We will explain some things to look for in the type of product so you can decide if you are looking for alternatives.

Water delivery

A good multi-function hose nozzle or fireman style nozzle will work just fine to clean a car. Either type you can use a low to medium flow rate to initial rinse the car and during washing. If need be, you can adjust to a higher flow rate full output for wheel wells and under car. Using the soaker or adjusting the fireman type nozzle you can usually get a good flow rate for sheeting technique drying. If your nozzle doesn’t give a sufficient effect for sheeting you can simply remove the nozzle and use the hose end. An RV water filling nozzle works well too, it’s usually like a foot rubber tubing connected to an inline valve. If you are going to remove the nozzle for sheeting technique, word to the wise, get an inline hose valve so you don’t have to run back and forth to turn the water off and on.

Buckets and grit guard

There are several companies making grit guards including the Grit Guard brand. They all perform the same basic function and none really work better than another. Some companies also offer a vertical add on, which Grit Guard calls a Washboard, that can make it more convenient cleaning the wash mitt. Again, you can use one or two grit guards for either the rinse bucket or both buckets. When it comes to buckets, you can choose either 3 or 5 gallon buckets. You will need either 2 or 3 buckets depending on 1 or 2 bucket wash and 1 for wheels. Two things to look for in buckets: 1, make sure the grit guard fits in the bottom of the bucket as some budget buckets are narrower than the guard; 2, look for a thicker walled bucket as it will be more durable and we have seen ruptured thin walled buckets (which actually came from a narrow bucket that the grit guard did not fit and expanded the bucket then ruptured).

Bugs, Bird Droppings and more

Firstly, try to remove these with the least powerful cleaners so you don’t damage your paint protection. Start with a damp microfiber towel with light pressure; if it’s fresh it will usually work. If you need a little more, try a rinseless cleaner like Optimum No Rinse or even some car wash. Some of the most effective products, CarPro Bug Out works great for bugs and bird droppings and is completely safe for ceramic coatings. CarPro Tar X is also phenomenal for tar removal and ceramic coating safe. Stoner’s Tarminator is a very capable product for use on all bugs, bird droppings and tar and you should be able to get it at your local auto supply store. All products for removal of bugs, bird droppings and tar will remove or seriously degrade waxes and sealants, so at least top off with a quick detailer to help protect until wax or paint sealant can be touched up or re-applied.

Wheel and tire cleaning

Wheel and tire cleaning

Use a basic microfiber towel per wheel or a microfiber wash mitt and a bucket dedicated to wheel cleaning. If you clean your car a lot and/or your wheels are protected, you may be able to use your same car shampoo. When you start to have more built up brake dust and more, you will need to step up to a dedicated wheel cleaner or two. Always start with the least powerful cleaners so as to not damage the protection or the wheel itself. One thing to always look for in wheel cleaners is you want it to be pH balanced. Almost all wheel cleaners you can get at the auto supply stores are acidic. I’m sure you have seen wheels with the clear coat peeling off, or the chrome/aluminum pitted and rusting. These cleaners are invariably what causes that to happen. It’s also the same type of cleaners that automatic washes use. They will damage your wheels. Stay away from them. A great wheel cleaner for routine washing is Chemical Guys Diablo Gel Wheel Cleaner. When you need something stronger for lots of brake dust, Sonax Full Effect Wheel Cleaner will get it all off. You can spray the wheel cleaner on the tires as well, or use an all purpose cleaner and there are plenty to choose from like Meguiar’s D101 or even Simple Green. Just try to not spray the wheels with it and rinse off very well.

Washing products

Use a dedicated shampoo designed for cars that is appropriate for your paint protection. Most shampoos have shining agents incorporated. These shining agents counteract the hydrophobic properties of all ceramic coatings and to a lesser degree sealants and waxes. The biggest thing to pay attention to with any car shampoo is how much product to use. Make sure to follow the directions for dilution. Some shampoos you will use 1 oz to 4-5 gallons of water, some 4 oz to 3 gallons. If you use too much shampoo you risk degrading your paint protection; if you use too little you will have less lubrication and risk scratching paint from contaminants on your wash mitt. Two products we recommend are Chemical Guys Honeydew Snow Foam for washing sealants and waxes which you may be able to get at your auto supply store, and CarPro Reset for ceramic coatings. Both of these do not contain shining agents and are very effective. For wash mitts, best would be a natural sheepskin/wool mitt like CarPro Merino Wool Wash Mitt, next would be high quality microfiber mitt like the Rag Company Cyclone Premium Microfiber Mitt or Pad.


A couple of high quality microfiber waffle weave drying towels will help out greatly and protect the finish. The Rag Company’s Dry Me a River is a very effective one. Remember, blot don’t wipe!

This process will help you to keep your car looking great and not accidentally damaging your car in the process. The products we recommend are not the only ones that work well, there are a lot of great companies make great products out there. Just be careful and check the products out to make sure you get ones that are safe and appropriate for your car.

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