The DIY Beginner’s Guide to Cleaning Your Car

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To some people, car washing is a chore. To others, it’s an art. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, everyone can agree that a clean car is better than a dirty one. It not only visually looks better, but routine cleaning keeps your car in good condition and can be a big factor in resale value when you decide to sell it.

You have options for car cleaning: you can take it to a local car wash, you can hire a professional detailer, or you can do it yourself. The local car wash can be lower cost but lower
quality, and the detailer can be higher quality but higher cost. Doing things yourself offers the best of both worlds – low cost and high quality. You just need to know what you’re doing.

If you’re the DIY type and want to take your skills from average to expert, we’re going to go over exactly which products and techniques you should be using to get beautiful, professional results. In other words, sparkling paint, shining wheels, and a car that’s guaranteed to turn heads wherever you go.

For this article, we’re going to literally focus on “CLEANING,” and we’ll leave the wax for a separate story.


It pays to have the right tools for the job.

With car washing, regular kitchen dish soap and an old ripped up bath towel aren’t going to cut it if you really want good results from your efforts. From your exterior to your interior, we’ve provided a shopping list for everything you need to give your car a proper detail.

With the exception of the shop vacuum, you’re looking at a total expenditure here of less than $100, which is still cheaper than you’d spend to accomplish the same results from a detailer.

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For sake of saving time, we’re going to go over general product categories, not individual products by brand. If you’re interested in finding out which specific brands and products are best within each particular category, check out the automotive category at


Car wash soap: To be clear, this means a car-specific washing shampoo.

You don’t really want to use dish soap. There are a million urban legends telling you why not to (“It’ll dry out your door seals!” “It will strip the wax off the finish!” “It will remove the essential oils in the paint!”), but think about this: If it’s safe enough to leave your hands in for an hour, or to clean an oil-soaked penguin, it’s probably safe enough for paint that’s formulated to withstand UV rays, acid rain, snow, sleet and all kinds of other contaminants.

But the truth is, dish soap just doesn’t do a very good job. Dish soap really works best with hot water if you hope to rinse it properly, which you probably don’t have access to from the spigot outside your house. Car wash soap is formulated to be rinsed more easily with cold water.

Buckets: You’ll need a bucket for your soap, but use two buckets, if you can. For less than $10, you can grab a couple of five-gallon buckets at Home Depot. We all know how dirty the water bucket gets by the end of a car wash. If you use a bucket of clean water to rinse your wash mitt before you dunk it in the soap bucket again, your suds will stay a lot cleaner, and you’ll lower the risk of scratching the paint.

Wash mitt: This is what you’ll use to physically apply soap to your car. Wash mitts come in many styles, and you’re free to choose or even use a towel if you prefer. The important takeaway is that whatever you use should be a microfiber material, not cotton.

Drying towels: When it’s time to dry your car, you should be using microfiber towels and nothing else. Cotton towels, diapers, and old flannel shirts are too rough and full of lint and can scratch automotive paint and clearcoat. Microfiber is ultra-soft, making it the preferred material for drying cars.


Wheel cleaner: Regular soap is great for paint, but it doesn’t do a good job on wheels. A wheel-specific cleaner can work wonders in terms of cleaning efficiency and appearance.

There are different formulas for your wheel type. In general, the formulations for aluminum wheels are less caustic, because aluminum wheels are either unpainted or clearcoated, meaning that their finish is just as sensitive to harsh chemicals as the paint on your car. Chrome is able to stand up to much harsher chemicals, so chrome wheel cleaners are more aggressive.

Wheel cleaners used to be harsh acids, but better products are now acid-free.

Wash mitt/Brush: Since wheels are generally dirtier than the rest of your car (and subject to heavier types of grease/buildup), it’s nice to have a separate wash mitt handy. Also, depending on your wheel design, you may want to have a soft-bristle scrub brush for tough spots and easier cleaning.

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Vacuum: If you really want to clean your interior properly, you’ll need a vacuum. If your regular household vacuum has a hose attachment, that should get most of the job done, but for ideal results, use a shop vacuum with a range of attachments This will allow you to clean even the smallest nooks and crannies, with the extracting power to clean out the dirtiest floor mats. A smaller shop vacuum will run about $75.

Interior cleaner: Vacuuming takes care of the big stuff, but you’ll need a general-purpose, spray interior detailer to clean dust and other buildup on your dash, doors, and
other places. This will restore dull appearance and has UV protectants to help prevent it from sun fading.

These cleaners come in both spray form, and convenient wipes, too. The wipes are great to keep in your console for quick cleanups on the road.

Upholstery cleaner: For advanced maintenance of your seats, it’s smart to routinely use an upholstery cleaner, especially if you have leather. Upholstery products not only clean your seats, but they condition and protect them from future buildup, stains, or sun damage. There are also heavy-duty cleaners for cloth seats, but try these cleaners on an inconspicuous area to make sure they don’t damage your upholstery.

Cleaning towels: Microfiber isn’t the #1 car cleaning material just because it’s soft enough for paint. Because the fibers are so small (four times smaller than cotton), they’re much more efficient at picking up even the smallest particles, and the best towels are lint-free, making them the most ideal choice for interior cleaning.

Glass cleaner: There’s nothing worse than a nice clean car, with streaky glass. Select a quality glass cleaner with a specific glass cleaning towel for completely streak-free glass.

How to do it

Some detailers believe you should start with your exterior first, others think it’s better to do the interior first. It’s up to you. Either way works fine – what matters is how you’re cleaning those
areas, not what exact order they’re in.

Don’t do any of these steps in direct sunlight. Park the car in the shade, and don’t park it on grass. You’ll just end up spraying dirt and grass on the car as you’re trying to clean it.

Step 1: Wheels
Logic dictates that you start with the top of the car and work your way down, but we’re starting with the wheels for a couple of reasons: First, wheels are often the dirtiest part of the car. As you wash the rest of the car, you’ll benefit from the extra rinse. Second, we mentioned the harshness of the wheel cleaners. If you overspray the wheel cleaner onto the paint, you’re better off doing it before you wash the entire car.

Start by wetting the wheels with water, and then use your preferred wheel cleaner to spray them down. After they’re all sprayed, give them about 30-60 seconds to sit, then use your dedicated wheel wash mitt or scrub brush to thoroughly scrub everywhere you can. Once all four wheels have been scrubbed,
rinse them with your hose.

Tip: Imagine your wheels are numbered one through four. When you’re spraying wheel cleaner, do Wheel 1 first, then move onto 2, 3, and 4. Once you’re done with Wheel 4 and ready to begin scrubbing, start with Wheel 1 again and move through the same cycle. This will ensure the wheel cleaner has had plenty of time to sit on the wheels before scrubbing. There’s a delicate balance between allowing the wheel cleaner to sit long enough to break down the brake dust, but letting it sit so long that it evaporates. You always want to keep the wheels wet.

Step 2: Exterior (washing)
Once your wheels are clean, move on to the rest of your exterior. Start with the roof of your car and then work your way down towards the ground. As soap and water floods down the side of your car as you’re cleaning the roof, it’s flowing onto parts of the car that aren’t clean yet.

Wet the car down car, then use your exterior wash mitt to apply soap. The idea here is to agitate any dirt and surface contaminants on the paint, not to scrub it off. The suds in the soap work to float those contaminants, and the rinse water carries them away.

Clean the car in sections. Rather than soaping the car up all at once and trying to race through with your wash mitt before the water dries, clean and rinse your roof,
then your windows, then your doors, and so on. Take your time, and also be sure to continue to rewet
previously-cleaned sections as you go to prevent them from air drying and developing spots.

Step 3: Exterior (drying)
When the final section of your exterior has been soaped and rinsed, you’re ready to begin drying. At this point, the whole car should be wet since you’ve been continuing to rewet each section.

Use your microfiber towels to remove the water the same way you did as you washed it: Roof first, working your way down, letting gravity help you along the way. You’ll want to use several towels to get the job done. Do a quick dry over all over the car to get the majority of the water, and then go back through with one or two new towels to really get a perfect, spotless finish.

Also, be sure to dry hidden crevices like door and trunk jambs. Open the car up and get everywhere that’s not usually seen from the outside. Once you close everything, there will probably be
some drops from your mirrors and door handles down the side of your doors – be sure to get those too.

Step 4: Interior
Now that your exterior is sparkling, you can begin your interior. However, before stepping foot inside, be sure you didn’t accidentally pick up any grease or dirt during your wash. In fact, you may want to move the car out of the spot where you were washing it to avoid tracking anything wet into the car as you clean the interior.

The first part of interior detailing is vacuuming. Remove everything from inside the car: car seats, maps, CDs in the trunk, everything.

Pull your floor mats out and vacuum those outside your car. If you’ve got a lot of ground-in dirt on your mats, you can clap the mats together to loosen some of that dirt and then vacuum afterwards.

After you’ve vacuumed the floors, you need to get into the deep, dark recesses of your interior. That’s where the crevice tools that come with a shop vacuum are helpful. The brush attachments are great for cleaning dust out of the vents, and off the surface of your audio system and HVAC controls.

Once you’ve cleaned the car as well as you can with a vacuum, you want to get to the second level with the interior detailing spray. You don’t just want to spray this stuff all over the interior, though. You’ll get it all over the glass, and you probably don’t want to be spraying it directly onto flat screens or into sensitive electronics. Instead, spray it on your microfiber towel, and then turn the towel over to the dry side to wipe it off. Just like the washing process, move from section to section and make sure you get every speck of dust and stain. This will truly give your
interior the factory appearance it had when it was sitting on the showroom floor.

Once you’ve cleaned the interior, move on to the upholstery. The process is simple for both leather and cloth seat materials: lightly spray the upholstery cleaner on the seat, and then thoroughly wipe the area with a microfiber towel. If you’re cleaning up drink stains, you may need to agitate those with a nylon brush to completely remove them. Again, test the cleaner in an inconspicuous area first.

The final step is cleaning the glass. This is where a glass-cleaning towel really shines (pun intended). A totally lint-free glass cleaning towel, paired with an automotive-grade glass cleaner will leave your windows completely free of streaks. Same as the interior detailer, you want to spray it on towel and wipe off, rather than spraying it indiscriminately all over the interior.

Everyone understands the concept of washing their car: spray it with water, rub soap all over it, and dry it off. But, if you want your car to truly look showroom-ready after every wash, with a bit of effort you can pull off a cleaning that a detailer would be proud of.

Author bio: CORY YEAKEL
An automotive enthusiast and adrenaline junkie who loves everything on-road and off-road. When he’s not driving his car, working on his car, or doing something with someone else’s cars, he’s probably writing about cars.

Cory Yeakel

Cory Yeakel