Washing a car is something everyone instinctively knows how to do. Doing it right, namely the best way to wash a car without scratching ANYTHING, takes a bit of knowledge and a little practice. Let’s walk through the details.
There are two main ways to wash your car – take it to a car wash or do it yourself (DIY) at home. Industry news sources report drivers are 3x more likely to use car washes than to wash at home. That statistic is consistent with our personal experience.
The fact is that commercial car washes can and do scratch their customers cars. Worn out brushes, poorly trained employees, and dirt and grime on hand held rags are just a few of the leading culprits. We’re going to cover how to wash a car without scratching your paint both at home or when using a professional car wash service.
Washing at Home
The good news about washing your car at home is that you have complete visibility into what is happening to your car. There are no surprises. Doing a professional quality job at home is easy if you use the following key steps.
Step 1: Find a Shady Location
High-end professional detailers always work in the shade, and you should too. Working in the sun causes car paint to get hot, which in turn can cause soap to dry before it can be washed off. The result is visible splotches that almost always require rewashing.
This “quick drying” also makes the person washing the car to have to work much harder. Everything must be washed and wiped down before it dries. On the plus side, it’s good exercise if you been lax on going to the gym.
If you cannot find any shade, consider washing your car early in the morning when temperatures are cooler.
Step 2: Gather and Prepare All Materials
The good news is that the materials needed to do a professional quality job are pretty straightforward and easy to obtain:
- Soap made for cars (no dishwashing soap)
- 1-2 non-scratch microfiber mitts
- A few non-scratch microfiber towels
- A brush for tires and bumpers
- Two buckets
- A garden hose.
Those are the basic “necessities.” Optional equipment includes pressure washers and garden hose attachments, such as foam cannons.
Step 3: Rinse Off Car to Remove Dust
Most debris or contaminants on your car, e.g., dust, grime, insects, are abrasive and can scratch paint. You want to remove as much of these as you can before washing with a mitt, otherwise you run the risk of “grinding” the contaminants into the car and scratching the paint.
Using a hose, gently spray the car while keeping the nozzle pointed downward as much as possible. Cover the entire car. Make a second pass using more pressure until there is no visible debris left on the car after the initial rinse.
Step 4: Wash the Bumpers, Grill and Tires
Bumpers, grills and tires are almost always the dirtiest exterior parts of any car. They usually have insect splatter, road oils and / or grime that is difficult to remove. Washing these areas first prevents splashing upward onto a clean car.
For the tires, use a brush and NOT your washing mitts. They will get so dirty that cleaning them with a hose is a futile exercise.
Step 5: Wash the Car
First, use the “two bucket system.” Mix the soap with water in one of the buckets following the instructions on the label to get the right mixture. Fill the second bucket up with water. The idea with the two bucket system is that only a clean wash mitt should ever touch your car.
Dip the mitt into the bucket with clean soapy water. As you wash the car, the mitt will get dirty. Rinse it out in the other bucket that just has water in it. Once it’s clean, then it can be dipped back into the soap bucket.
Start at the top of the car and move downward as you wash. Keep the whole of the car continuously wet to prevent drying and spotting.
Step 6: Use Non-Scratch Towels for Drying
Microfiber towels will not scratch car paint, and it may take a handful of towels to get your car completely dry. Wipe the car down and squeeze out the towels as necessary. Then go back over the car with fresh dry towels to absorb any moisture and prevent spotting.
After washing, microfiber towels can be put into a washing machine and dryer. Be careful not to use fabric softener as it will leaves streaks on your paint the next time you wash your car.
Using Commercial Car Washes
As we noted earlier, most people (roughly 75%) use commercial car washes and detailers. It’s hard to know for sure if a car wash is damaging your paint absent any obviously visible scratches.
However, there are a few clues that will help in determining if a car wash is safe:
- Outdoor washing and detailing are done in the shade
- All cloths appear clean and grime free
- Any brushes used are “full” and not “threadbare”
- Attendants are using the two (or even three) bucket system
- Soaps and cleaners are professional quality (don’t be afraid to ask)
- Reviews are good with few complaints.
Car owners are notoriously picky, so word of bad service travels fast.
Note, a hybrid car wash-DIY option exists. People who are pressed for time but want to take top notch care of their cars can get a basic wash and dry and then do more professional detailing at home. This is a good option for the busiest among us.
Protecting Your Car Once It’s Clean
Once your car is spotless, consider using a car cover to keep it looking like it’s right off the showroom floor. This is true even if you park indoors in a garage! Dust is a problem even in the best built garages, and indoor covers are designed specifically to prevent dust buildup.
There is an inherent trade-off in washing at home versus going to a car wash. Car washes are much more convenient and much less hassle. However, washing your car at home is the only way to have 100% confidence that you are doing everything you can to keep from scratching your paint and clear coat.
Ultimately, it’s a personal decision. Personally, I do it in lieu of a trip to the gym once every 2-4 weeks. It’s a pretty good workout, and your car will thank you for it.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How frequently should I wash my car?
At the risk of sounding flip, whenever it is visibly dirty. The longer debris or contaminants are on your car’s paint, the more risk of scratches. Most people we talk to seem to wash their cars every 3-4 weeks.
Can I use Windex to clean the windshield?
It would be better if you didn’t. Windex contains ammonia which can damage dashboard and upholstery. It also smells. Non-ammonia based cleaners are easy to find.
Why can’t I used dish soap to wash my car?
Many people believe that if it’s good enough for dishes that you eat off of, it should be okay for your car. Dish soap is actually too strong. It is made to dissolve grease and kill germs and can actually damage clear coat. This is definitely NOT the area to cut corners just to save a few dollars.
Can I use regular towels versus microfiber cloths?
Using whatever home scraps of cloth are handy probably causes more damage to paint than anything else during the cleaning process. Even some cloths that feel very soft are partially made of polyester and can leave light scratches in the paint. Cotton is generally okay, but used cloths are rarely truly clean. Our advice is stick to microfiber cloths, and ONLY use them for washing your car – nothing else. The good news is they are cheap and easy to find.
Is it okay to wash tires last?
No, although this used to be common advice. The grime on tires is more likely to splatter up on paint. Wash tires first and then do a final rinse off once the whole car is finished.
Can I just use one cleaner on plastic dash parts?
Soft and hard plastics have different characteristics and require different cleaners. The former needs a more penetrating cleaner and the latter a more gentle polish. Honestly, using one cleaner isn’t the end of the world, but it’s not ideal.