CAR’s ultimate guide to properly cleaning your car

Learn how to clean your car properly with our conclusive guide.

A dirty car with 'wash me' inscribed into the dirt

by Ryan Gilmore |

If cleaning your car means nothing more than nabbing the washing-up liquid from the sink and grabbing a hose from the garage then there is the whole world of detailing to be unlocked for you.

For some washing the car sounds as dull as taxation forms, but for others, it's the perfect way to spend an afternoon. And if you're wanting to take your first step into this pastime, we've put together a conclusive guide of what to do and what products you'll need to have your car looking like it should be at the Concours d'Elegance.

The essentials tools you should have:

The essential tools you'll need to properly clean your car are as follows:

A pressure washer may seem a little bit like overkill for the uninitiated, especially as a good quality example can cost close to £100. A pressure washer however will totally transform how you wash your car. Not only will it mean you can blast away embedded dirt with ease, but it also unlocks the magic of snow foam, something that will pretty quickly become part of your cleaning arsenal. And you can use it on your patio too when you're done.

Turtle Wax TW110

Our budget pressure washer champ
Turtle Wax TW110 | Multi-Purpose High-Pressure Washer | Compact Car and Home Cleaner with Power Jet Hose and Nozzle, 1400W
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For a simple, entry-level pressure washer we recommend this option from Turtle Wax. Designed to be used for cleaning cars, it balances price with power, offering a 330 L/H flow rate and 110 bar pressure. We also like the compact design, it's perfect if you haven't got a lot of storage available.

Read our article on the best pressure washers right here

A wash mitt is infinitely better than using a sponge and is one of the cheapest ways to upgrade how you wash your car. A wash mitt will prevent small bits of grit from being dragged across your car's paintwork and will sud up quicker, leading to better cleaning results and no marring on your paintwork.

Amazon Basics Deluxe Microfiber Car Wash Mitt (2 Pack)

Clean your car better
Amazon Basics Deluxe Microfiber Car Wash Mitt (2 Pack)
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Microfibre noodles are an excellent choice for cleaning cars because they offer a large surface area, filter away grit and sud up quicker than a sponge for better cleaning. This set from Amazon includes two mitts, each of which features an elasticated cuff to stop your hand from getting wet.

Read about our favourite wash mitts right here

The bucket may seem like something inconsequential, but we recommend buying two of them and making sure they have a grit guard installed. The double-bucket method basically means you have one bucket with your washing solution in and another with just water in it for rinsing. The benefit of this method is that it will keep your wash mitt cleaner and stop the cleaning water from becoming mucky. A grit guard on the other hand will filter out debris so you don't inadvertently damage your paintwork as you wash your car.

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

A good bucket
Meguiar's Yellow Large Car Wash Bucket and Professional Grit Guard
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Buckets aren't exactly romantic and there are only so many words you can write about them but they're essential to properly cleaning your car. This big bucket from Meguiar's offers five gallons (US) of storage and comes with a grit guard to keep your paintwork safe. Just remember to buy two.

The best buckets with grit guards

Make sure you have an assorted collection of detailing brushes with you for any cleaning task. There are plenty of different examples available and we recommend having a selection of them. They can be used on your car's exterior, interior, wheels and even the engine bay and will make scrubbing easier.

Car Cleaner Brush Set For Cleaning Wheels

Good detailing brushes
Car Cleaner Brush Set For Cleaning Wheels
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We've selected these wheel brushes as a showcase of detailing brushes but the fact remains that there are so many for all sorts of different duties. Some offer softer bristles for delicate surfaces whereas others are designed to break through mud. These are tough enough to clean mucky wheels but might damage your interior if you're too liberal with the elbow grease.

Read our guide to detailing brushes

The final essential thing you'll need is a selection of drying towels. These are used to buff, dry, clean and prevent marks. They're a garage essential and you can never have too many.

Kent Car Care GKEQ6100 Microfibre Drying Towel

Cleaning, buffing and drying
Kent Car Care GKEQ6100 Microfibre Drying Towel Extra Large 5 Sq Ft
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There are loads of different drying towels for sale, all designed for different jobs but we recommend getting a simple example like this one from Kent Car Care. Just remember to buy plenty.

Read our guide to drying towels right here

Start with the wheels:

A car wheel
©Photo: Getty Images

Your car's wheels and tyres are the most exposed to the elements and face the unique containment of brake dust as well as the brunt of road salt, mud and grime. As such your best bet is to start here when it comes to cleaning your car. Invest in some proper wheel cleaner to remove the debris and then some wheel sealant to keep them looking fresh for longer.

Essential equipment for cleaning your wheels:

Pressure washer

Buckets

Detailing brushes

Drying towels

How to clean your wheels:

  1. Spray the car's wheels with your pressure washer to remove any embedded dirt and loosen grime and debris. Don't forget to wash down the tyres too.
  1. Apply the wheel cleaner using the instructions as a guide.
  1. Use a bristled brush to help agitate the surface and get the wheels properly working. Make sure you use your buckets to clean the brush regularly.
  1. Rinse the wheel with the pressure washer (a hose is also acceptable here) and use a drying towel to make sure it's dry.
  1. Apply the wheel sealant according to the instructions and wait for it to properly cure.
  1. Buff the wheel with another drying towel for sparkling alloys that won't get dirty as quickly.
  1. 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 products for cleaning your wheels:

Bilt Hamber Auto Wheel Cleaner 1L + Bilt Hamber Wheel Brush

Clean those wheels properly
Bilt Hamber Auto Wheel Cleaner 1L + Bilt Hamber Wheel Brush
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Our top choice when it comes to alloy wheel cleaner is this option from Bilt Hamber. Simply spray it onto your wheels, agitate with a brush and rinse off when the job is done. We've found this to be an excellent choice for your alloys and effective at removing stubborn dirt. It's also pH-balanced which means it can be applied to any wheel type, even magnesium wheels. This set even comes with a complimentary brush so you can really get into those hard-to-reach areas of your alloys.

Read our dedicated article on the best alloy wheel cleaning products here

Gtechniq - C5 Wheel Armour

A top choice for wheel sealant
Gtechniq - C5 Wheel Armour
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Offering up to two years of protection from a single application, Gtechniq C5 Wheel Armour is a tough sealant and our top choice for long-term protection. Available in two sizes (15ml and 30ml for alloys over 17-inches) you simply wipe it on with a pad, let it sit for a minute then buff. Afterwards, you'll need to let it cure for 12 hours but after that, you'll have excellent protection.

Read our full guide to wheel sealants right here

Autoglym HPTG500EUR High Performance Tyre Gel

Our favourite tyre dressing
Autoglym HPTG500EUR High Performance Tyre Gel
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Aside from the obvious quality, our favourite thing about this tyre gel is that it offers you a choice for your finish, either satin or high gloss. Apply with an applicator and either leave it to dry for a gloss finish or wipe for a satin finish. It's long-lasting and the perfect finish is a great way to finish cleaning your wheels.

Read our guide to tyre dressing here

Cleaning your car's exterior:

Ferrari bodywork
©Photo: Obi Onyeador

The meat and veg of the cleaning process is doing the exterior. How much you do depends on how much you want to clean it. We're going to show you how to thoroughly clean and protect your car, but these steps are by no means essential every single time you clean your car.

Essential equipment for cleaning your car's exterior:

Pressure washer

Buckets

Wash mitt

Detailing brushes

Drying towels

How to clean your exterior:

  1. Using your pressure washer with a foam lancet, liberally coat your car in snow foam. This will help dislodge stubborn bits of dirt making the rest of the cleaning process easier. It will also limit bits of dirt scratching your paint as you begin to clean it during the hand stages.
  1. Get those buckets filled with water and add your shampoo to one of those buckets. 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.
  1. After rinsing away the shampoo with water it's time to crack out the clay bar and lube (no sniggering). 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.
  1. 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 leftover watermarks.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 products for cleaning your car:

Bilt Hamber Auto Foam

Our favourite snow foam
Bilt Hamber Auto Foam
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We've been very impressed by the snow foam offered by Bilt Hamber. The foam is thick and clings to paintwork like a sloth to a tree. It cuts through embedded dirt with ease without harming paint or wax and is fully biodegradable.

Read our guide to snow foam here

Turtle Wax 53340 Hybrid Solutions Ceramic Wash & Wax Car Shampoo

Wash and protect at the same time
Turtle Wax 53340 Hybrid Solutions Ceramic Wash & Wax Car Shampoo
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We like this shampoo so much because it's good at cleaning and offers a layer of ceramic protection all in one. The ceramic coating is hydrophobic and long-lasting which means your car will stay cleaner for longer. You also only need to use a capful to do a medium-sized car.

Read our top car shampoo picks here

Autoglym Clay Detailing Complete Kit

Clay bar beginners kit
Autoglym Clay Detailing Complete Kit
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This kit from Autoglym offers an excellent beginners kit for your first clay barring. Coming with a clay bar, lubricant, drying towel and even a little bottle of polish, it'll transform how your car looks and convert you to a clay bar enthusiast.

Read more about clay bars here

SONAX 03002000 Car Polish

Best car polish
SONAX 03002000 Car Polish
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This polish will help remove small scratches thanks to its mildly abrasive formula but will not damage your delicate paintwork further. It will also provide a nice deep gloss that will last for a long time. The best part is, it will not break the bank.

Read more about car polish here

Meguiar's G18216 Ultimate Liquid Car Wax

Best simple wax
Meguiar's G18216 Ultimate Liquid Car Wax
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Wax is the best option if you're new to detailing but you can choose paint sealant or even ceramic coating if you want more protection. We've chosen this liquid synthetic wax from Meguiar's because it comes with an applicator and because it will offer long-lasting hydrophobic paint protection that will cause water to bead off your paint.

Read about the best car wax here

Trim pieces:

The chrome detailing of a Mercedes SL 280
©Photo: Clem Onojeghuo

Trim pieces are also worth covering because they vary from car to car and need different products depending upon what you own. Own a beautiful, older car with plenty of decedent chrome trim? Then you'll need to polish those bits of chrome with a proper product. The same goes if you have a boggo car with black plastic bumpers. The good news is that you wash your car as normal and apply these products during the polishing stage

Essential equipment for cleaning your trim:

Pressure washer

Buckets

Wash mitt

Detailing bushes

Drying towels

The best products for cleaning trim pieces:

Autoglym AG 053258 Metal Polish

Clean metal trim
Autoglym AG 053258 Metal Polish
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Designed for use on your car's metal as opposed to paintwork, this polish is a must-have for any classic owner. It can be used on any polished metal surface and will give a long-lasting shine to your car.

Meguiar's G15812EU Ultimate Black Plastic Restorer Trim Restorer

Perfect for black trim
Meguiar's G15812EU Ultimate Black Plastic Restorer Trim Restorer
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Those plastic bumpers from 20 years ago have now all gone sad, flat grey colour and could do with some TLC. This trim cleaner from Meguiar's not only cleans black plastic trim easily but also adds UV protection and will restore the lost colour to the trim.

Read more about the different types of car polish here

Glass:

The side window of a coupe reflecting a sunset
©Photo: Getty Images

To add another layer of complexity to your car cleaning routine, you can treat the glass area to some proper cleaning to get the best results possible. After all, who wants finger marks and bird poo residue ruining the look of their car?

Essential equipment for cleaning glass:

Pressure washer

Buckets

Drying towel

How to clean your glass:

  1. 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.
  1. Once you've washed your car with shampoo and dried it, add some glass cleaner onto the windows as per the product's instructions.
  1. Wipe away the residue on with a drying towel and repeat on the other side of the glass too.
  1. 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 your car's windows:

Rain X 88199500 Rain Repellent and Glass Cleaner

Clean your glass
Rain X 88199500 Rain Repellent and Glass Cleaner
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Not only is Rain X renowned for improving visibility on rainy days, but it is available as a glass cleaner too. Simply spray this onto your glass and wipe it away with a drying towel. It prevents debris from sticking to your window and is incredibly simple to use.

Read more about our guide to rain repellents here

Anything else:

A convertible yellow car
©Photo: Getty Images

Convertible tops:

If your car has a folding metal roof then you can clean it like your other bodywork (just remember to put the roof up first) but if you have a soft top then a special product is needed.

Autoglym AG 255003 Convertible Soft Top Clean & Protect Complete Kit

Clean your soft top properly
Autoglym AG 255003 Convertible Soft Top Clean & Protect Complete Kit
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This kit is designed for your soft top. It won't damage the fabric but will remove stains and marks. The kit also includes a protection spray that prevents water absorption. It's suitable for mohair, double duck, fabric or canvas fabric hoods.

The oily bits:

Although not essential, you may want to clean your engine bay from time to time. Any serious grime should be investigated straight away but it's only natural that your engine will get a bit of muck on it over time. Thankfully it's an easy fix with some engine bay cleaner and a nylon brush.

Simply spray the product onto the engine bay as directed and brush away the grime with the brush. Then wash away the leftovers and you'll have a sparkling engine bay to match your car.

Autoglym Engine & Machine Cleaner

Autoglym Engine & Machine Cleaner
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Spray this product onto an engine bay and watch as it cuts through and dislodges oil, grease, grime and traffic film. It works as a detergent and degreaser and is water-based meaning you aren't harming the environment when you use it.

Draper 52307 230 mm Nylon Fill Brush

Scrub your engine bay
Draper 52307 230 mm Nylon Fill Brush
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This brush from Draper is tough enough for any task you can throw at it. The nylon bristles can cut through dirt and debris without damaging and the brush is very well made.

The lights:

Again not something you should need to tackle every time you clean your car, eventually you may need to look into restoring your headlights to their former glory. After all, nothing will ruin the look of your freshly cleaned car like some clouded lenses.

Meguiar's G1900K One-Step Car Headlight Restoration Kit

Restore those headlights
Meguiar's G1900K One-Step Car Headlight Restoration Kit for oxidised & yellowed headlights
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When your headlights begin to fade it's all too easy to simply buy a new set and replace them. However, this kit from Meguiar's is designed to restore those headlights to their former glory. The kit includes a soft drill attachment and Plastx for restoring faded, scratched and oxidised headlights.

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