Maintenance and gear

10 car cleaning mistakes to avoid

by Matt Fink
6 April 2023 5 min read
10 car cleaning mistakes to avoid
Photos: Matt Fink

Whether you’re a seasoned pro, or someone like me who has committed many of the below errors, it’s easy to overlook best practices when washing and detailing your car. Now that spring is upon us and great driving weather is ahead, I’ll bet you want your car looking and feeling its best. Here are 10 common car cleaning mistakes to avoid as you take your beloved machine out of hibernation.

Don’t: Leave bugs or bird droppings on your paint

Matt Fink

Maybe it’s revenge, but bugs can damage the paint long after they hit the car. The little splattered insects stuck on your bumper can contain acidic substances. As insect remains decompose, they produce enzymes intended to break down the carcass. These enzymes also break down automotive clear coat and, eventually, paint. It can result in permanent etching. Bird droppings, too, are both gross and acidic enough to penetrate your clear coat and leaving a lasting stain.

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The fix here is easy. Grab a spray detailer and wipe off bugs and bird poop when you see it on your car, or wash it. Don’t wait!

Don’t: Wash your car with washing-up liquid

never use washing-up liquid to clean a car

This is the most common mistake I see people make. Washing-up liquid is engineered specifically to break down and remove grease, so it will strip any wax or paint sealant from surfaces on your car. Although it gets the car “clean”, dish soap will cause more harm than good and can even dull paint.

Dedicated car cleaning soap, for example is designed to be effective and safe on automotive finishes. Plus, it’s really affordable! Using products that aren’t designed for cars can do damage and end up costing you significantly more in time and money.

Don’t: Wash the wheels last

Washing wheels

It may seem counterintuitive, but after speaking with all manner of detailers, I’m a believer in washing your wheels/tyres/wheel wells first. Once that’s done, start at the top of the car and work your way down.

If you wait to do the wheels as the final step, all the caked-on brake dust and dirt you are spraying away from wheels/tyres can get on the nice clean paint that you just finished. Am I the only one who doesn’t like to repeat my work?

On that note, it’s best to use a separate wash mitt or brush for this job. You do not want to cake a wash mitt or microfibre towel in brake dust and then apply it directly to the body.

Don’t: Go overboard with the product

Don't use too much polish or wax when detailing

Whether it is polish or wax, or even an interior cleaning or reviving product, less is best. Especially when it comes to paint protection, using too much wax offers no additional benefit and just makes removing it that much more difficult. That also applies to mixing a concentrated product, so don’t go too strong. Using too much window cleaner, for instance, leads to more visible streaks. Which explains why Richard Tipper, a master detailer in the UK, reckons plain old-fashioned water and two towels is the best way to clean windows.

Don’t: Leave wax on for too long (or wipe it off too soon!)

Waxing a car

How long you should leave wax on a car before you wipe it off? It’s 1-2 minutes… if it’s Ammo Skin Defense. If you are using Griot’s Garage Ceramic 3-In-1 Wax, you shouldn’t let any water touch it or apply a 2nd coat until it cures for 12-24 hours after wiping off. Then there’s Chemical Guys Butter Wet Wax, which should be wiped off immediately.

There’s no hard and fast rule here. Each wax is different, so the move here is to follow the instructions to get optimal results. Some need to dry to a haze. Others will leave streaks if you don’t wipe them off immediately. Just keep in mind that with any wax, if you leave it on the longer than directed, expect to leave streaks.

Don’t: Use one towel for all tasks

Microfibre towel

Today is the day: get your car cleaning towels organised! Colour coding can help a lot here. Towels used for cleaning windows should be all one colour, so they are never mistakenly used for anything else. Interior protectant towels, a different colour. Towels you wipe the paint with? That’s right, a third colour.

Using a towel that previously had Armor All on it to clean a window will lead to streaks (even if it’s been washed). A towel that applied leather protectant one week can’t be expected to perform a clean final wipe down on paint the next week.

Don’t: Forget to clean the tyres before dressing

Tyre cleaner

Think about it: Before a big night out, most people shower before getting dressed. You need to clean or degrease tyres before applying tyre shine. Otherwise the dressing can’t absorb into the tyre as well, causing it to fling off the next time you drive – potentially onto your paint.

Don’t: Damage your infotainment screen

Cleaning an infotainment screen

Is there a new car on the market that doesn’t come with a big infotainment screen dominating the dash?

These screens can be very vulnerable to damage. They tend to pick up fingerprints, smudges, and germs, and it can be tempting to reach for a Lysol wipe to clean them off. Don’t do it! Household cleaners like wipes or Windex can damage your infotainment screen; many screens come with an antireflective coating from the factory that will be destroyed by these products.

Scratches are also common, especially if you use a plastic vacuum attachment to run over the screen. (Soft attachments made for dashes and screens, however, do exist.) A clean microfiber cloth is the best when it comes to cleaning your screens, along with a little automotive window cleaner added if needed. If even that seems risky, you can always dilute the cleaner with a bit of water.

Don’t: Add fabric softener to your cleaning towels

Pretty self-explanatory here. Any dryer sheets or fabric softener added to the wash with your towels makes them smell like rainbows, but causes them to leave streaks on paint and windows the next time they are used. Now you know.

Don’t: Use a household magic sponge to clean your car

10 car cleaning mistakes to avoid

Magic sponges are great at removing dirt and grime from surfaces around the house. But unless they’re specifically for car cleaning – for example, Autogym – they should stay far away from most parts of your car.

Made from melamine foam, a type of abrasive material, household magic sponges, or erasers, remove not only dirt but also some of the protective coatings on your car’s surfaces. Vulnerable finishes like wax or even the clear coat on the paint are at risk – even the tint on your windows. There is a drying effect to this product, as well, which can strip away the natural oils from your car’s paint, interior plastics, and leather seats, leaving them looking dull.

I’m sure there are some safe areas they can be used, but in general I keep them away from my car.

Via Hagerty US

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  • Edward says:


  • Stephen+Pye says:

    Definitely start at the top work your way down, I have separate sponge for wheels. My philosophy with my car is never let it get too bad. If the car is basically clean and its rained overnight if a good day is forecast I’ll leather it off . I always think can the car look better? If so it needs cleaning!

  • Neville Amos says:

    I have to say out of all the things listed, cleaning the wheels and tyres first is probably the strangest and most alien to me.
    Certainly there are a some things learned from this article. For example the bugs on the bumper decomposing and causing damage, and i will be more careful now on the newer car cleaning the sat nav screen. Although i am still undecided about when now to clean the wheels and tyres.

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