Best car cleaning tips: the secrets to a perfect finish

We get some top car care and car cleaning tips from one of the best in the business

Cleaning a car is one of those tasks that is unavoidable, but surprisingly difficult to do well. Here we aim to provide you with all the car cleaning info and tips to make the job an easier one with better results. If you want to achieve anything close to a showroom finish, it's going to take a lot more than a bucket of lukewarm water and a sponge.

There is, of course, the option of hiring a professional, however, the effect you’ll get can easily be replicated much more cheaply by yourself, provided you have the correct gear and the time to spare. One of the biggest fears motorists have is that they will damage their car during the cleaning process – catch a rogue stone and you will soon see the damage a few swift wipes can do.

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Which is why we have consolidated our knowledge and consulted with experts to produce a comprehensive list of car cleaning tips. As part of our research we spent a day Adam Eaton, head of detailing at specialist Gtechniq, to learn the professional’s way of cleaning a car.

If you’re anything like us, the prospect of a sunny weekend is positively improved by the thought of getting out there with the car cleaning kit and giving your pride and joy the care and attention you know it deserves.

Like everything else, keeping your car clean used to be simple. Nowadays, with all sorts of car cleaning products available, it can be a bit of a minefield even knowing where to start. If you’re heading to a car accessory store you’ll find a mind-bending array of car cleaning supplies, from brushes, cloths and sponges to a vast range of car shampoos, interior and wheel finishes, waxes and polish for the paintwork, and even odd-sounding things like detailing clay.

It’s all a far cry from Grandad’s day, when you simply rolled your sleeves up, grabbed a bucket a sponge and some detergent, and got stuck in. It’s also probably why so many car cleaning services have sprung up on disused forecourts and in car parks around the country – well, that and laziness of course!

That said, as well as the labour-intensive drive-through valeting specialists, automated car wash technology has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years, so it’s understandable that people want to save themselves the time and hassle. 

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Even so, there’s a lot to be said for cleaning your own car by hand, at least occasionally. There’s no better way to keep a close eye on its condition for starters, and it also allows you to achieve a much ‘deeper’ clean than you’ll ever get from sticking a token in a carwash.

To keep your car spick and span involves a bit more than just a bucket and sponge, of course, and our own car cleaning product tests have revealed many of the best car shampoos, potions and lotions for keeping paintwork, trim, interiors, and wheels and tyres looking at their best.

But whether you’re a fastidious owner who wants to save money on weekly car washes or – at the other end of the spectrum – the type of slacker who needs three weeks of sunny weather and a seagull assault on your paintwork to motivate a spring clean, it’s worth knowing how to do the job properly.

1. Don’t clean in extreme heat or direct sunlight

Clearly, if it’s warm you’ve got to work quicker with parts of the car drying faster than normal. But extreme heat will affect the strength of the chemicals in the products you’re using, too.

2. Remove grime before washing

Know as a ‘pre-wash’ by those in the trade, ensuring your car has as much dirt removed prior to putting your hands on the car is vital. Adam Eaton explains: “The whole point is that before we put our hands on the car, we clear as much dirt and grime to ensure that nothing gets dragged along the paint.”

If you don’t have a pressure washer and a snow foam lance, Gtechniq’s expert recommends spraying the car over with a regular cleaner. If you have a pressure washer (remember when using, don’t stand too close as you may cause damage to the paintwork), apply snow foam to the entire vehicle from top to bottom in an even coating. The cleaners and foams come with citrus oils that further help remove dirt and grime from the bodywork. Rinse the foam and cleaner  away with water.

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3. Use multiple buckets

Here a single bucket of water and some soap no longer cuts the mustard. Eaton once again explains why, “You’ll need two buckets. One with washing solution and the other just filled with water for rinsing. And be sure to place a grit guard in each bucket to catch the grime.”

Also, use a wash mitt; they’re designed to remove the most dirt and be the most ‘friendly’ to your car’s paint. As we start cleaning the car, Eaton tells us to only move the mitt in straight motions and not swirl it around. During the wiping process, be sure to wash the mitt as often as possible, to reduce the risk of dirt building up and damaging the paintwork.

4. Don’t use silicone-based sprays inside the car

While silicone-based sprays can be handy to dress cables under the bonnet, don’t use them in the cabin. Some roadside car washes will use them to give a shiny finish, but this can make important components such as your pedals slippy, also the reflections from the dash can become incredibly annoying while driving.

5. Use a blow dryer or specialist cloths

Most people will drive their car to help dry it off, but this can cause sticky brakes and see water pool in seals and gaps, creating streaks on the paint as it drains away. With a blower, you can prevent this. Alternatively, triple-layered microfibre cloths, folded into a square are what a lot of the the motor trade use, and can be incredibly effective.

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6. Choose cleaning products based on a car's use

Is your car going to be tucked away in a garage for the next week, paraded at a show the following day or out in all conditions every day of the week? This is an important consideration before you start detailing, according to Richard, as it determines the type of finish you should apply.

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You can get a relatively short-term, incredibly glossy finish or a much longer-term finish to the bodywork dependent on which products you use. Make the wrong decision here and you can waste hours reapplying when you should have gone with a more suitable finish.

7. Dress engine and regrease parts

If you want to go that extra step, then lift the bonnet and get to work on the engine. Many experts believe that a well maintained engine bay encourages mechanics at dealerships to take more care when they’re carrying out servicing and repairs.

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But it’s not just a case of blasting water over the engine, as this can cause problems with electrical systems; instead, clean and then dress black hose cables with a silicon-based spray and regrease moving parts like bearings.

8. Pay particular attention to wheels and wheelarches

Wheels and wheel arches is where most of the dirt and grime builds up, so it is often best to start with a jet wash here. Then using a bucket of warm water with shampoo get in there with the sponge.

To loosen brake dust and other grime on the wheels, we spray on an alloy cleaner and leave it for three minutes to work. At the same time, we spray the tyre with an all-purpose cleaner and wash it.

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Eaton advises doing one wheel at time, telling us: “This way the chemicals don’t stay on the surface for too long.” After three to four minutes, we hose down the wheel, and to ensure we get every speck of grime out of each one, we use three different brushes to work in the shampoo. Once finished, we rinse the wheels and tyres.

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It is sensible to ensure your wheel cleaner is suitable for your wheels before using it, as there are many a horror stories about people ruining their wheels. Another useful tip for wheel, is not to clean anything after you have just driven, as brake components may have become rather hot!

9. Clean the glass inside and out

Getting that extra shine requires extra effort. Eaton tells us that the best way to get a clear windscreen is to use a glass cleaner (on the inside and outside) and microfibre cloths. “Use two cloths,” he advises. “One for cleaning, the other for buffing.” We spray glass cleaner on one cloth and gently wipe the screen. We then buff it clean with the second cloth, and repeat this on the rest of the glass around the car. It is also best to apply the cleaner to the cloth rather than the glass, to avoid over spray.

For the tyres, we use foam-filled applicators and a bottle of tyre dressing. We then carefully dress each tyre to restore them to a showroom-fresh look.

10. Consider a depth gauge

To deal with any imperfections left on your paintwork, you can either use enhancers to fill gaps or go down the more professional route of machine polishing. The principles behind this are to cut back the paint beneath the imperfections using a rotating pad and the heat generated. Prices for depth gauges vary hugely, starting at around £100 and rising up into the thousands.

11. Use a clay bar

While the car might look smooth, if you run your hand along the bodywork, you’ll feel bumpy parts where carbon deposits and other grime have bonded to the paintwork. The clay bar is one of the best ways to eradicate this, and as such is gaining popularity in the car cleaing world.

Top Do's and Don'ts 

  1.  Don’t clean your car in intense heat
  2.  Do pre-wash your car
  3.  Do use multiple buckets
  4.  Don’t use silicone-based sprays inside the car
  5.  Do use a blow dryer or specialist cloths
  6.  Do choose cleaning products based on a car's use
  7.  Do dress and regrease engine components
  8.  Do pay particular attention to wheels and wheelarches
  9.  Do clean the glass inside and out
  10. Do consider a depth gauge
  11. Do use a clay bar

Do you have any more car care tips? Let us know in the comments below.

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