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.


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


    Magic erasers work wonders on chrome (the real stuff, not the plastic chrome) especially if you need to remove rust runs from hardware. We used them a LOT on transport trucks with all that chrome and stainless.

    I like the idea of color coding the microfiber towels to designate specific areas of the vehicle with specific products. What about washing the soiled microfiber towels together in one machine load afterward? Do you recommend separating them by product here, too? I’ve been washing them together with an extra rinse, but I’ve always wondered if I’m just voiding the purpose of designating the towels in the first place by washing them together. I’ve been using a clear, unscented laundry detergent (and never a dryer sheet.)

    I’d say my biggest mistake was to use Spray Nine on my VW Westfalia dashboard. It instantly made it dull and dry. Did not suspect this stuff was soo strong. I now nourish my Westy’s dash with proper vinyl product. It did not return to its original leather like finish, but definitely saved it.

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