How to Wash Your Car the Right Way

Quit zipping through the car wash. Your ride will thank you.

by Sal Vaglica
photo of a hand polishing the windshield of a shiny red car demonstrating how to wash your car

Sure, a drive-through car wash is easy and fun for kids and grownups alike. But robot scrubbers and sprayers will never be able to give your ride the attention it deserves. Doing a DIY wash in the driveway isn’t complicated and it offers nearly instant gratification. But it’s important to take the time to do it right — rushing through the process without a plan sets you up for swirly scratch marks in the paint and gunky water spots. Just like making dinner, it’s an easier job if everything is set out before you begin. Because once you unleash a hose on your car, the clock’s ticking — you need to dry the paint before the water evaporates, leaving behind spots. Here’s what you need to properly wash your car.

Where to Wash the Car

You’ll be working in the elements so pick a spot in the forecast that is rain-free for a few days. The driveway is an easy ground-zero for car washing, but it’s not always the best place. You want to park out of direct sunlight, in some shade ideally. The car should be cool — meaning it hasn’t been baking in the sun for hours and hasn’t just returned from a long commute. A hot car makes soap and water dry faster, leading to spots.

With your washing gear assembled (see our recommendations, below), point the hose at the car and use a stream of water to blast big debris off the car. Start on the roof and work your way down the car.

Wash the Wheels First

After the first big blast from the hose, start down low with a cleaner designed for tires. After soaking the wheel with water, foam up soap designed for tires in a bucket that you’ve dedicated to the task. It’s often easier to have a spray bottle filled with a tire cleaner, cut with the right amount of water, so you can spray it on, brush it off, rinse and then repeat if necessary. Start from the top of the wheel and work your way down. A flag-tipped brush helps get into the nooks and crannies around the rims. Some cleaners will help get rid of brake dust too. Rinse the tire with a hose once you’re done, and move on to the next one. Bonus: while you’re down there, reach under the car with the hose and spray the undercarriage to knock off debris. This is especially useful if you live anywhere that snows — the road salt municipalities spread to fight ice wreaks havoc on your car’s unprotected undercarriage.

Clean the Rest of the Car With the Right Soap

Repeat after us: step away from the Dawn and Palmolive. Car wash detergent is better for your car than dish soap. That innocent dish soap that is gentle enough to clean oil off baby ducks could strip some of the protective wax on your car. Read the label before buying because some cleaners are more aggressive than others — some may even damage the clear coat or the paint underneath it. Go with the mildest product you can find, ideally something that’s pH neutral.

Pick the Right Rag

Skip the brick-like sponge. Instead, buy suede-like microfiber towels — it’s good to have a few on hand. After a swipe or two through the soap, these hand-towel-size rags become pretty nasty. Keep using a dirty one, or even one you’ve dunked in water to rinse, and you run the risk of dragging debris over your car’s paint, which carves in scratches. These soft cloths are machine-washable and work to apply soap and to dry the water after — it helps to keep a set for each of those jobs.

Have a Bucket System

Using one bucket is a sure-fire way to end up with a cloth loaded with grit that will scratch your finish. The easiest way to avoid putting the contaminates back onto your paint is to have two buckets: one filled with clean soapy water and another with just water. Dunk a fresh rag into the soapy water, make a pass or two over the car, then dip it into the freshwater bucket to rinse before you go back for more soap. Don’t skimp on using fresh towels. You don’t want to press nasty rags onto your car. Using a disc on the bottom of your bucket to trap contaminates is extra insurance against scratches.

Work Systematically

The most efficient way to wash the car is with a paint-by-numbers approach. Work from the top down, taking on one panel at a time: Wash then rinse the roof, then move to the trunk, and the hood, etc. Use the rag to make even strokes, from the back to the front of the car — don’t make circular motions with the rag. If you notice the rag is getting dirty or it needs more foam, give it a rinse in the clean-water bucket, and load up on more soap. Don’t hesitate to switch out to a new rag too.

Dry the Car

While it’s been portrayed as a good way to spend an afternoon, washing the car means you’re on the clock. Once all the panels are clean, you have to manually dry the car. Letting it air dry will leave spots and while driving the car around to dry it off helps, it won’t get all the water off. Use more microfiber cloths to dry the car. It’s best to keep a separate set just for the wheels, which will be funkier than the rest of the car. It can be tempting to use a leaf blower to dry your car, but one wrong move with that kind of power can blow whatever is on the ground right onto your shiny new car. Take the time to wipe each panel down with the same motion you washed with, working from the top down.

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