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How to clean your car the right way, and what to avoid

Tips and tricks for a better car wash

Car wash by hand woman 2120x 1415

"Come on and sing it with me, workin’ at the car wash, at the car wash, girl". You've got that song in your head now, right? Well as long as we're on the topic, washing our cars has seemingly gone from being a relaxing ritual to a retired relic. With 3/4 of women and 1/3 of men admitting to never have washed their own car, and our own survey* showing that 62% of Members look at their cars as just a means of getting from A to B, it seems that busy lives have kept washing our cars from the top of the to-do list. 

If you’ve neglected your car – or if you do keep on top of motor maintenance but just want some helpful tips – we’ve got some handy hints to help you scrub up on how to wash a car like a pro.

Cleaning your car – common mistakes to avoid

When it comes to keeping your car looking tip-top, it’s easier to tackle some of the mistakes you might be making when it comes to giving it a wash.

  • Picking a sunny day to clean your car

The saying might have it that we must make hay while the sun shines, but when it comes to cleaning your car, bright days might spell dark times ahead. Waking up to blue skies might inspire you to get out and give the car a spring clean, but you could end up with water spotting, a streaky finish and stubborn drip marks. Too much direct sunlight or heat can dry off the moisture or the shampoo before you get a chance to properly finish the job, so it's always best to wash your car either early in the morning or late in the evening during hot spells. 

  • Using the first sponge you find

Doing a hand car wash is a rewarding bit of manual labour. But when you’re scrubbing the grease and dirt off, don’t just assume you can use any old sponge you’ve got lying around. Sponges and other flat surfaced towels or cloths retain pieces of grit easily, which can scratch your paintwork. By keeping some sponges or cloths separate and reserved for washing your car, and washing them once you've finished each time, you'll know they're clean the next time you come to wash the car. 

  • Leaving it to dry naturally

The natural look might not be for everyone, and it isn’t for your car either. Leaving a car to dry naturally is a guaranteed way to get streaky watermarks.

Practical tips on how to wash a car better

  • The process

Car cleaning enthusiasts (or 'detailers', as they prefer to be called) might have a more elaborate process, but a general step-by-step guide to follow for cleaning your car is: 

  1. Rinse using a hose to remove the bulk of the dirt and grit. 
  2. Work from the top down using a sponge to apply your shampoo or wash wax – make sure you follow the instructions on the bottle. 
  3. Rinse as you go where possible, instead of soaping the whole car in one go. Split the car into segments – roof and windows first, then the rear, left side, right side and finish with the bonnet. 
  4. Dry off using your choice of either chamois or microfibre cloths.
  5. Open the doors and boot in turn, cleaning around the door edge and side panels using a damp cloth.
  6. Don't forget the wheels – use a brush or sponge (not the one you used to clean the bodywork) and a cleaning product made for the job. 
  • Invest in car shampoo

Just like we prefer a fancy shampoo to keep us looking our best, so does your car – because you’re both worth it. It's important to use specialist car shampoo, rather than fairy liquid or other household products, which can break down the protective wax applied to your car. You won’t have to take a side job washing cars to afford the shampoo either; you can pick up reasonably priced brands at most supermarkets or specialist stores like Halfords.

  • Dry with chamois leather or microfibre cloth

Having the right car washing kit could make all the difference to your car's appearance. Drying a car with rough towels could lead to scratches or an uneven, watermarked finish. When it comes to drying off you have a choice between the traditional chamois leather and the microfibre cloth. Chamois leathers are harder to care for but are an old favourite with detailers, while towels are easily cleaned in the washing machine so perfect for the occasional Sunday morning clean. 

  • Wax

It takes a bit more effort but regularly giving your car a post-wash wax will help result in a much cleaner finish. It'll also make the car easier to clean next time round, and protect it more effectively against the elements.

Don’t be pressured in to using a pressure washer

When it comes to cleaning your car it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking the flashier the equipment, the better the clean. High-pressure washers might seem to be the sensible solution to a dirty car, but there are many ways in which using you could be do more harm than good.

  • Can your paintwork handle the pressure?

There are different ways in which the pressure washer could damage your car’s paintwork. The first is the type of nozzle or attachment you choose to use. Some, like a rotary nozzle, produce such powerful pressure that damage is nearly a guarantee. Keep in mind that any pressure washer nozzle is capable of damaging paintwork if held too close. And any type of high pressure could deliver the final blow to paintwork which is already chipped.

  • Tyres

Extreme caution is advised when it comes to using a pressure washer around your tyres, especially if they're older. Pressure washers have been known to cause older tyres to explode in the most extreme cases. A car so clean you can see your reflection in might be impressive to some, but a car without any tyres is impressive to none.

  • Interior damage

You need to be very careful about where you point a pressure washer. It's easy to force water past door seals or into expensive electronic control units. When it comes to washing around the engine or under the bonnet area, unless you consider yourself a pro, it's best to avoid using a pressure washer. Accidentally spraying the engine bay, boot or prolonged pressure on panel gaps could cause damage that'll prove costly for you and your car. It's no good having a squeaky clean car if it doesn't start. 

*AA-Populus poll of Jan 2014.

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