How to properly wash your car

Let us guide you through the best steps and what you need to best wash your car.

A pressure washer being used on a car

by Ryan Gilmore |

If you're a total novice when it comes to cleaning your car and own nothing more than a sad-looking sponge and the complimentary shampoo that came with your car then this guide is perfect for you. With its guidance, you'll go from complete novice to detailing expert in a few easy steps.

We have a dedicated guide to cleaning your car's interior too. You can also read our car vacuum cleaner and upholstery cleaner guides to have your fill of interior cleaning goodies.

The cleaning essentials:

A pressure washer is a fairly hefty investment for cleaning your car, but it will pay dividends the second you see how it cuts through embedded mud. Not only will it make cleaning your car a lot easier, but it also unlocks the marvel of snow foam for you to use too. You'll also have a tool that's perfect for cleaning the shed, patio and other garden areas that get grimy over time.

Turtle Wax TW110

Our favourite pressure washer
Turtle Wax TW110
Amazon

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The perfect introductory pressure washer, this compact model from Turtle Wax offers good power (110 bar pressure and 330 L/H flow rate) while being reasonably priced and easy to store when not in use. We like that it's designed for cleaning cars and comes with a snow foam attachment as standard.

Have a look at our other top pressure washers right here

Now a bucket may sound like one of those things you can cheap out on when it comes to washing your car, and I guess you can, I mean as long as it's not full of holds what difference does it make?

Well, you'll discover as you fall deeper down into the world of car detailing that even something as simple as a bucket can contribute to small scratches as you clean your car. As such we recommend buying a bucket that comes with a grit guard to prevent the risk of scratches. We also recommend buying two so you can start cleaning using the double bucket method.

Meguiar's Yellow Large Car Wash Bucket and Professional Grit Guard

It's a good bucket
Meguiar's Yellow Large Car Wash Bucket and Professional Grit Guard
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A five-gallon (US measurements) bucket will offer enough water to clean two medium-sized cars with ease and this one is of excellent quality. It also comes with a grit guard so little deposits you pick up on your paintwork aren't transferred back onto your paintwork which can potentially cause damage to your paintwork.

Read more about the importance of grit guards here

Buy a wash mitt for the sake of your paintwork. It will prevent small scratches that can occur when you use a traditional sponge and is one of the cheapest upgrades you can do for some really effective changes.

26JPN Microfibre Wash Mitt

Easy cleaning upgrade
26JPN Microfibre Wash Mitt
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We were blown away by this wash mitt when we tested it. Making use of 700gsm microfibre means you'll get fewer scratches, cover a larger area while you clean and get more suds from your shampoo. This version features a central split in the mitt for better control as well as a ribbed cuff that makes it very comfortable.

Read why you need a wash mitt for your car here

Detailing brushes will make cleaning your car a lot easier and will produce better results. There are countless variants available perfect for pretty much any surface you can think of but for first-timers, we recommend buying a brush designed for your alloy wheels to begin with, simply because of how dirty your wheels can get and how much better the results will be with a brush.

26JPN Ultra-Soft Detail Brushes

Great quality brushes
26JPN Ultra-Soft Detail Brushes
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Parkers

This detailing brush pair from 26JPN is of excellent quality and are a great introduction to fine cleaning. The bristles are soft boar's hair and won't deform or 'mushroom' over time. They also features a sturdy yet ergonomic handle for comfort while you clean.

Read more about detailing brushes here

Drying towels are the perfect way to finish cleaning your car. They're designed to prevent those nasty watermarks from appearing on your car's paintwork and will ensure that your car looks as good as it can. They can also be used to buff polish and clean your car's interior too. They're a garage essential.

Kent Car Care Microfibre Drying Towel

A good drying towel
Kent Car Care GKEQ6100 Microfibre Drying Towel Extra Large 5 Sq Ft
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A simple and good value drying towel is all you need to begin with. This five square foot option from Kent Car Care will offer good drying and is good value too. It also won't leave any marks and will prevent scratches.

Read our guide to the best drying towels here

Cleaning the wheels and tyres

A dirty Jeep Wrangler wheel
©Photo: Parkers

Your wheels will be the dirtiest part of any car because they're the point of contact between your car and the road (unless something goes wrong) and as such will collect the most road grime, salt and dirt, as well as brake dust. As such it's best to start by cleaning the wheels first.

The essentials you'll need:

Pressure washer

Buckets

Detailing brushes

Drying towels

How to clean your wheels and tyres:

  • Point your pressure washer at your wheels to remove any embedded dirt and loosen debris making cleaning them a lot easier. Don't forget to do the same to your tyres too.

  • Use a detailing brush with fairly stiff bristles, agitate the surface to get the wheel cleaner working. Make sure you use your buckets to clean the brush regularly. Also, remember that most wheel cleaners will change colour when they're ready to be washed off.

  • Rinse the wheel with the pressure washer and use a drying towel to dry it.

  • Apply the wheel sealant according to the instructions and wait for it to properly cure.

  • Buff the wheel with another drying towel until it looks flawless.

  • Finally, apply some tyre dressing using an appropriate applicator and wait for it to dry too. You now have a stunning set of wheels.

The best cleaning products for the wheels and tyres:

Bilt Hamber Auto Wheel Cleaner

Top wheel cleaning
Bilt Hamber Auto Wheel Cleaner
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This wheel cleaner from Bilt Hamber is our favourite because it's simple to use and versatile. If your car has alloy wheels then you can use this product on it thanks to its pH-balanced formula. Spray the formula onto your wheel and agitate with a brush (one is handily included here), wait for the product to turn red and wash it away with your pressure washer for really clean wheels.

Take a look at our other top wheel cleaners here

Armor All Shield Brake Dust Repellent

Our favourite wheel sealant
Armor All GAA16300EN Shield Brake Dust Repellent
Amazon

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A simple way to protect your car's wheels, spray this aerosol onto your car's wheels and wait for it to dry. It creates a seal that will last for four weeks and will prevent brake dust and road grime from collecting on your car's wheels. We like how simple it is to use while remaining effective as a wheel sealant.

Read our guide to wheel sealants here

King of Sheen Eco Tyre Shine

Our favourite tyre dressing
King of Sheen Eco Tyre Shine
Amazon

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We like this tyre dressing so much because it's easy to use and ships with a complimentary applicator sponge. Wipe it on to your tyre and it will leave a glossy finish in a couple of minutes. It's also designed to be eco-fridnely meaning it doesn't contain any nasty chemicals.

Read more about tyre shine here

Cleaning the exterior

A dirty Jeep Wrangler
©Photo: Parkers

Now we're getting to the heart of the cleaning process, washing the bodywork of your car. This can be as complex or quick as you want but we're going fairly comprehensive in our guide. Expect to have to deal with splattered insects, mud and road grit as you're cleaning the bodywork.

The essentials you'll need:

Pressure washer

Buckets

Wash mitt

Detailing brushes

Drying towels

How to clean your exterior:

  • Using your pressure washer with a foam lance attached, coat your car in snow foam. This is a pre-wash step that will help dislodge dirt which will make cleaning it easier. It will also limit bits of dirt scratching your paint as you begin to clean the car with your wash mitt.

  • Fill two buckets with water and add shampoo to one of them per the product's instructions. Then take your wash mitt and begin to wash the car with the shampoo starting at the top and working your way down. Remember to clean your wash mitt in the plain water before dunking it into the shampoo bucket.

  • After rinsing away the shampoo with water grab your clay bar and lubricant (no jokes please). Spray the lube onto the bodywork in small areas and run part of the clay bar over the area. The clay bar will collect any last pieces of debris from your car, including tree sap and overspray. Once you've finished with your clay bar, rinse your car down again with water.

  • Dry the car using a clean drying towel. Drape it over the bodywork, starting at the top. Doing it this way will maximise the drying towel's surface area and is the most effective way to avoid having any watermarks.

  • Once the car is dry it's time to polish and seal it. You can choose to either polish by hand or with a machine but if you're a beginner, hand polishing will be cheaper and you'll need some practice using a polishing machine because you can damage your paint. Follow the instructions of the polish and remember to take your time.

  • The final stage for your bodywork is to seal it, either with wax or a paint sealant. Apply the product according to the instructions and make sure to buff it with a clean drying towel.

The best cleaning products for the exterior:

Bilt Hamber Auto Foam

Our favourite snow foam
Bilt Hamber Auto Foam
Amazon

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The top performer in our twin test, Bilt Hamber Auto Foam is our pick for snow foam thanks to its thick foam that clings to bodywork well, the fact it won't eat through wax or paint and that it's entirely biodegradable. The nice apple scent is a bonus.

Read more about snow foam here

Autoglym Bodywork Shampoo Conditioner

Our favourite shampoo
Large Autoglym Bottle Quality Bodywork Shampoo, 2.5 Litre
Amazon

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Our top choice for treating your bodywork to a bit of a pamper, this huge (2.5 litre) bottle of shampoo is ideal for anyone wanting their car cleaned properly. It's pH-neutral and water-repellant which reduces drying times and will give it a layer of protection from water. It's also highly concentrated which means one capful will clean your entire car with ease.

Look at our other top car shampoos here

Meguiar's Quik Clay Bar Starter Kit

Our favourite clay bar set
Meguiar's Quik Clay Bar Starter Kit
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Including all the basics you could need to properly clay bar your car, this set from Meguiar's is also well made and is good value. It ships with an 80g clay bar and a 473ml bottle of Quik Detailer that acts as a lubricant for the product.

Read more about the wonders of clay bars here

Autoglym Super Resin Polish Complete Kit

The best polishing kit for beginners
Autoglym Super Resin Polish Complete Kit
Amazon

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If you're a total beginner to the world of polishing then this comprehensive kit from Autoglym will save you a lot of hassle. It includes some quality polish, an applicator and a microfibre towel. The polish creates a thin film for a great shine and covers up small scratches. It also works on all paint types and colours too.

Read more about polishing your car here

Meguiar's Ultimate Liquid Car Wax

A quality wax kit
Meguiar's Ultimate Liquid Car Wax
Amazon

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The easiest way to add a layer of protection to your car (sealant and ceramic coating can also be applied but are more complicated) is o use some simple wax. We've selected this kit from Meguiar's because the wax is synthetic and should offer long-term hydrophobic protection to your paintwork. It also comes with a handy applicator and soft microfibre towel for buffing.

Read more about waxing your car here

Cleaning the glass:

A man cleans a car with a microfibre drying cloth
©Photo: Getty Images

Essential equipment for cleaning glass:

Pressure washer

Buckets

Drying towel

How to clean glass:

  • Firstly, don't worry about getting shampoo or snow foam on your car's glass. They will do no harm and will probably help remove some dirt.

  • Once you've washed your car with shampoo and dried it, add some glass cleaner onto the windows as per the product's instructions.

  • Wipe away the residue with a drying towel and repeat on the other side of the glass too.

  • Add some rain repellent to improve your visibility in poor conditions and you're all done. (Remember that some products combine glass cleaner and rain repellent).

The best products for cleaning glass

Rain X Rain Repellent and Glass Cleaner 500ml

Best way to keep your glass clear
Rain X Rain Repellent and Glass Cleaner 500ml
Amazon

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Rain X is the go-to brand for clear glass and for obvious reasons. This 2-in-1 option not only cleans the glass but will ensure that it stays residue and streak-free. Spray it onto your car's glass and wipe it off with a microfibre cloth.

Read more about rain repellents here

Cleaning the trim:

A man cleans some trim on a classic car
©Photo: Getty Images

Cleaning your car's trim requires its own section because you'll need different products depending on what car you own. If it's slathered in chrome then you'll need a metal polish whereas if you have chunky black plastic trim you'll need an appropriate product.

Thankfully these products are very easy to apply, wash your car as normal and use these products during the polishing process (all you need to do is read the instructions provided).

Essential equipment for cleaning your trim:

Pressure washer

Buckets

Wash mitt

Detailing bushes

Drying towels

The best products for cleaning car trim

Autoglym Metal Polish

Perfect for a classic
Autoglym Metal Polish
Amazon

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Suitable for use on any polished metal surface, this is our number one pick for keeping your brightwork as bright as possible. It will leave a long-lasting finish and is an essential purchase for any classic car owner.

Meguiar's Ultimate Black Plastic Restorer Trim Restorer

Perfect for plastic trim
Meguiar's G15812EU Ultimate Black Plastic Restorer Trim Restorer
Amazon

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Plastic trim will often fade as time goes on making the car look sad and neglected. This trim cleaner from Meguair's not only cleans black plastic trim but also adds UV protection and will restore the lost colour to the trim.

Read more about the different types of polish here

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