A Simple Guide to Cleaning Your Car Properly

A yellow sponge on a black car with soapy bubbles.
  • 2-6 hours
  • Beginner
  • 60-125
What You'll Need
Two buckets
High-quality car wash
Wash mitt
Wheel cleaner
Microfiber towel
Polish (optional)
Detailing clay (optional)
Spray lubricant (optional)

The simplest way to clean your car is to visit the car wash, pay for your ticket, wash, and then drive away. Of course, if this were also the best way, then this would be a very short guide indeed. Washing your car at an automated car wash should only be done as an absolute last resort, as it is a one-stop shop for damaging the delicate paint on your car, offers nothing to the environment, and costs you money.

Imagine that your cars paintwork is the skin on your face. Then imagine what your face would look like if, every time you washed it, you used the cheapest soap, applied it with a bottle cleaning brush from the kitchen, rinsed with cold water, and dried it using your hair dryer. Chances are it would rarely look its best!

To keep your car looking its best, the most preferable way to clean it is by hand. Far from being boring or hard work, washing your car this way can actually be very therapeutic, the repeated motions almost acting as a meditation and when done properly, the results can be very satisfying.


First you need buckets, not just one, but two. Then you need a decent car wash product such as Meguiars, AutoGlym, or Poorboys. Under no circumstances should you use washing-up liquid as this contains ingredients that attack the shiny topcoat of your paint and will make it dull over time. Your first bucket should be filled with hot or cold water (it makes no difference except to your hands) and the recommended amount of cleaning product.

Your second bucket should be filled with plain water and will be used to rinse out the applicator, ensuring that you don’t contaminate your wash mixture with dirt. Traditionally, the humble yellow sponge would be dunked into the wash bucket, but for the best results, a wash mitt should be used. The reason for this is that a sponge has a flat surface that can collect grains of dirt or specs of grit that, when rubbed across your cars bodywork, cause minute scratches and "swirl marks" that ruin the look of your paintwork.

A wash mitt avoids this by trapping anything harmful into its deep pile of fibres and then remove it when you rinse it in your second bucket. Now you are armed with your two buckets and a wash mitt, it is time to put them aside and turn your attention to preparing the car for washing.

Rinse the car using a hose or buckets of water. If using a hose, the stream should be like rain on the car, rather than a strong jet of water, as this can blast dirt into the paintwork. Using a separate mitt or soft sponge, clean the wheels with alloy wheel cleaner or some of your wash mixture and ensure that any loose dirt under the wheel arches has been removed.

With the car wet, start at the top and work down with your wash mitt, remembering to rinse in the second bucket regularly. Side-to-side strokes are perfect for the washing phase and pressure should only be used on any tough spots you may come across. When you have cleaned the whole car, empty your buckets and get the hose to rinse the car off.


using a cloth on red car paint

After thoroughly rinsing any soapy suds off the car, it’s time to dry the paintwork. Many people ignore this step, preferring to let the car dry on its own. This is pointless as the water will dry in patches, making the car look as bad as it did before you started! Again, tradition calls for the use of chamois leather and while they do a respectable job, there is a better item available today. The microfiber towel is far more absorbent than a chamois, making drying quick and painless. If you can find a microfiber mitt, then the drying takes mere moments, with a great finish. A different microfiber towel should be used for the wheels.

Some people use a blade, similar to the ones used by window cleaners, to wipe the loose water off their car. Although they do a great job, they come with a similar danger to the sponge in that if a piece of grit is caught between the bodywork and the blade, you could find yourself with a big scratch as you drag the blade over the car. They should be fine for the windows though.


Now we get to the optional part, a polish. Polishing your car doesn’t have to be done every time you clean it, in fact it should only be done around four or five times per year. You can always tell when a car needs polishing, as the water stops "beading" on the paintwork when it rains or when you wash it. Depending on the age of your car, there is a step that should be inserted between drying and polishing, and that is claying.

Detailing Clay

Once the reserve of professional detailers only, this great product can now be found at most car care shops. In the box you get a spray bottle of lubricant and a small bar of clay (actually a mix of man-made products rather than actual clay). Break off a third of the bar of clay and spray the lubricant onto your bodywork in a small patch. Then, using very little pressure, move the clay bar back and forth over the wet paint. As you do this you will feel it stick and then release. This is the clay doing its job.

What it is actually doing is removing all those contaminants (tree sap, road dirt, bird droppings, etc.) that regular washing won’t. Doing the whole car is relatively time consuming, but what you will be left with is a car with paint as smooth and shiny as glass. If you have the time and your car is not new, then this is a very worthwhile treatment. Once the claying is done, you must polish your car as the clay will have removed any old polish that was left.


car cleaning products

Apply your polish with an applicator pad that may come with the product itself, or can be purchased separately. Again, the same brands as the car wash are recommended. Working on a small section of paintwork at one time, the best method is to use smooth, circular motions followed by back and forth to ensure good coverage. Then remove the polish with a microfiber towel, polish removal mitt or car-care cotton wool. A good polish is easy to apply, dries fairly quickly, and doesn’t require too much effort to remove.

Finishing Touches

With your car washed, clayed, and polished, chances are it looks totally different! But, for it to stand out, there are a few final things to be done. First, the wheels require a good buff up and a product for blackening the tires can be used, then a good glass polish will make your windows shine too.

With all this done, you can stand back and admire your clean car. You'll be safe in the knowledge that rather than destroy the paintwork in a car wash, you have extended its life by caring for it by hand.