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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    I highly recommend everyone watch the youtube video, “HOW TO: THE TWO-BUCKET WASH METHOD” from lenosgarage.com. Basically, the two bucket method is one bucket with your favorite wash solution, and one bucket with plain water for rinsing your wash mitt/sponge. Drastically reducing the amount of dirt, you just took of your car, from going back into the soapy water.
    Windex Electronic Wipes are what I use to clean computer screens in the house or in a vehicle.

    I will say it again use a lens wipe on a touchscreen like you would use on glasses or a camera lens. Never poke at it with brushes or any harsh chemicals. Last thing you need to do is go buy some expensive touchscreen.

    So I read this, and think… There was any other way? Right, especially the wheels first thing. I have been using a pressure washer for the last 4 decades, cleaning the engine compartment (never a problem, and I have had some of my cars more than 30 years), chassis, wheel wells and the wheels, FIRST. Degreasers have improved. I am using Simple Green Motorsports Degreaser (has a Boeing part number, and is especially good on unpainted aluminum as it doesn’t spot).
    I first squirt the wheels with water, then whatever cleaner I am using (varies as I get manufacturers samples for review), then use the pressure washer to clean the wheels and wells, followed by the rest of the car. I use automotive car wash products with a very soft brush, then back to the pressure washer to blow everything off. Soft towels (no dryer sheets, as they also reduce the ability of the towel to absorb water). So far, so good, with 37 year old Mercedes still in its clear coat original paint, and living outside.
    The collector cars get washed very seldom. I usually wash the undercarriage more than the paint. I have also discovered dry ice blasting, which works great on engines and undercarriages, but is expensive to have a service come to my home. ‘Can’t argue with the results.
    I am using Mother’s ceramic products on the daily driver, and it seems to last about 6 months, which is pretty good. I also have some Collinite wax, which works OK. I tried it about 20 years ago, and never bothered to buy any more, as I had plenty of “Part Number 219” or whatever that was was, and it lasted nearly forever on my pearl painted collector gems.
    I now use whatever I have around for the cars that I now have, and nothing on one of them, as it will be repainted at some point.
    Good article, and a good basis for anyone working on their own detailing. Do it as the article says, and you will do no harm, and have a very clean and preserved car.

    While in college in 1977, I bought a 1955 DeSoto sedan with badly oxidized paint. The car had no brakes, so my roommate, an experienced driver, eased it back to the dorm. On an overpass, he gently bumped a taxi while using both feet on the brake pedal and both hands on the emergency brake. Once home, we filled the master cylinder. A few drops spilled on the fender. Wiping that off, we realized the dark green paint under the oxidation looked quite nice. We grabbed a bottle of Wisk laundry detergent and cleaned the entire car. It looked great! Of course I would not do that under other circumstances, but the paragraph above on dish soap reminded me of this incident. Dish soap is good for greasy hands in a pinch.

    Good article. You can use one pair of microfiber towels to do your whole car if you work from the roof down. The thought of getting tire or wheel well grime on the car is a little silly. You always want to jet rinse the entire car before you begin so as to remove and not rub grime into the surfaces. Wash your towels afterword.

    One thing I think you missed. NEVER clean any part of your car in direct sunlight. Always in the early morning or cool of the evening before sundown or in the shade.

    Magic Eraser is fine on glass as is 0000 steel wool and polishing compound to remove nasty water spots and age old grime. HIGHLY DILUTED Dawn dishwashing liquid is great for touch screens and plastic gauge clusters. Works well for interior plastics too but follow up with a UV protectant. There are some all purpose dressings that work well for leather and soft plastic dash and horn pads. Magic eraser also works on white walls and raised white letter tires.

    A friend of mine in the mid 90’s said he used Lemon Pledge on his interior. I gave it a try and was hooked. It cleans and leaves a clean natural finish, and you don’t slide around sitting on seats. Seems like it helps to repeal dust unlike Armor all.

    I’ve been using Lemon Pledge over 50 years since my teen days detailing cars, and before all of these Armor all and similar products hit the market. Great on interiors as you said.🤙

    It was 1973 and I had just started working in an Auto Body shop. We used Pledge on the interiors and Pledge on Chrome. In fact the one guy Bobby only used Pledge on his Custom Bike. Thanks for the flashback.

    This is a bit out of the realm of vehicle “washing”, but a fellow pilot friend of mine turned me onto a glass cleaner called “CINCH”… stuff is amazing. It easily cuts the poly-vinyl chloride film (from vinyl upholstery) that forms on the inside of glass, of many newer cars (when they sit out)… nothing else I ever tried works as well. NO, I don’t own the company… ha ha

    Wash the wheels first? And contaminate your wash bucket? I disagree. Hose down the entire car with a good spray rinse to loosen dirt and bug debris. Rinse your wheels and wheel wells out well (and underbody if needed). I start with my wash bucket and wash mitt at the windshield then to windows and roof, next hood, grille, sides and rear. Wheels are last using the same car wash soap in the bucket but using a soft wheel brush, never contaminating the wash mitt with brake dust, etc. I also hit the wheel wells with the brush if needed. Follow up with full hose rinse. Power dry by taking a quick drive which removes much water from the vehicle’s surface as well as the grill, wheels, brakes and panel gaps. Finish drying with terry cloth towel including, door, hood, trunk or rear hatch jambs. Washing wheels last will not get the clean car’s body dirty again, if you happen to, use your hose to rinse it off. IMO washing the wheels first only adds an additional step which requires a wash bucket & soap change prior to washing the body.

    No worries my friend. No car wash mitts or buckets of clean water are contaminated in the process of washing the wheels.

    I have a black car and use a chamois after washing and rinsing and hardly ever get a water spot or streak.

    RE: Displays and Touch Screens. Best thing you can use on them is lens cleaner. Go to Sunglass Hut, buy one of their Lens Cleaning Kits for ten bucks and enjoy lifetime free refills….or buy 8oz bottles of the stuff from Amazon for next to nothing. Stuff works great on – surprise – eyeglass and sunglass lenses, as well as phone, tablet and computer screens.
    Just like washing your car, you want to use enough cleaner to act as a lubricant, lifting-off any dirt/residue, then use a gentle circular motion, changing the position of your microfiber cloth regularly to avoid scratches.

    I wax my car with Mothers Paste Wax. But with a twist…I spit shine the car. I apply the wax with a cloth and then dip the cloth into a clean bucket of water and keep apply a small amount of the water until a very glossy shine appears. I used the same process to shine my boots while in the Army. You will be amazed at the shine. Yes, it is a lot of work. But the shine lasts for a very long time.

    I won’t disagree about cleaning the wheels and tires first but I’m not going to use the same soapy water to wash the car. It would have to be full of dirt and grime.

    Funny how the topic of cleaning cars generates such passionate opinions. Like mine; I used to wax cars until I learned what generated a shine: the more perfect the surface (smooth) the better the shine. Wax may have offered some improvements to imperfect paint surfaces and possibly color, but it wasn’t the long term answer I was searching for. A SMOOTH paint surface is required for a clear, reflective surface which can be obtained through several methods of paint correction. Once there…it’s then a matter of KEEPING IT CLEAN. Dirt trapped in the smallest pores of the paint will dull the reflection and even change the color tint. Therefore, the cleaner you get the surface the better it will appear…think clay bar, etc. I personally use DAWN dishwashing detergent every wash…because it cleans exceptionally well and i don’t have wax to worry about protecting wax….which will over time dull the appearance of paint. If one uses exceptional care when washing the paint surface…reducing or eliminating scratching (swirl marks) as well as proper drying techniques, then the resulting surface will have depth and luster continuously. Want more shine? A quick detailer will provide a fast solution with even a hint of protection…until the next cleaning. Lastly, water quality IS a factor when cleaning a car…because hard water will set up on the paint and cause spotting. If there are solids in your water…they will cause swirl marks and scratches. Imagine what it’s doing to your other stuff…dishes, clothes and shower. Great article. Keep them coming.

    To me, washing the wheels first is silly, UNLESS one gets a complete new bucket of soapy water and a new washing towel to then wash the car. I recommend washing the wheels last, but if they are especially dirty, get that aforementioned new bucket of soapy water, this time to wash the wheels. Once can generally avoid getting dirty water on the paint by using a softer spray, or better yet, taking the nozzle off, and rinsing with a stream of water.

    If there is road salt and such up under the wheel-wells, and on the wheels, I do rinse them with maximum nozzle force when first wetting the car down to wash it. Then, I can use the gentler spray when final-rinsing them later.

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