Sweating the Details: 10 Car-Cleaning Mistakes to Avoid

Matt Fink

No fooling around, April means National Car Care Month! 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 wax on for too long (or wipe it off too soon!)

Matt Fink

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: Go overboard with the product

Matt Fink

Whether it is wax or interior protectant, 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 concentrate product, so don’t go too strong. Using too strong of a window cleaner, for instance, leads to more visible streaks.

Don’t: Leave bugs or bird dropping 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. They’re also gross.

Bird droppings, too, are both gross and acidic enough to penetrate your clear coat and leaving a lasting stain.

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

Don’t: Wash the wheels last

Matt Fink

It may seem counterintuitive, but I’m a believer in washing your wheels/tires/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/tires 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 when you do the wheels/tires/wheel wells first. You do not want to soil a mitt or microfiber and then apply it directly to the body. For more on that …

Don’t: Use one towel for all tasks

Matt Fink

Today is the day! Get your car cleaning towels organized!

Color coding can help a lot here. Towels used for cleaning windows should be all one color, so they are never mistakenly used for anything else. Interior protectant towels, a different color. Towels, you wipe the paint with? That’s right, a third color.

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 do perform a clean final wipe down on paint the next week.

Don’t: Forget to clean the tires before dressing

Matt Fink

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

Don’t: Damage your infotainment screen

Matt Fink

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 Magic Eraser to clean your car

Matt Fink

Magic Erasers are great at removing dirt and grime from surfaces. But they should stay far away from most parts of your car.

Made from melamine foam, a type of abrasive material, a Magic Eraser removes 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 with a Magic Eraser—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.

Don’t: Wash your car with dish soap

Matt Fink

This is the most common mistake I see people make. Dish soap 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.

 

Hopefully you have time to get out and celebrate National Car Care Month by cleaning up your ride. What are some other car cleaning mistakes you have made? Or perhaps, ah, mistakes “someone you know” made? Let us know in the comments.

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Hagerty Drivers Club members get great discounts on car care products like:

California Car Cover: 10% off car covers, accessories, tools and more
Eastwood automotive parts, tools, equipment, paint and more: 10% off all orders over $100
Griot’s Garage car care products: 15% off liquids
XPEL automotive protection films, sprays, and coatings: 15% off TRACWRAP, detail spray and more

Read next Up next: 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Landau: Downsized decadence

Comments

    Griot’s 3-in-1 Ceramic is a spray on, wipe off wax. It doesn’t require 12-24 hours dwell time, or any dwell time, for that matter.

    You are both correct, and that is what I was referring to Hyperv6. Sorry for the confusion Graham. The point being of course, to read the instructions on the wax you choose to use as they all have different specifics.

    Directions:

    Shake well and apply to a clean, cool, contaminant-free surface and dry surface.
    Working one small area at a time, spray a light mist of Ceramic 3-in-1 Wax onto the surface.
    Using a clean microfiber towel, quickly wipe product over the surface.
    Turn towel over to dry side and buff to a high luster.
    If overspray or streaks occur, quickly wipe up with towel.
    Change to new towel when yours becomes saturated to ensure consistent application.

    Pro Tips:

    For extreme durability, apply a second coat 12-24 hours after first application.
    Additionally, allow 12-24 hours before exposing to water/weather or other surface car products in order to achieve maximum durability.

    I believe he was referring to after the coating was applied. Let it cure before getting it eet.

    I disagree with two points in the article (sort of).
    Blue Dawn dishwashing liquid is an excellent choice for washing your vehicle when you want to strip off all of the wax or protectant from the paint. I do this once a year when I am ready to apply this year’s wax/protectant. I get a better end result by starting with the paint as clean as possible and working up from there.
    I also think magic erasers have a specific use. If your car has unpainted black or grey plastic cladding, and if you got some wax/protectant on that cladding, use a magic eraser to remove it. I agree that a magic eraser should never be used on paint or interior surfaces. But it will make quick work of waxy swirls on the cladding.

    Blue Dawn dish washing liquid is by far the best and most practical way to clean any unpainted steel/aluminum/metal color unpainted wheels. It has a superior de-greaser and is a fraction of the cost of wheel cleaners which do not work nearly as well. Get a good brush and after cleaning apply wax/ceramic to every part of the wheel you can reach.

    If you have a pressure washer, use with care on the wheels and you will reach every nook and cranny. You can also use a standard garden sprayer to wash the wheels if you don’t have a brush or can’t do the bending. Much easier to apply but not as good a result.

    LA Awesome cleaner… that’s the stuff for wheels. Spray it on full strength. Let it set for a few minutes. Agitate with a wheel brush and rinse off with water. It’s that easy and it’s $10 a GALLON…

    Perhaps you misunderstood the writer. The Griot’s Garage product is wiped off promptly after spraying it on. The directions are to apply a second coat 12-24 hours after the first, not let the stuff sit on the car’s surface for 12-24 hours before wiping it off. I’ve used the product on a C8 Corvette with very good results; but I found it did not work as well on my 2008 Mustang Bullit’s older paint.

    Directions:

    Shake well and apply to a clean, cool, contaminant-free surface and dry surface.
    Working one small area at a time, spray a light mist of Ceramic 3-in-1 Wax onto the surface.
    Using a clean microfiber towel, quickly wipe product over the surface.
    Turn towel over to dry side and buff to a high luster.
    If overspray or streaks occur, quickly wipe up with towel.
    Change to new towel when yours becomes saturated to ensure consistent application.

    Pro Tips:

    For extreme durability, apply a second coat 12-24 hours after first application.
    Additionally, allow 12-24 hours before exposing to water/weather or other surface car products in order to achieve maximum durability.

    While I agree that Dawn (or dish soap) should not be used for routine washing, it does have a useful purpose in car care.

    If you are doing a through paint detail (e.g. clay bar, polish, and paint protectant), a Dawn wash should be first in order to strip off all old paint protectants. That’s followed by car bar, then polish, then 1 or more new coats of paint protectant.

    The article would have been more helpful if it had covered that.

    I have a 55 year old car and a 21 year old Honda which is parked outside in the FL sun with only a windshield sun reflector. The older car is garaged but used several times per week.

    All vinyl and plastic surfaces are in perfect condition. Interiors of both cars are black. Here’s the secret. Ditch the Armor All and equivalents and use tire shine. Any brand. My 1968 has a black vinyl roof that is at least 25 years old. Looks brand new. Use tire shine not any other products intended for plastic or vinyl.

    If you have black leather seats, use standard shoe polish. Wax your seats the same way you would shine your shoes. If you have any cracks, fill them in with Kiwi Liquid shoe polish first. Then wax the seats exactly the same way you would shine your shoes for a military inspection.

    Shoe polish works on car leather like shoe leather- to a point, Years ago an acquaintance was taking his XKE roadster to a classic car auction to sell. He asked my advice about the light discoloration on the dark red seats. I advised him to use oxblood shoe polish, which he said worked great. I attended the sale where he sold it to a gentleman there with his (probably) trophy wife, both wearing matching white shirts and pants. I saw them sit in their new toy and get out and walk away hand-in-hand, showing the dark red racing stripes down their backs and legs. I explained to my friend that you are supposewd to buff it off after application.

    Shoe polish will rub off even if you buff it. Use black Shoe Dye (available at most shoe repair shops). It’s easy to apply, blends well, and doesn’t rub off.

    Shoe polish works well on leather seats. I had a 2007 Porsche Cayman with a beautiful light gray interior. The driver’s seat had some creases/wrinkles that I moisturized regularly with matching gray shoe polish, then buffed off the area and used made-for-autos leather conditioner on the entire seat. The seats stayed looking great for as long as I owned it.

    wow i’m amazed !! thank you !! i’m always looking for car cleaning hints…. i love a clean shiny car.. i appreciate my cars-why? we had to walk everywhere..

    Shoe polish will not nourish your leather. Ideally you do a two-step process, use a cleaner to remove dirt/sweat/etc and then a conditioner that will feed the leather and protect it. Soft supple leather won’t crack and need to be filled with shoe polish (?!)

    I’ve always had good results with using saddle soap on leather seats. Not only cleans the leather, but makes it more pliable as well. I usually apply it with a damp sponge and buff it
    out with a clean cotton towel.

    What works best depends on the type of leather. I understand that leather in modern cars (think your new Lexus or Mercedes) is thinner and heavily treated to be immediately soft to the touch. It does not respond as well to traditional cleaners and conditioners such as saddle soap or Lexol, nor do I think it as durable. Vintage leather is typically thicker and less pliant and responds well to traditional cleaners and conditioners.

    Todays Leather color is sprayed on and then covered with clear coat, no amount of leather treatment will do any good. It can’t penatrate the clear coat.

    Older vat dyed leather will need leather treatment.

    Edward,
    I have found another product that I use for vinyl tops. You are not going to believe this but I use Mop and Glow vinyl floor cleaner. It works great!

    Mop & Glow!!!

    This is an old military trick! When I was in the police academy, we were shining our shoes for inspection, many of us not having a military background, sucked!!! One of our classmates showed us this trick! Worked fantastic!!

    BUT, we had our inspection on dew covered grass. The water in the grass got on the shoes and developed a blue haze!

    The drill instructors, all knew this trick too and coupled with mass quantities of push-ups, we failed the inspection!!

    So, my question is, does the vinyl top turn blue too when exposed to water?

    When I was in college in the mid-70s, many of us had sedans with vinyl tops. We used Johnson & Johnson vinyl floor wax. Mop and Glow would be the modern equivalent. 😉

    Overall, excellent advice, especially “read the instructions” (duh 😀). I believe the short version is RTFM.

    Also, if you use a pressure washer, be sure to stay well back of PPF, especially the edges!

    QUESTION: When washing my vehicles with “car wash soap”, I have been “temped” to add a few drops of Jet Dry dishwasher fluid. Jet Dry eliminates spotting and hard-water streaks on glassware, so I’ve wondered if it would shed water from the car surfaces, reducing the task of wiping down surfaces to avoid spotting. Has anyone tried this? ADVICE welcomed!

    That’s a great question and something I’ve never tried. If someone has experience, please chime in. My initial thought is that a dishwasher rinsing aid is a water repellent. It’s job is to ensures utensils dry up quickly and do not leave streaks on plates. All of that makes me nervous of what it could potentially do to the clearcoat on your paint. I will try to do some research and see what we can learn. For now I would say dishwasher solution is only meant for dishes and not automobiles. I have tried the car washes that advertise they are spot free. I would say they do maybe help buy you time before you dry the car by not allowing the water to dry as quickly on the paint, but I have not yet found one that you can truly wash your car and let the water dry on it without getting watersports. The most important thing to remember so you don’t get water spots is to never let water dry on your car. Washing in the shade helps, or just literally keep spraying the car to keep it wet until you’re ready to dry.

    If you were to use Jet Dry, I would only use it in the rinsing water, not in the washing water or combined with the soap. If you’ve ever noticed the “Spot Free Rinse” at a car wash (automatic, or self-wash), that’s basically just rinsing with soft water.

    When we had a water softener installed at our house, I had the hose bib next to the garage plumbed for soft water so that every time I washed a vehicle, I had an automatic spot-free rinse. 🙂

    I have an small Reverse Osmosis system in my house. I added a 20 gallon pressure tank and put an spigot in the garage. I use this as a spot free rinse and can just leave the car air dry and no spots.

    I hand wash my 2017 either at home or at the local car wash. A couple of months ago I made a spot free rinse solution with rinse aid which I apply with a 1 gallon garden sprayer. Mixed 1oz to gallon but I think it can be at a lesser amount, still using the 1st batch, so final ratio TBD. I lightly apply the solution immediately after wash/rinse with garden hose before the water evaporates. The rinse aid still has to be wiped off for best results but u have a helluva lot more time to do so without leaving spots. I treat the paint with Meguiar’s spray wax and it’s been a great product for me!

    thanks for all the tips and advice im a mom of 4 with a small suv that has tan interior if one thing i like to do is have a nice clean looking car but with kids its sometimes impossible i do my best but i like to learn how to detail my interior but I don’t always have the time and my husband is no good when it comes to ny car any tips on what products to use on tan leather seats would be appreciated

    I have used Lexol cleaner and conditioner for decades. Apply with the change of the seasons for optimal benefits.

    Like most car related topics….there are SEVERAL car cleaning/detailing suggestions you will see offered (like the ones here)…some good and some not so much. How do you sort through this?

    I keep cleaning interiors simple: Use products that are GENTLE/MILD to human skin but EFFECTIVE at releasing most common spills and or splashes. Boy I couldn’t think of a word to use to say…dirty stuff that drops in the car…like drink spills/splashes, food spills, dirt from shoes and even animal mistakes.

    Look….I’ve cleaned cars for decades now and the one cleaning agent I use consistently is SIMPLE GREEN. I cut it 50/50…water to concentrate. It has proven forgiving and works EXCELLENT on all soiled surfaces. If Simple Green can’t get it cleaned…the defect has been caused by something worse and will need more specialized care to correct…which is not where I want to go with this. For general cleaning and I’m taking even the most SOILED conditions, Simple Green with brushes, warm water, a vacuum and microfiber cloths…will get most conditions corrected to the best conditions possible. Oh…and this includes LEATHER (test a small area before cleaning because some dyes are weak and any cleaning agent will take it off or cause blotching). Note though…you need to use a leather conditioner like LEXOL (my personal favorite) to revitalize and protect those leather surfaces after cleaning. And cleaning and treating leather can be detailed discussion too…such as how I apply LEXOL…I massage it in with my bare hands.

    Any how…interior detailing is not necessarily an art…but a systematic process that uses simple tools and good cleaning agents.

    You say the Grigio 3-1 has to set 12-24 hours before you wipe off??

    I just watched the video of that product and it says to wipe off immediately?

    What are you reading that says otherwise?

    Thanks

    Steve

    100% disagree about washing wheels first, they should be last and even Griot’s detailing guide says the same (page 12). The concept is simple – don’t put the worst dirt and grime into the water only to wipe all over your car… even if you do switch towels/sponges.

    You don’t EVER wash wheels and tires with anything (buckets included) which is used on any of the rest of the vehicle. Ever.

    Generally a good article but the part about leaving Griots Garage Ceramic 3-in-1 Wax on for 12-24 hours is just plain wrong. I have used it and even Griots own YouTube videos say you mist on and wipe off almost immediately. Perhaps the confusion came from the bottle saying “For Extreme Durability , apply a second coat 12-24 hours after first application. Additionally, allow 12-24 hours before exposing to water/weather or other surface care products..” but that does not mean you should apply it and then wait 12-24 hours before wiping off. That would leave a very uneven finish. I recommend amending this article, especially since Griots Garage is a partner/sponsor of HDC. Note: I have no affiliation with Griots and am simply a member/reader of HDC who enjoys detailing.

    Hey Alex, thanks for the feedback. Sorry for the confusion. Like you said, I was referring to Griots’ recommendation of letting the wax set-up and cure for 12-24 hours after applying, with no water or 2nd coats applied during that time. We love Griots here and I didn’t mean to mislead!

    Matt – you’re not misleading anyone. These people aren’t reading correctly. It’s like they quick browse and skip words then fill in the blanks afterwards.

    While we’re commenting on various products; here one for the home team…..Collinite Waxes of Utica, New York. A can of Collinite’s best wax has been included in the glovebox of every Rolls Royce since the early 1950’s. The make a fine compliment of Auto and Boat waxes. Includind an Insulator Wax that the New Yok State Power Authority uses on their Ceramic Insulators, to keep them from arcing in fog or heavy rains, I presum SLEe if an insulator arcs there is a loss of power….hence waste of generated power…….IT PRODUCES GREAT RESULTS ON CARS AND BOATS. They had to remove “UV Protection” from there products, seem the governtment said they needed to remove that claim, or do long term tests of their products…..Fellow car buffs, I have a 1997 GMC Suburban, Dark metallic green, kept outside, had the left rear door pushed in, took it to the body shop, had it pounded out, repainted…….Bodyshop owner said he did’nt have to shoot drives door or rear fender to blend new work, truck hasn’t lost it’s new car look, nor has the metal flake lessened (sic?) Boat and yacht owners power wash their boats in the fall and reapply another coat of Collinite Product, power wash the hull midseason, and sail on till fall. Advance Auto and Auto Zone in NYS carry some of Collnite’s products, most Marina’s here in Florida carry it…… my Suburban is proof of the Product’s reputation…….P.S. If Haggert’s Magazine want a reputable advertiser…Collinite of Utica is ready for us antique, new and classic Car and boat people.

    Some unsolicited advice: If you are going to come in here with a sales pitch attempt become an advertiser, it would serve you well to spell the name of the business you are trying to woo correctly…

    How did this not get moderated right off the page? And this type of post has the 100% opposite effect as intended. “Collinite of Utica” is now on my “No Fly Zone” list. The only product from Utica allowed in my house is produced by the F.X. Matt Brewing Company.

    But wait, there’s more!

    It’s the official waterproof rudder port lubricant of the Latvian Navy, the only Statue Wax approved in North Korea, and pretty good at repairing sheet rock cracks.

    Don’t believe me, ask the guy who bought a Rolled Roice down on 5th, it had a half-used can of our patented car wax, rudder lube, sheetrock … stuff, right next to the jar of Grey Poopon.

    So, remember, if you desperately have to rub out a North Korean military war hero statue, use our wax.

    Don’t wash your vehicle in the Sun unless you like water spots. I like to use the snow foam along with car wash soap in a bucket with a grid in the bottom so any dirt goes to the bottom of the bucket and not scratch your finish.

    That’s the perfect set-up you got! Definitely washing the shade makes a big difference, but sometimes it’s just not an option.

    So glad I signed up and took time to read this advise, rebuttals and followups.
    I’m 76, live in wet Oregon and have two sweet rides late im life. A 2002 Corvette from a guy who sold Chemicals for a living and had the car since 2003. He said he has never used any soap washing the cast finish.. period. I was shocked, simple he said, all soaps are chemicals. They all will work to break down the finish. This car has 30K actual miles and looks showroom, I can photo if interested in seeing. Not for sale, but the water only I thought was worthy of mention, and the fact it has never been driven in the rain, possibly why he had 5 garage stalls, lol.
    I’m still learning. Thanks again.

    I didn’t notice that car wash liquid has fragrance added to it until a few weeks ago, had been using different brands of it for years and wasn’t aware until the one I picked up mentioned the scent. So…can car wash liquid double as body wash gel? Now that would be a tip! Ha!

    I’ve owned black or very dark cars for years. Water spotting can be a huge pian on black or dark surfaces. Here’s something that works for me. I wash my cars outdoors in the shade. After the final rinse, I pull the car into my garage still wet. I have a common garden sprayer that I have filled with distilled water. While the car is still wet with the hard water from the rinse, I completely cover all the painted surfaces with distilled water. That will break down and rinse away the hard water. Then, I blow dry my car with a dryer designed for car drying (never use a leaf blower). I use a Metro Air Force Blaster but any good dryer with a filter will work. Always lift the trunk lid and hood and blow out any water that has built up in those areas. This method of drying produces excellent results leaves virtually zero hard water spots. Give it try.

    I love this advice, thanks for sharing. I will be testing a Metro Air Force Blaster soon and can’t wait to give it a try.

    Leaf blowers do not have filters. They pull in air that is filled with dust and blast it on to your painted surface. Dryers designed specifically for cars usually have a filter. Both Metro and Adams dryers have filters.

    I don’t use any type of blower, it forces the water into the crevices with can lead to corrosion. I use a vacuum (with soft material attached to nozzle to prevent scratches) which sucks the water out of the seams and crevices. Cheers and God Bless.

    Magic erasers are one of the few things that works on headliners for touch up without making a bigger mess

    I use them on the inside windshield to remove the layer of greasy plastic outgassing before doing the actual cleaning.

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