How To Clean the Exterior of Your Car Like a Pro

How to wash your car

When it comes to washing your car, its a love/hate relationship. You either enjoy your vehicle as a hobby and it is your pride and joy or you hate the thought of even cleaning a floor mat and just assume it rot where it sits. So here are some tips for the enthusiast to clean your car's exterior like a pro. 

How to clean your car like a pro

Are there general guidelines I should follow?

Yes. If you're in the category of enthusiast and washing your car is chicken soup for your soul, then you know there are some things you need to think about. Washing your car can be easy and enjoyable and regular washing helps a new paint job keep its luster. But as simple as washing your car may seem, there are some things to watch for so that you don't accidentally scratch or degrade the finish. Below are some basic car-washing tips.

  1. Shade is your friend. Your vehicle’s surface needs to be cool. If the car is hot, the soap suds will dry too quickly, staining the surface and requiring another wash. Enjoying washing your car goes as far as doing it one time on your afternoon off. 
  2. Pre-soak. Pre-soak your vehicle to remove grime, bug shrapnel, and heavy contaminants like rocks, water bottles, McDonald's wrappers and bunny remains.
  3. DO use mild liquid soap and a soft car wash mitt or some other towel designed to respect your paint job's luster. Renew your water regularly. 
  4. Patience young Jedi. Many times, we just soap up the entire car and get to work. Negative ghost rider - wash one section at a time, and then rinse it off. You should start with the roof of the car, then proceed to the hood and the rear. It makes perfect sense to go top-down rather than create more work for yourself. 

    Next, clean the upper quarter panels, then move to the lower areas, including the rocker panels. The lower area of your car will always have extra "stuff" on it and the longer pre-soak as you work your way down will help eliminate this crud. The top to bottom sequence is also important because you run the risk of having small pieces of debris adhere to the mitt or sponge which may scratch your vehicle.
  5. Hose off your mitt! This is the toughest piece of advice because it is a human diligence requirement. We all want to just put the mitt or cloth back in our water and rinse it there while soaking up some more soapy water. This is bad! Always hose off your mitt or sponge before putting it back in the wash bucket to re-soap. Start with clean water and end with clean water. Dipping your dirty mitt into your bucket, just helps you apply the grime right back onto your automobile. If you've every wondered why the car is streaking while you're washing it, this may be your answer. 
  6. Rinse, rinse, rinse. Rinse your vehicle thoroughly and all over. When you feel satisfied and think you're finally done rinsing, go ahead and rinse it one more time. 
  7. Rims and tires. Your car washing drawer should have a few different mitts and cloths in it. We heavily suggest using a different mitt to clean the tires and rims of your car then the body. Using a separate mitt for the wheels will reduce the chance that you’ll scratch the car’s paint with brake dust and dirt you pick up from the rims. You'd be surprised how many people just use the same water and same mitts for washing and rinsing everything. You might as well drive right to the auto body shop when you're done. 
  8. Wheels. Ahhh, your pride and joy. Be very cautious when cleaning wheels, especially if you’re using a spray-on wheel cleaner. Wheels can be extremely hot if the car has just been driven or sitting in the sun. When you spray wheel cleaning chemicals on hot metal, the chemicals will vaporize and you will inevitably inhale them. Needless to say, this is not good for you health routine and depending on temperature and the chemical, you could cause some damage to products like Chrome or special coatings.
  9. DON'T buy the pricey automotive cleaners. Instead, use a mild, liquid soap that is well diluted. This will accomplish everything you need, such as removing dirt, grease, and films without damaging plastics or other materials. Some people use household soaps but you also need to be careful to not use a harsh detergent. Stick to mild soaps and if possible find one that is safe for cars. The huge benefit is that it will cost you pennies over the heavily marketed auto detailing brands. 
  10. The drying process. Dry your vehicle immediately to prevent water spots. Chamois work very well and can help you move quickly through a vehicle that may have the sun on it. 

What's next after I wash my car?

You should follow your wash process by waxing and cleaning the windows both inside and out. Applying wax to your car is like putting sunscreen on your skin. It adds a layer of protection from UV rays to prevent fading, as well as anything that may land on the paint.

You will be able to preserve your high gloss finish for a much longer span of time. You can find wax in a carnauba or polymer form. Both types of wax perform the same, but a polymer wax won't haze as it dries and can usually be wiped off soon after applying. The choice between using carnauba or polymer wax is similar to choosing synthetic or regular engine oil. A polymer is a bit more expensive but is easier to apply and some say performs better.

For the glass, the rules are pretty simple. Stay away from what you inherently want to do which is to grab Windex and other household glass cleaners. They can contain ammonia which can damage your car's window tint. Use an auto window cleaner for best results and wipe down twice to ensure the cleaner is removed. In a pinch, you can use a diluted white vinegar solution as it's a natural, low-cost, healthy household cleaner that should be fairly streak-free. 

Last thoughts and tips...

Don't... move your sponge or mitt in circles. This can create light, but noticeable scratches called swirl marks. Instead, move the sponge lengthwise across the hood and other body panels. If you drop your sponge, rinse it thoroughly. Never reapply a sponge that has hit the ground or gone into polluted soapy water. Take that extra time to change out your bucket. 

Maintain a shine. If you're going to lose sleep at night because the thought of pulling your freshly waxed car out to run an errand or (God forbid) go to work, then you may want to keep some supplies on hand to maintain your shine. There are several spray mists out there designed to remove daily debris and keep your wax job in top form. Toss this and a micro-fiber cloth in the trunk and you're armed and ready. 


For headlights that are sun-faded, full of crud, or just plain old, you can check out our guide on "How To Restore Your Car Headlights to New".

If your car is nearing that "vintage" stage or you just can't bear to part with it, but it's an eyesore, you may want to recondition it. You can read about the difference between detailing and reconditioning your car.