13 Cleaning Tricks Car Washers Won’t Tell You

Updated: Feb. 18, 2024

Want to get your car gleaming—without the professional price tag? Try these secrets to get that fresh-from-the-car-wash feel right at home.

Just say no to dish soap

It may be the usual go-to for at-home car washers, but car detailers say it’s a no-no. “People use dish soap, but this is a huge mistake,” says Lauren Fix, an automotive expert based in Buffalo, New York, and the founder of the Car Coach. “It removes the wax. Always use car soap with warm water.” In general, Fix says it’s best not to skimp on your car care. “Home products stay in the home,” she advises. “Use automotive products to protect your vehicle.” Don’t miss these 13 ways you’re shortening the life of your car.

Wash your car in the shade

A hot, sunny summer day might seem like the perfect time to give your car a scrub, but if the exterior of your car is hot, the car may dry too fast and leave streaks, according to Consumer Reports. Choose a cooler day—or a shaded spot.

Rinse your car first

Before you start cleaning your car, go over the whole exterior with the hose to rinse off as much dirt and debris as possible. That can also help minimize the amount of dirt in your soapy water once you get down to scrubbing. If you think your car is dirty, wait until you read these hilarious driver confessions about how clean their cars really are.

Clean tools periodically so you’re not sloshing dirt around

If you keep using the same rag, by the time you get to the end of your car, you’re probably not washing much away. You need a system for keeping your cleaning tools (and your cleaning water) clear. “If you’re going to use a bucket, it must have a dirt trap in the bottom of the bucket, which funnels the sand and contaminants down, maintaining clean water,” suggests Chad Zani, director of franchising at Detail Garage. “If you don’t do this, every time you plunge your hand into the bucket, all the dirt swirls around and goes back onto your sponge, which ends up scratching the surface.” Another option? Rinse your rag after every pass in a separate bucket of clear water, and keep changing it as it gets dirty, according to Chris Moy, general manager at Sweetwater Car Wash in Windermere, Florida.

Don’t use a regular rag

A standard rag or sponge can trap dirt and drag it over the car’s surface, scratching the paint and eventually ruining your car’s finish. “Standard rags will scratch the car,” says Sophie James, manager of AvalonKing, a car-care company in Ontario, Canada. “Microfiber towels are definitely the way to go.” Moy recommends microfiber mitts to make cleaning easier.

Clean from the top down

Use a straight-down swipe to clean your car from top to bottom, then rinse your cloth before dipping it into the soapy water again, Moy says. Cleaning from top to bottom has you cleaning the worst of the dirt—from your tires—last, Fix says. And keep the same top-to-bottom method going for your car’s interior, too; otherwise, you can knock dust and dirt from the windows and surfaces onto the floors and car seats. Your car isn’t the only at-risk place for cleaning snafus.

Condition your leather

Not sure how to clean car seats? It’s relatively straightforward, but if you have leather seats, they require a bit of extra TLC. “Leather surfaces require conditioning and ‘hide food,’ which keeps the leather soft,” Fix says. Also, you should vacuum first to remove any crumbs or dirt that might be lurking there. By the way, this is how often you should be cleaning the inside of your car.

Repurpose a few tools from around the house

A small paintbrush can be used to brush out dirt and debris from crevices throughout the car, including where the back and top of the car seat meet, says Moy. Brushes can also help get ground-in dirt out of the mats. “A great brush will help get your seats and carpets clean,” says Zani. “A pet-hair removal brush is essential.” Another option for removing pet hair? A light spritz of water and a squeegee might do the trick. If your pet-related car problems don’t stop at unwanted hair, check out these 10 easy ways to get rid of pet odors.

Give your headlights a shine

There are two different schools of thought for how to clean car headlights. “Sometimes a dab of toothpaste and buffing with a microfiber towel can restore the original shine of headlights,” James says. “Of course, you have to rinse afterward and remove all of the residue.” Moy recommends using sandpaper to deal with the yellowing. Just make sure to apply painter’s tape around the area to avoid accidentally scratching the finish around the headlight.

Use an air blower

To get a streak-free finish, blow-dry your car. “Purpose-built air blowers dry the car off without scratching and also blow dust out of the nooks and crannies inside the car,” Zani says.

Be careful about what you use inside the car

On the dashboard and windshield, avoid products that create a heavy shine, which could increase the glare and reduce your visibility. “Non-ammonia-based glass cleaner is a must,” Moy says. “Ammonia-based cleaners will degrade window tint and should be avoided at all costs. Glass cleaner and microfiber towels are both effective for windows as well as plastic surfaces inside the car.” For a different type of bling, check out these 20 car accessories that will change the way you drive.

Do your wheels last

Since the wheels are the dirtiest part of the car, experts suggest cleaning them last. And make sure to set aside specific microfiber cloths to use just for them. If you don’t, you risk scratching your paint the next time you wash your car.

Apply wax

“Waxes and sealants prolong the appearance of your car, and anyone advising people not to do this is giving bad advice,” Zani says. But there’s definitely a trick to how to wax a car. Apply the wax in small, circular motions using the included applicator. Once you’ve gotten fully around, the wax at the start should be dry enough to allow you to buff it with a chamois cloth or a dual-action buffer. “Dual-action polishers are generally safe for most finishes,” Moy says. “You can use the dual-action polisher to apply wax as well as compound and polish light surface scratches.” Next, check out this car cleaning putty that will get those hard-to-reach areas.