Car wash basics

Getting your car washed and waxed on a regular basis is one of the easiest ways to preserve its paint and keep it looking nice. Not only does it provide a point of pride for you, the driver, regular car washes help slow down the normal wear and tear that every vehicle’s exterior undergoes. Removing other environmental contaminants such as road salt, sap, tar and bugs in a timely manner also goes a long way to making your car’s paint and clear coat last longer.

But many wonder: How frequently should I wash my car? The answer depends first of all on personal preference and the vehicle you own. If you just purchased a brand-new luxury vehicle that still fumes with “new car” smell, you might want to wash your vehicle as frequently as once a week to keep it shiny and bright. But if you’re driving a beat-up rust bucket of truck, you may never wash your car.

For everyone else in the middle of those two extremes, a number of factors can influence the decision:

Driving conditions. Do you live in a rural area with gravel or dirt roads or driveways? The dust kicked up and caked onto your paint means you’ll want to wash your car more frequently.

Season. The grime and dust from road salt in the winter can do corrosive damage to your vehicle’s underbody and paint. Hitting bugs in the summer can have a similar effect.

Climate. Those climes with frequent snowfall will require you to wash your vehicle more often. Salt, mud and snow can be damaging to your car's shine. Humidity also attracts more contaminants to your vehicle. Acid from contaminants such as bird droppings, bugs or tree sap is more active in higher temperatures.

Geography. People who live in coastal areas will be exposed to more dirt and salt in the air. Living in an industrial area exposes your car to chemical particles that may be damaging to the paint job. The typical recommendation for people living in these areas is to wash their car weekly.

Parking location. If you’re not fortunate enough to park your car in a garage every night, parking underneath trees that drop sap or in areas prone to gatherings of birds that drop bird stuff should convince you to wash your car often.

Commute distance and conditions. If your daily commute involves long distances on the highway, your car’s exterior will be exposed to more road grime and bug strikes than a vehicle with a short non-highway commute, necessitating washing your car more frequently.

At a minimum, it’s a good idea to get your vehicle washed at least every two to three weeks to keep dirt and grime from building up on the exterior. If your drive involves the conditions mentioned above, you may want to wash your vehicle more frequently

Tips for washing and waxing

MORE: How Much Does a Car Wash Cost?

Many drivers opt for the convenience of a drive-through or automatic car wash. However, not all car washes are created equal. In fact, some automatic car washes – especially those that use rotating brushes or agitating cloths - can damage your vehicle’s paint.

Brushes or cloths that are too firm or contain built-up dirt or debris can actually scratch your vehicle. It takes research on the driver’s part to avoid damaging car washes by asking the car wash operator about how often the brushes or cloths are cleaned or replaced. If they’re changed infrequently or not at all, consider taking your vehicle elsewhere or using a different style of car wash.

Car washes that offer hand washes, hand washing your vehicle yourself or having your vehicle hand washed by an automotive detailing shop are all options to avoid damage from automatic car washes.

If you choose the DIY route, follow these steps to get the deep clean you’re looking for:

Pick the right spot. Avoid washing your car in direct sunlight or on a hot day. When you wash a car on hot day in direct sunlight, the water will dry very quickly, which can leave spots on the paint surface. Wash your car in the shade.

Check your water. The main ingredient in a car wash is obvious: water. But are you using the right kind of water? If your water is “hard” or high in mineral content, you may want to use a self-service car wash or avoid washing your car yourself altogether. Hard water also has a tendency to leave spots on the paint surface as it dries.

Get the right materials. Use a soap or detergent product made for washing cars, not dish soap. Dish soap can remove or cloud wax and polish coatings, detracting from the finish of the car. You can find the right materials, including car wash detergent, sponges, washing mitts and microfiber towels for drying at your local automotive retail store.

Spray it down. Start the process by spraying down the car with a garden hose, preferably with a car wash attachment or a higher-pressure nozzle. You can also use a pressure washer if available, but be careful to use a low pressure setting, as water under high pressure can actually blast away the protective clear coat or paint. Spray down the car thoroughly to remove any excess or heavily built-up debris.

Soap it up. Mix your auto detergent and water in a bucket in the ratio described on the bottle. Using too much soap can leave a cloudy surface or excessive water marks. Using your sponge or wash mitt, give the car a good scrubbing starting with the roof and working your way down. If the water in the bucket gets too grimy, change it out for fresh soap and water if necessary.

Rinse and repeat. Now that  you’ve got your car’s body cleaned up nicely, make sure to rinse all those soapy suds as thoroughly as possible. You may want to repeat the process on areas that are particularly vulnerable to grime and bug junk such as the front grille. Next, repeat the process on the vehicle wheels using a heavy brush; using specialty tire grime cleaners is also an option.

Towel it off. Before the now-rinsed vehicle has a chance to dry, use a microfiber or other soft cloth towel to soak up any remaining moisture. Be sure to use a towel made from a lint-free fabric to prevent your car’s surface from becoming a lint trap.

Prices and services vary from car wash to car wash. Look for coupon books and monthly or yearly deals to save some money. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Walter K. of San Diego)

Tips for washing and waxing

Many drivers opt for the convenience of a drive-through or automatic car wash. However, not all car washes are created equal. In fact, some automatic car washes – especially those that use rotating brushes or agitating cloths - can damage your vehicle’s paint.

Brushes or cloths that are too firm or contain built-up dirt or debris can actually scratch your vehicle. It takes research on the driver’s part to avoid damaging car washes by asking the car wash operator about how often the brushes or cloths are cleaned or replaced. If they’re changed infrequently or not at all, consider taking your vehicle elsewhere or using a different style of car wash.

Car washes that offer hand washes, hand washing your vehicle yourself or having your vehicle hand washed by an automotive detailing shop are all options to avoid damage from automatic car washes.

If you choose the DIY route, follow these steps to get the deep clean you’re looking for:

Pick the right spot. Avoid washing your car in direct sunlight or on a hot day. When you wash a car on hot day in direct sunlight, the water will dry very quickly, which can leave spots on the paint surface. Wash your car in the shade.

Check your water. The main ingredient in a car wash is obvious: water. But are you using the right kind of water? If your water is “hard” or high in mineral content, you may want to use a self-service car wash or avoid washing your car yourself altogether. Hard water also has a tendency to leave spots on the paint surface as it dries.

Get the right materials. Use a soap or detergent product made for washing cars, not dish soap. Dish soap can remove or cloud wax and polish coatings, detracting from the finish of the car. You can find the right materials, including car wash detergent, sponges, washing mitts and microfiber towels for drying at your local automotive retail store.

Spray it down. Start the process by spraying down the car with a garden hose, preferably with a car wash attachment or a higher-pressure nozzle. You can also use a pressure washer if available, but be careful to use a low pressure setting, as water under high pressure can actually blast away the protective clear coat or paint. Spray down the car thoroughly to remove any excess or heavily built-up debris.

Soap it up. Mix your auto detergent and water in a bucket in the ratio described on the bottle. Using too much soap can leave a cloudy surface or excessive water marks. Using your sponge or wash mitt, give the car a good scrubbing starting with the roof and working your way down. If the water in the bucket gets too grimy, change it out for fresh soap and water if necessary.

Rinse and repeat. Now that  you’ve got your car’s body cleaned up nicely, make sure to rinse all those soapy suds as thoroughly as possible. You may want to repeat the process on areas that are particularly vulnerable to grime and bug junk such as the front grille. Next, repeat the process on the vehicle wheels using a heavy brush; using specialty tire grime cleaners is also an option.

Towel it off. Before the now-rinsed vehicle has a chance to dry, use a microfiber or other soft cloth towel to soak up any remaining moisture. Be sure to use a towel made from a lint-free fabric to prevent your car’s surface from becoming a lint trap.

Mobile auto businesses, like detailing, oil change and mechanical services, can come to your home or office. (Photo courtesy of member Brandon D., Albuquerque, N.M.)

Waxing tips

After giving your car a nice wash, it is time to go to the next step and do a wax to keep the vehicle as beautiful as possible. There are a number of factors to take note of when it comes to waxing a vehicle, and these factors start with the kind of wax you use.

MORE: How Often Should I Wax My Car?

Different wax options include liquid, soft, hard and polymer. Polymer is different in that it is not a wax but another material that claims to hold up longer than wax. Liquid wax is easy to apply but does not last as long, while hard wax takes a longer time to apply but can stay for a long period. Soft wax falls between liquid and hard wax in terms of ease of use and duration.

​Most waxes will include an applicator pad, but a soft cloth rag can be used if applicator pads are not available. Get some of the wax on an applicator or cloth rag and apply in vertical motions, going back and forth over the vehicle until a slight haze shows up. Use a microfiber cloth with no pressure to remove the haze of the wax.

Apply and remove hard waxes by section to keep the hard wax from hardening too much, and be sure to exercise caution when breaking away hard wax deposits in case you waited too long for the hard wax to dry.

Hiring an auto detailer

Your car is never going to look or feel as new as the day your drive it off the dealership's lot. But having it detailed sure comes close.

An auto detail can clean both the interior and exterior of your car.

An exterior detail can include a wash and wax, while an interior detail will vacuumn and shampoo the carpets as well as clean the dashboard.

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