The Ultimate Guide to Washing Your Car

By Jed Lehman •  Updated: 10/19/21 •  13 min read

Keeping your car clean is easier said than done. When out on the road, or if you prefer off-roading, your vehicle is going to get dirty. Things like dirt, grime, rain, and snow can leave marks on your car that make it dirty. The good news is that washing your car and keeping it clean is simple if you follow the right methods and do a solid job. In fact, a lot of washing your car is staying on top of it.

In our guide, we’re going to take you through everything you need to know about washing your car. We’re also going to show you how to preserve your car’s appearance with methods like waxing and ceramic coatings. 

Read on to learn more about washing your car.

Washing the Exterior of Your Vehicle 

The exterior of your vehicle is the part that everyone can see. Keeping this part of your vehicle clean can protect the paint, improve your vehicle’s curb appeal, and make it look cleaner in general. Remember, the presentation is half the meal. That said, washing the exterior requires time, patience, and a little bit of love.

Here’s what you’ll need to wash the exterior of your vehicle:

Sponges and Washing Mitts 

When it’s time to wash your car you need to start with a proper sponge or washing mit. Sponges are, well, sponges. Automotive sponges are typically larger than those you’ll find in your kitchen and they’re designed to cover a lot of surface area. On the other hand, washing mitts are sponges that you can wear on your hands. Washing mitts work as well as sponges, so it’s about what you prefer.

Rinsing Your Vehicle 

Before you apply soap to your car it’s important to rinse it first. Rinsing your vehicle will loosen the dirt and prevent you from scratching the paint when you scrub it with a sponge. You can also use a foam cannon to loosen the dirt and provide a deeper clean without needing to use a sponge. That said, you always need to use a sponge to get tough stains off of your vehicle.

Washing With Soap 

Rinsing off your vehicle is a great start but the real cleaning happens when you wash it with soap. There are tons of automotive soap types, each with special properties. For example, some soaps are advertised as washes and waxes, which wash your vehicle and add a protective layer of wax to the paint. Still, soap that includes wax is rarely as good as actual automotive wax.

Drying With Towels 

When you’re finished washing your car it’s important to dry it off. If you fail to dry your vehicle the result can be stains and uneven drying. Unfortunately, uneven drying can alter the appearance of your car and make it appear dirtier than it is. While you can use any towel to dry your vehicle, we recommend using microfiber towels. Microfiber towels won’t scratch your paint and provide a more well-rounded dry.

Separate Buckets

When washing your car it’s best to keep two separate buckets. Use one for water and one for soapy water. The water bucket is used as a buffer to rinse the sponge or wash mitt before adding more soap to it. Using this method prevents dirt and grime from getting into the soapy water bucket, which prevents dirt and grime from getting back on your vehicle.

Foam Cannons and Pressure Washers

Foam cannons and pressure washers are reliable tools for washing your car. While these tools can make it easier to clean your vehicle, they’re not necessary and a great cleaning job can be done without them. That said, foam cannons and pressure washers can remove loose dirt from the vehicle before you begin swirling it around with your sponge or washing mit. Therefore, using these tools can prevent swirls from forming in the paint as well as scratches.

Automotive paint can handle a lot of abuse but once it begins to chip it’s vulnerable to additional wear. Washing the exterior of your vehicle can prevent things like tree sap from peeling off sections of your paint.

Washing the Wheels 

how to wash your car

The wheels of your vehicle need special care. They’re not made out of the same material as the rest of the exterior, so your wheels deserve special attention. Cleaning the wheels is not hard but you’ll need some tools and accessories.

Here’s what you’ll need:

Hose or Pressure Washer

First and foremost, you need a hose or pressure washer to rinse your wheels. Rinsing your wheels will remove loose dirt, brake dust, and other particles that can scratch the wheel when you take a brush to it. Before rinsing your wheels you should make sure the car has been sitting for a while because braking causes a lot of heat, which can cause wheel spray and water to dry before you finish cleaning the wheels.

Wheel Cleaning Spray

Wheel cleaning spray is essential for cleaning your wheels. You don’t want to use the same soap solution you use on the exterior of your vehicle because the acid content can have a negative reaction with the paint or metals on the wheel. Therefore, make sure you use a wheel cleaning spray that’s non-acidic.

Soft Bristle Wheel Brush

A soft bristle wheel brush is a must-have for cleaning your wheels. These brushes can help you get between the spokes of the rim and the soft bristles prevent the brush from scratching the metal. While you might be tempted to use a sponge, sponges are harder to wrap around the rims and spokes. Plus, the wrong sponge can cause scratching which can’t be reversed easily.

Separate Buckets

When cleaning your wheels it’s essential to use more than one bucket. Always rinse the brush in a separate bucket than the bucket that your cleaning solution or spray is on. Using the two-bucket method will prevent dirt that you washed off from getting back onto the wheels you just cleaned.

Cleaning your wheels should never be handled the same way you clean your exterior. While it’s tempting to use the same supplies for everything on the exterior, your wheels require different cleaning supplies and methods.

Washing the Windows

washing car windows

Unlike the rest of your vehicle, the windows are made from a unique type of glass. Therefore, you need to handle cleaning the windows differently than you would handle cleaning a traditional window. While similar cleaning products will work, the methods used change.

Here’s what you’ll need to wash the windows:

The Cleaning Solution 

Cleaning automobile windows is not the same as cleaning regular windows. The windows on your vehicle are different from windows on your house because automotive windows need to adhere to regulations for driving and crashing. Therefore, the solution you need to clean the windows is different.

There are a few ways you can create a solution that’s good for cleaning windows. The first method is to mix an automotive window cleaner with water and alcohol. To do so, mix 70% water, 15% window cleaner, and 15% alcohol in a spray bottle. The second method is to make a window cleaning solution from ingredients in your home. You can do so by mixing 50% distilled water, 50% water, and a tablespoon of white vinegar in a spray bottle. While the latter is not as effective as professional window cleaners, it will get the job done.

Cleaning Your Interior Windows 

Your exterior windows and interior windows are different because interior windows have a transparent sheet of film. When you clean the inside of your windows, make sure you spray the cleaning solution onto the microfiber rag instead of directly on the window. Doing so will prevent large quantities of window spray from sticking to the windshield.

When working on the interior part of your window it’s important to clean carefully. To reach the whole area you have to roll the window down to clean the top-most portion of the window. You should also wipe from right to left and make sure you don’t miss any sections of the window.

Cleaning Your Exterior Windows 

The exterior part of your windows is easier to clean than the interior sections. That said, you still need to use your cleaning solutions and microfiber rags correctly. To begin, don’t reuse the rags you used on the interior. Instead, grab a new set of rags. From there, the process is simple because you spray the cleaning solution directly onto the windshield. Use a generous amount and wipe until the whole window is clean.

It’s tempting to use soap, water, and a sponge to quickly clean your windows after you wash your vehicle. While that works to an extent, using the right cleaning supplies makes a huge difference and can prevent scratches, streaks, and remove things like tree sap and bug guts.

Washing the Interior of Your Vehicle 

clean car interior

The interior of your vehicle is the part that you and your passengers look at and sit in. Having a clean cabin can make the interior of your car cleaner, fresher smelling, and more presentable. When driving with passengers, or even by yourself, you don’t want to be sitting in dust, dirt, and spilled coffee. The good news is that we can help you keep your interior clean and fresh.

Here’s what you’ll need to clean the inside of your car:

Wiping Down the Interior 

Wiping down the interior is an important part of cleaning your vehicle. While you should use a vacuum for the floor and seats, you can wipe down the interior with microfiber towels, wipes, and window cleaners. You can use these cleaning tools to remove stains, dust, grime, and other messes from the inside of your cabin.

When cleaning your interior you should focus on every part of the cabin, even the hard-to-reach areas. Make sure you don’t miss sections like the cup holders, door jams, consoles, the radio and vents. In fact, we highly recommend cleaning the vents to prevent dust from blowing around in the vehicle’s cabin.


Vacuuming the interior of your vehicle is the best way to remove dust, dirt, and other particles from your seats and floors. Most cars have carpets, so it’s hard to wipe them down and make progress doing so. Therefore, we recommend using a wet-dry vacuum to clean your vehicle’s seats and floors. We recommend a wet-dry vacuum because they’re more durable and can handle things like leaves, small sticks, water, and other larger particles.

To do the best vacuum work you’ll have to move the seats, vacuum between the seats, and target dirty areas of the cabin’s roof. If you have floor mats you should also vacuum them and shake them off outside of the vehicle.

Keeping it Fresh 

Once your interior is clean you’ll want to keep it that way. To do so, we recommend adding a fresh scent with an air freshener. There are dozens of air fresheners you can choose from and hundreds of scent options. In fact, you can even mix and match air fresheners to give your vehicle a unique scent and feeling.

Cleaning the interior of your vehicle takes time and effort but the result is worth it.

Detailing Your Vehicle 

Detailing your vehicle is a great way to keep your car clean for extended periods. Using methods like ceramic coating and wax, you can extend the life of your vehicle’s paint and other exterior pieces. Moreover, detailing your vehicle can also make it easier to clean because particles have a harder time sticking to wax and ceramic coating than paint.

We can’t give you a step-by-step guide for detailing your vehicle because there are many different methods. Instead, we’ll describe some of the common detailing methods.


Car wax is a unique product that comes in natural or synthetic forms. Automotive wax is designed to protect parts of your vehicle from the elements and helps your car stay shiny for longer periods. Waxing your car should only be done after it’s clean because you don’t want to seal dirt and grime underneath the wax. Wax lasts for a long time but you should apply more wax after a few months, especially if you live in an area that experiences seasonal changes.

Ceramic Coating 

A ceramic coating is a polymer solution. When applied to the exterior of your car it can prevent tree sap, grime, dirt, and dust from reaching the paint. Ceramic coating is used to seal and protect the paint and the average ceramic coating lasts for between 2-4 years depending on the conditions a car is exposed to. Ceramic coating is more expensive than wax but it protects your vehicle for longer. That said, you should always work with a professional for ceramic because of how long it takes to set.

Windshield Treatment 

One of the most underrated parts of detailing your vehicle is the windshield treatment. A good windshield treatment can prevent bug guts and other grime from sticking to your windshield. Windshield treatments can also create water beading, which extends the life of your windshield wipers and makes it easier to see in the rain or snow.

Shining Your Tires

If you want to improve the way your vehicle looks, shining the tires is one of the best ways to do it. Shined tires make the wheels pop and add to the overall appearance of the vehicle. Plus, a clean car with dirty tires doesn’t look as clean as it can be. Therefore, we recommend shining your tires as part of your wheel washing or detailing routine. Shining your tires is simple and only requires a tire shining product. These come in sprays or wipes.

Detailing your car isn’t necessary but it can make washing your vehicle much easier. You can wash your car less frequently and you won’t have to worry about the paint as much.

Wrapping Up 

Washing your car is not easy but if you stay on top of it you can make the process more manageable. When it comes to washing your car make sure you pay close attention to the products you use, how you treat the paint, and whether or not you want to use tools like ceramic coating to preserve the paint. While washing your car is a hassle when it’s a mess, keeping your car clean increases its curb appeal and can help you feel fresher.

Jed Lehman

Jed Lehman is a born gearhead who has been working on cars since he could crawl. He inherited his love for auto from his grandfather who owned a maintenance shop in Carlsbad, California. Jed is the driver behind Gearshift, and started this site to provide straightforward, helpful automobile information. From maintenance tips to product reviews, you can find it all here.