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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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

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    Being a senior citizen I learned the hard way many years ago what to use and what not to use and where to use is and where not to use it. This was a very good article and I hope people read it and pay attention……

    I would not put washing the wheels last as a mistake, that would be your preference. I wash the wheels last to finish off the last of the car wash, to rinse that off the body work is really a simple task leaving no residue, just like any other washed part of the car that you get residue on as you work your way around. The biggest boon I have found is the “waxless” ( no wax ) ceramic polishes, the Silica DiOxide ( silicone ) that causes future dirt to even wash off in the rain. Easy on, easy off, no rubbing, rubbing exhaustion. Mine has worked well over a Buffalo winter where rain has even washed off the salt residue NY State insist on using to keep our driving safe but not on keeping our car itself safe.

    1. Guilty of Dish soap. For many years. 2. Came home to find my roomate getting “something” off her hood with a brillo pad. It worked really well for the “something”. Also scoured paint down to the primer. Good thing they were both grey it only looked “pretty bad”.

    A few years back I entered my car in a local show ‘n’ shine, and won my category. Rather than a trophy or plaque, I was awarded a 2-gallon plastic bucket full of car-cleaning products. I thought that was an excellent idea! If you are an organizer or sponsor of this type of event, consider this idea (using Matt’s guidelines) as prizes. You’ll be encouraging entrants to use the appropriate products and possibly keeping their dishwashing detergent in their kitchens and out of their garages. 🤩

    I dunno… I feel like people have their favorite brands of products, and unless it was one of the higher tier lines and you didn’t have a preference to what you used , I would probably prefer something else.

    Hello DUB6, I would donate to car shows with cleaning supplies as well or sometimes gift cards where they could come in and buy what they wanted. It brought the customer in. A win/win for both of us.

    @DUB6- Some guy from Utica, NY just called looking for you. Says he has some great stuff for your bucket giveaway idea.

    Remember every time you drive the car on the road it gets dirty even on a bright sunny day. Wash it when it”s dirty not just when it looks dirty.

    Shouldn’t it have been called a Shine ‘n’ Show? Seems like one would want to do the shining first. 😁

    When I was a young man. People would say,” What, I have been doing it this way for 35 years” I would say to myself well you have been doing wrong for 35 years. Here I find out what I have been doing wrong for 50 years. ” Washing the wheels last” Thanks for the tip.

    i will shamefully admit i’ve done a few of these no-no’s like using dawn for soap. And a used car i bought that had a nasty interior – dirty, smoker etc – i used magic erasers on the door panels, even the leather and sure it cleaned it up really well, but i guess it wasn’t too good for the car – which was over 20 years old… it did look really good when i was done. I sold it shortly later so i have no idea what long term damage was done if any. – I’ve used those a few times on spot areas since on other cars to no apparent ill effect – although i also use 303 afterwards.

    All those chemical compounds go right to the storm drain and into our waters. Be careful where you clean your car.

    Read and follow directions for all products. As for washing wheels first>>no way! You just polluted your bucket of suds with filth from the tires. If worried about splashing dirt on the car, you should have rinsed the car first, including the tires, rims and wheel wells first. I start washing the top areas of the car and work my way down.

    Sometimes if your car is really old and weathered with rust showing through the paint, you can use Comet cleanser with a Scotch Brite pad to get the deep crud off and even out the weathering. Several homemade recipes out there for sealing it in for the ‘patina’ look. Fingernail or scrub brush works on old filthy vinyl tops if not all cracked. You don’t do this to cars that have good paint, chrome or rubber/vinyl.

    Definitely don’t want to put a wheel washing mitt into your bucket of soap. I use a completely different mitt and it doesn’t go in the bucket of soap.

    Was suggested to me in my youth that washing from top to bottom allowed dirty water to flow down over a dirty surface, giving hard-to-remove streaks. Best to go bottom up for the first pass to avoid that. Worked that way ever since!

    I agree with all except doing wheels first. I’ve never had an issue with dirt getting back on the car.

    I agree with the caution about Magic Erase except when cleaning whitewalls. I use a magic erase with a white wall cleaner to get off stubborn stains and any yellowing. The key is you only need to do this 2 or3 times a year. Most times you clean your whitewalls ( or white letters and redlines ), with a mild car wash product and plenty of rinsing. But after a few months, you need the magic erase to get them really white.

    It’s not good to use something like a California duster on a car that is either very dusty or has been driven , and dirt moved around can cause light scratches.

    Must have learned in here but I haven’t used dish soap-except to clean the wheels-for a while now, to clean the body. Won’t mention the product name but M’s soap lasts a long time and may even be as inexpensive as dishwashing liquid. Surprised the author didn’t mention more don’ts like types of cleaning mitts to use when washing. And something that works fairly well if you’re only washing the wheels, a garden sprayer does a pretty good job rinsing after you wash without having to fight to keep the rinse water off the car itself.

    More does and don’t in the future! Didn’t think people would read if I said 100 car detailing mistakes!

    I mix Meguire’s car wash soap with Murphy’s Oil Soap. The oil soap adds lube to the mixture and cuts down on scratches and swirl marks. I overheard a funeral director telling a hardware store owner about this mixture. They had to wash their all black fleet everyday and needed some protection.

    I do not agree with using tire dressing, it makes the rubber compound deteriorate before it’s time. I went to a tire seminar put on by Michelin Tire & Rubber Company and they said it is the worst thing you can do to a tire. To use a scrub brush and soap is the best thing. A couple of years I bought a new set of B. F. Goodrich tires for my wife’s ’97 Camaro. The installers sprayed tire dressing on brand new tires and I tries to wash it off when I got home. I got some of it off, but not all of it. Six months later the tires looked like they had a layer of mud on them. On taking a rag and rubbing the tires granules of rubber was coming off. I scrubbed the tires down again to where they looked good. A couple of months later the tires looked muddy again. Same thing, rubber granules coming off again when rubbed with a rag, or your fingers. The Camaro is a show car and spends 95% time parked inside of garage. I have other cars with no problems on the tires, and none of the other tires have ever had any tire dressing put on them. Don’t believe me, try it on an old tire. Clean it, then spray it with tire dressing and let it set for about 6 months.

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