In my youth, I used to listen to a live Iron Maiden album on my Walkman a lot.
There’s a tune on it called Revelations, and the singer introduces it with the words, “This is a song written about religion. Or about washing your car.”
I didn’t own a car back then, but I still thought it was a funny line. Now, many cars later, I really get it!
It’s easy to neglect our four-wheeled friends and not give them the care they deserve. In this article, though, we’re going to change that.
We’re going to tell you what your car really, really wants and needs: a good cleaning both on the inside and out!
We’ll walk you through prepping the exterior of your car for a wash, cleaning out the cabin, and gathering your gear, including what kinds of soap to use and how to pick the best spot to do the deed.
At the heart of it all is a step-by-step guide to washing your car, plus some pro tips for getting the job done just right, while avoiding potentially costly mistakes that could end up being a waste of time and good money.
Choosing the right playlist for the job, however, will be up to you. (Though you can’t go wrong with “Car Wash” by Rose Royce!)
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 The Ultimate Guide to Washing Your Car: An Infographic
- 2 A Quick Look at What You Need to Wash Your Car
- 3 What to do Before You Wash Your Car
- 3.1 What to Wear, What to Wear…
- 3.2 Close All Windows
- 3.3 Pull Windshield Wipers Out
- 3.4 Start With the Inside
- 3.5 Throw Away All Trash, and Remove Anything That Shouldn’t Be in There
- 3.6 Wipe Down Interior of Windows and Sunroof (If You Have One)
- 3.7 Clean the Floor Mats
- 3.8 Swapping out for the Season
- 3.9 Dust Cracks and Crevices
- 3.10 Vacuum Floor and Upholstery
- 3.11 Wipe Down Dashboard
- 3.12 Apply Leather Conditioner to Seats
- 3.13 Wipe Down Seatbelts
- 3.14 Put Floor Mats Back
- 3.15 Finishing Touches
- 4 How to Wash Your Car by Hand
- 4.1 Soap Selection
- 4.2 3 Bucket System
- 4.3 Wash Rag Hygiene
- 4.4 Wash Area Selection
- 4.5 Ready Your Buckets
- 4.6 Prepare the Washing Solution
- 4.7 Rinse
- 4.8 Wash Wheels and Tires
- 4.9 Pre-Treat / Spot Treat Bug, Tar, Sap and Bird Stains
- 4.10 Scrub
- 4.11 Final Rinse
- 4.12 Dry
- 4.13 Don’t Forget the Windows
- 4.14 Apply Tire Dressing
- 4.15 Clean the Headlights
- 4.16 Wax
- 5 Time to Celebrate A Job Well Done!
The Ultimate Guide to Washing Your Car: An Infographic
Before we kick this guide off, here’s an infographic we put together that summarizes everything we’re about to discuss in great detail in the sections that follow.
A Quick Look at What You Need to Wash Your Car
Skill Level Needed: Beginner
Time Needed: 1.5 – 2 hours
Tools Needed: 3 buckets; several microfiber cloths and/or car wash mitt; garden hose; automotive soap, glass cleaner, and leather conditioner (if required); bug and tar remover; stiff nylon brush; shop or hand vacuum; degreasing spray; garbage bag for trash
What to do Before You Wash Your Car
No doubt you’re excited to start lathering up, but there are a few things that should be done before we get to that part.
What to Wear, What to Wear…
This may seem like a silly thing to talk about, but it is important to dress properly for the job.
Choose clothes you won’t mind getting wet and/or dirty, and avoid anything with zippers and buckles that can scratch your paint.
Make sure it’s all reasonably roomy, too, because you’ll be moving around a lot.
Since there aren’t any tools to worry about, you’re probably safe in flip-flops or sandals, assuming the weather permits.
Close All Windows
This should be a no-brainer, but… Do a double-check and be sure no window is open even a crack!
Yes, you want to clean the inside of your car, too, but not like this!
Pull Windshield Wipers Out
Grab each windshield wiper and carefully pull it away from the window. You’ll feel it lock into place, at which point the wiper will stay there indefinitely.
Doing so allows you to get at the entire surface of the windshield, right down to where the wipers rest. A lot of debris can accumulate here, so you won’t want to miss it.
Don’t forget that rear wiper, too, if you drive a van, SUV, or hatchback!
Start With the Inside
Washing the outside of your car is the perfect excuse for cleaning out the interior. There’s absolutely no point in doing half the job, you know!
Plus, you don’t want to accidentally smudge the exterior getting in and out trying to clean the inside after you’ve done the outside.
Throw Away All Trash, and Remove Anything That Shouldn’t Be in There
Now’s the time to get rid of all those old parking receipts, water bottles, coffee cups, gum wrappers, and assorted other debris that seems to build up in most cars.
Go through all storage compartments, including the center console and the glove box. Now is also an excellent time to ensure you’ve got up-to-date insurance information on hand, too.
If you have kids or regularly transport passengers, poke around in the back for anything left behind. Stick your hands into seats and crevices and go on a treasure hunt while you’re at it – you’ll be surprised with what you might find!
Remove child and infant seats, too; you’ll be amazed at how much crud collects under them.
Wipe Down Interior of Windows and Sunroof (If You Have One)
We’ll spend some time on cleaning the outside of all the windows, but you don’t want to neglect the inside.
Plenty of crud collects on the inside of all your windows; pollen and debris drawn in by the HVAC, gasses emitted by degrading plastic and fabric baking in the sun, and all manner of human ventilations.
Your first instinct is probably to grab that bottle of blue stuff from under the bathroom sink. While it’s great for mirrors and other glass around the home, it’s not the best choice for your car.
Most household glass cleaners contain ammonia, and ammonia not only streaks auto glass, but it will also peel up your tinting over time.
Use a non-ammonia based glass cleaner on the interior of your car windows. We recommend specially formulated auto glass cleaners.
Clean the Floor Mats
A truly disgusting collection of crud accumulates in your floor mats. But, that’s ok – that’s what they’re they for!
Your job is to remove each mat for cleaning and to expose the carpet underneath. Don’t forget to grab the mats from the back if you have a third row of seating.
In a nutshell, to clean your car mats, first remove them (carefully, so as not to drop loose debris) and shake them out well away from your car.
Scrub away caked on debris with a brush, and give them a going over with a vacuum.
Rubber mats can be soaped up and hosed off, and cloth mats may be cleaned with an appropriate cleaning fluid. If you’ve got a steam cleaner, even better.
Hang wet mats to dry, and let the sun take care of them while you finish the interior.
For more detailed instructions on how to properly clean your car mats, give this article a read!
Swapping out for the Season
If you’re transitioning between seasons, take the time to switch from winter to summer floor mats, or vice versa, if you have them.
Consider buying a set if you don’t; rubber mats don’t absorb water or get salt stained, and they protect your pants and your carpet from damage.
Check with your dealer to see if custom mats are available for your vehicle, or get generic ones online or from a local auto parts store.
PRO TIP: You may want to leave the mats until near the end so that you aren’t putting your shoes on the base carpet while you clean the rest of the interior. Otherwise, consider wearing slip-on shoes or flip-flops, and leaving them outside the car while you work.
Dust Cracks and Crevices
To do this job right, you have to be thorough!
Dust and debris get everywhere, making your car unpleasant to look at, and even polluting the air you breathe. But, there are plenty of tiny places you won’t manage to get to with a rag or cloth.
Take an old toothbrush and use it to get into the seams between console panels, air vents, door handles, and all the other little nooks and crannies that dirt and dust settle in.
Alternatively, you can try using a special cleaning putty. Pressing the putty into cracks and small places causes it to shape perfectly to the space. It’s a bit tacky (kind of like Silly Putty), and when you pull it out again, it will bring all the fine particles with it.
Vacuum Floor and Upholstery
Since no job is complete without using noisy machinery, bust out your shop vacuum and get ready to go to town! This is by far the easiest way to get your carpet and seat upholstery clean.
If you have a crevice tool, you’ll find it handy for getting under and between the seats, and tight spots like the channels the seats move back and forth in, or down into the recesses where fold-and-go seats latch in place.
Resist the temptation to use a vacuum on plastic or wood surfaces, though. It may seem like a quick way to clean out a cup holder without putting in too much time or effort into it, but you run a serious risk of leaving scratches and marks.
Be careful vacuuming leather upholstery for the same reason.
If you don’t have an appropriate vacuum, try your local service station instead. Many of them have coin-operated vacuums available for you to make use of. Just make sure you bring a stack of change with you!
Wipe Down Dashboard
A dashboard collects a lot of dust, especially up near the windshield, and in any recessed areas.
Get yourself a good, lint-free rag or microfiber cleaning cloth and automotive vinyl and rubber cleaner. Spray the cleaner on the rag, not the surface to be cleaned, to avoid overspray.
Keep an eye on your cloth; when it’s covered in dust, it’s time to flip it over, unfold it, or swap it out.
Be thorough and don’t miss anything – if you don’t clean it up now, you’ll be breathing it in later!
If you’ve got a luxury ride and there’s leather or wood in or on the console, don’t use the vinyl cleaner. Choose specialty formulas for whichever of these you’ve got to avoid damaging the material and the finish.
Apply Leather Conditioner to Seats
What’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but really, really nice to look at regardless of which season it is? Leather car seats!
Oh, and they also need all the special care in the world. Without it, they crack and fade and generally lose all their luxury looks.
Apply your leather conditioner of choice according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Have a clean microfiber cloth on hand to wipe away any excess that won’t absorb into the leather or any conditioner that escapes onto the plastic or the carpet.
Wipe Down Seatbelts
It’s easy to forget about cleaning your seatbelts, but it should always be part of your car cleaning routine.
We put our hands on them every time we get in and out of the car, and that leaves greasy fingerprints behind! Plus, they tend to get spilled on frequently.
You can use an all-purpose cleaner, a degreaser, or just some diluted white vinegar (if you’re not opposed to the smell).
Pull the belt out as far as it will go, use a clamp to hold it in place so it doesn’t retract, and spray your cleaner onto the cloth and wipe up and down both sides of the belt.
To avoid mold or mildew growth on the belt, be absolutely sure that it’s totally dry before you let it retract.
Put Floor Mats Back
Now that the interior is complete, it’s time to put the floor mats back in.
The longer they sit outside, the more likely they are to get dirty or wet again, which will obviously set you back a couple of steps again.
If you’ve used a steam cleaner on your mats, be sure they’re completely dry before reinstalling them.
Once you’re done with the inside of the car, take the opportunity to ensure you’ve got all the essentials on-hand; check your spare tire and jack, pack an emergency kit including first aid gear, and perhaps invest in a small set of tools.
Personally, I always carry a Swiss Army knife, a working pen, and a spare charge cord for my cell phone.
Also, remember to reinstall kids’ car seats properly while you have time. Lives literally depend on doing this right, so that’s not a job you want to rush the next morning when you’re running late!
How to Wash Your Car by Hand
Yes, there are all kinds of cool gadgets out there meant to help you wash your car, but the whole reason you want to skip the automatic car wash is to give your vehicle the personalized attention and TLC it needs!
No machine wash will ever be as good as a hand wash can be if executed properly; automatic car washes can miss areas, they can cause scratches, and in the case of drive-through washes, you’ll be left with spots as the water dries unless you wipe down your car almost immediately.
The Internet is full of cleaning hacks that all seem to involve dish soap. I just tried one on my house windows with vinegar at dish soap that worked like a charm!
With that being said, please ignore them all when it comes to your car.
There are soaps specially formulated for use on automotive paint, so do yourself a favor and use one of those.
Your car is a major investment, and may be your pride and joy, so don’t cut corners when it comes to caring for its appearance!
3 Bucket System
I hope you’ve got plenty of clean buckets on hand! You’ll need three, as the name 3 bucket system suggests, for optimal cleaning.
Here’s what they’re for:
- Soapy water
- Clean water for rinsing your cleaning cloth, mitt or sponge
- Soapy water for wheels and tires only
You may be wondering about that third bucket. Wheels and tires collect a lot of dirt and debris, so much that you’ll end up dirtying all your water washing them before you get to the body of the car.
Plus, the extra bucket reduces the risk of picking up large, scratch-inducing stones and such with your cleaning cloth and rubbing them all over your paint job.
Wash Rag Hygiene
Cleaning your car is a bit like performing surgery in the sense that hygiene is crucial.
You can’t give your car an infection with a dirty cloth or mitt, but you can give it scratches.
Any little bit of debris on a cleaning cloth can leave anything from large, visible scratches to tiny micro scratches that accumulate over time and degrade the look of your paint job or chrome.
Have a supply of clean cloths or mitts available in case you do accidentally get debris on the one you’re using. And if you drop your cloth on the ground or pavement, don’t use it again or try to rinse it off in your bucket. Toss it aside and get a new one.
Wash Area Selection
First things first, it should be said that we won’t all have the option to choose where we wash our car. However, if you can choose a washing area, choose wisely!
Look for a spot with shade on a sunny day. This will keep metal surfaces inside and out cool (we’ve all had that seat belt buckle burn!), and prevent the interior from becoming stifling hot. Plus, it’ll keep your water from drying out and spotting before you have a chance to rinse and dry.
Think about drainage, too. You don’t want water flowing towards your house or garage if you can help it, and soapy runoff isn’t great for your garden, either.
Ready Your Buckets
Earlier, we talked about the 3-bucket system – 1 for soap, 1 for clean water, and 1 for tire water.
We highly recommend fitting each bucket with a grit guard insert. This is a sort of grate that sits at the bottom of the bucket. It allows grit and debris to sink to the bottom of the bucket, making it less likely you’ll get any on your washing cloth.
Have a water supply handy for refilling your rinse bucket on occasion, to avoid putting dirty water on your car.
A Word on Water Temperature
Is there anything wrong with washing your car with cold water? Not at all! Having said that, using hot water will help break down dirt and oil more quickly and easily.
So, if you have ready access to hot water (I’ve only ever known one person with an outdoor hot water tap), then go ahead and use it for your soapy water. It’ll be more pleasant on your hands, too.
But, if cold water is all you’ve got, that’s totally fine as well! Do with what you have, really.
Prepare the Washing Solution
We can’t tell you how to ready your cleaner correctly. We can, however, tell you to read the label and do as the manufacturer tells you, since there’s no universal list of steps to follow for all brands and products out there.
You might be tempted to use less washing solution and save money, but honestly, you probably won’t wash your car often enough to notice the difference.
You can also read this guide if you want to prepare your own car wash solution instead.
Begin with a good hosing off without any soap. All you’re doing here is removing the stuff that comes off easily before you start scrubbing.
Pay particular attention to the tires and wheel wells, and the grill.
This is also your first opportunity to “accidentally” soak your spouse, buddy, or kids. What’s a car wash without some harmless fun, right? Make some memories!
Wash Wheels and Tires
It may seem counter intuitive to work your way from the bottom up, but your tires are the best place to start.
For one, they’ll need some heavy-duty scrubbing, and you’ll want to tackle that while your arms are fresh and your legs are still able to squat.
Also, spraying water on your tires may scatter debris onto the car, and you do not want to dirty a spot you’ve already washed.
You don’t need special soap for your tires if you don’t have one, by the way (Dawn Dish soap can work very well, for instance); you can make perfect use of whatever you’re using on the bodywork.
However, special soaps for tires are available, and you may find they do a better job. No matter what soap you use, though, remember to have a separate soap bucket for the tires and separate cloths.
For a deep cleaning, use a stiff brush to really scrub at the rubber and get in every crevice.
Be Careful With Brake Dust
Have you ever noticed a fine, dark powder on your rims? That’s brake dust, and it’s mostly iron.
That’s right – dust made of metal. A static charge keeps it clinging to your car instead of just falling clear.
Brake dust is formed as your brake pads and rotors gradually wear down. If you’ve got older pads, there may even be asbestos in the dust, so do not lick your fingers after you touch it or put your face right in it!
As you might imagine, because the dust is metal, it can really scratch up your paint. This is yet another reason why you should use separate towels for cleaning the tires.
Pre-Treat / Spot Treat Bug, Tar, Sap and Bird Stains
It sure seems like Mother Nature has it in for our cars! Stuck-on bugs, bird poop, and tree sap all find their way onto our vehicles, and they’re hard to get off.
You could try some good ol’ elbow grease, but a more efficient method is to pre-treat the stuff before you wash, just like you’d do when dealing with a grease stain on your clothes.
There are several commercially available bug and tar removers on the market that make your life easier. Choose one and follow the instructions to dislodge these paint-destroying substances.
Here comes the fun part! Start with a clean cloth and get it thoroughly soaped up in the bucket designated for the car body.
This really isn’t rocket science: simply scrub the body of your car all over with your soapy cloth or mitt.
Go back and forth in a straight line, overlapping the previous line each time, rather like painting a wall with a roller or mowing your lawn.
Applying the soap in circles will eventually create those dreaded swirl marks you see on hoods everywhere.
Don’t forget to rinse off the mitt or washcloth in your non-soapy water bucket to get rid of dirt the builds up on the cloth. If your car is very dirty, you may need to change your rinse water once or twice.
But wait; where should you start?
Take it from the top
Start with the roof of your car. Doing the roof later guarantees that dirty water will run down onto places you thought you were done with.
Once the roof is done, think of the remainder of your car as 4 quadrants: the front, the back, and the two sides. After the roof, we suggest doing a side, then the rear, the other side, and then the front.
After soaping and scrubbing a section, rinse it thoroughly before moving on to the next one. If you try to soap the whole car at once, the soap where you started will likely dry up before you get it rinsed off, especially on a hot day.
Occasionally Toss the Towel
As you’re washing your car, keep an eye on your towel or mitt.
Once it starts to look dirty and it’s not coming off when you rinse, not only should you change the water, you should also either switch to a new towel or fold it over to a clean section.
This will happen more and more often as you reach the lower parts of your car where more dirt accumulates.
We can’t stress enough how crucial it is to use a clean cloth to avoid scratching your paint!
A Tip for Avoiding Water Spots
Water spots happen anywhere water is left to air dry, and they are incredibly annoying to look at and get rid of.
On a warm day, it’s hard to finish washing, rinsing, and drying your entire car before they have a chance to form.
Keep your garden hose handy and occasionally spritz the car to keep it wet until you’re ready for the final rinse and dry. Speaking of which…
Once all 5 sections are washed and rinsed, give the car one last rinse with clean water to make sure every trace of soapsuds is gone.
Air-drying under the sun or on the road (kind of a “blow dry”) are viable options, of course, but you’ll also end up with water spots if you do that.
Instead, use a chamois (a type of leather cloth) or a clean, dry microfiber to remove the water from your car gently.
Once you’ve finished drying off the exterior, open up the doors and give all the sills, jambs, and seals a wipe, as well as the undersides of the doors. You’ll be amazed at all the places water will seep into!
Don’t Forget the Windows
With the body finished, it’s time to move on to the glass. Clear vision is essential to safe driving, so don’t quit on us now!
We do this step near the end because soap is just going to run down onto your windows anyway.
As we said earlier, you don’t want to use a household glass cleaner. Use a specialty product meant for use on automotive glass.
Follow the instructions on the label (they’re there for a reason after all), and have a clean towel handy for wiping up overspray or runoff, if there is any.
Apply Tire Dressing
For that showroom finish, use a purpose-made tire dressing formula to make your rubber shine like new.
Directions vary depending on the brand and product you go with, but generally speaking, you need to spray the dressing on the tire and then wipe it with a clean cloth.
There are some no-wipe products available if you prefer to use those, but we find you usually end up wiping anyway.
Clean the Headlights
Your headlights are an essential safety feature on your car, so show them some love, too.
Washing them regularly will help prevent the fogging effect frequently seen on acrylic and polycarbonate (fancy words for plastic) headlight covers.
If they’ve already gone foggy, you’ll need to purchase a headlight restoration kit. This is a multistep process involving sanding the surface, polishing them, and applying a sealant.
The process of washing your car doesn’t just take off all the dirt – it also does a number on your wax. Now that it’s clean as a whistle, this is a perfect chance to give your car a fresh coat.
Want to know how to wax the right way? Take a few minutes and read a complete guide to waxing your car here!
Time to Celebrate A Job Well Done!
That’s it; you’re done!
If you have a cold drink handy, now’s the time to crack it open and celebrate a job well done! You might want to snap a quick pic for a little #humbragging on social media, too.
By washing your car regularly, you’ll not only keep it looking at its best, but you’ll also prolong its lifespan – so good on you! If you ever plan on reselling your car in the future, it’ll net you more money because of how you’re keeping it in good shape.
If you’ve got any burning questions about car washing, send them to us, and we’ll get you an answer as soon as possible! Plus, if you have any tips to share that we haven’t covered in this article, please let us (and other readers besides yourself) know about them in the comments section below!
Oh and talking about sharing, we’d love it if you’d share this article with all your friends and family, especially the ones with cars who could use an easy to follow and straightforward guide on all their washing needs!
Until we meet again, happy washing!