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.

    I saw a guy using Windex on his car for cleaning and shining reasons. Said he has been doing this for 20 years. Anyone have any advice on this?

    A buddy of mine tried a clay bar for the first time on his mid ’90’s black Mustang Cobra. Said he didn’t think it did anything and was incredibly difficult to work with… Confused, I asked him how he had used it. He said he rubbed it on and wiped it off…. When I asked what lube spray he used, I got the ‘deer in the headlights’ look. It didn’t take long to figure out what he did wrong. I did not ask how much damage he did to the black paint by using the clay bar dry…

    I have some green algae on sides of the cloth convertible roof of my Mustang because it sit outside all the time. I have tried Autoglym convertible top cleaner that says it is good for cleaning algae. It removed some but not all. Does anyone have any product suggestions for this problem? Thanks.

    I have a convertible too, mine has a black material top. I do not have any fungus issue, but I do see a lot of dust gather in the material. Normal washing with ANY type of cloth always resulted in a lot of lint left behind and a whole bunch of streaks. What I came up with was to use laundry detergent and rain water from my rain barrels (my area has so much lime in the tap water you can chew it!) and work that into the top material to loosen the dirt. I then rinse it with more rain water (second bucket) and lastly use my shop vac (no attachment, hose directly into the material for max suction) to pull the water from the material. It leaves it very clean. Once dry I go over it again with the shop vac, but this time with the upholstery brush attachment to burnish the material into a smooth finish. This works so well I now do the same with the carpeted floor mats. It is a satisfying experience to dump the filthy water out of the shop vac at the end too!

    Beware of ‘clay bar’s’ and expect a not so positive outcome if done to a relatively newer paint surface that wasn’t in dire straights to begin with. No matter how much lubricant and a gentle a touch a person has if you don’t compound and power polish afterwards your precious baby will be slathered in copious amounts of fine spider scratches. Please take the time to research every possible source before thinking you’re doing your cars surface a favor. I’m glad I did thinking I was going all out to enhance what truly didn’t need enhancing. Initially I thought all I’d have to do after the clay bar process would be to apply a coat of normal auto wax then I read compounding and power polishing would be a mandatory step. I have zip for experience with an orbital polisher so stopped in time to avoid an unnecessary hassle for myself. Please comment if I’ve somehow misunderstood what I’ve read online.

    Referring to online research pertaining to automotive detailing (YouTube). ‘Pan Pan’ the detailer seems to have a lot of knowledge and expertise. Worthwhile having a look and listen.

    Griots Garage Ceramic 3-in-1 Wax instructions:

    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.

    You say Not to use dish detergent for washing the car’s exterior but what about liquid laundry soap?????

    I am very hesitant to wash the wheels and tires before the rest of the car. When showering I don’t wash my feet before I wash my head.
    If significant amounts of dirt were to splash on the wheels from the car body as noted by the author, better pre rinsing would be indicated. This seems to be a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. Also too easy to confuse multiple buckets and mitts.

    Also magic erasers work great on rims to remove tar and scuff marks when used with light pressure.
    Finally Lexol for leather is a godsend.
    And Meguiar’s waterless wash & wax is money well spent. Leaves my cars spotless and shiny as new.

    You can use lens wipes on your touchscreen also, they are safe. But never use any harsh chemicals it will eventually ruin your screen.

    There are special towels you can use to wick off the water off the car, they are great and help keep the car spotless.

    For wax that was accidentally wiped wide of intended surface, onto textured plastic bits, I find a dry tooth brush quickly removes said wax marks.

    Lots of great tips here, some debatable. Firstly………….wheels and tires are always washed LAST!………this isn’t even debatable. I pre-soak the entire vehicle including wheels, tires and wheel wells. Let this sit, then pressure wash off with just water………this step loosens and removes the bulk of the dirt. Then hand wash your vehicle starting at the top and work down and rinsing as you go. Foam cannon is a great addition if used with a pressure washer prior to the hand wash. My car wash soap is NEVER “Wash n Wax”………..buy straight WASH only. The so-called wax portion is minimal at best but over time just builds up a dull layer. I have to believe this was made for the useless out there.

    I have known many auto detailers over 40 years and what we get now is too many of the new ones to the game try to make a name for themselves by saying something so off-base and relying on social media to spread their B.S.

    Lastly, if you decide to get a professional detailer to “cut and polish” your vehicle………..ask to see the actual products he/she uses………the more “brands” on the table, the better. It is amazing how some paints old and new react differently to different cuts and polishes. We have a relatively new shop where I live and the owner uses ONE BRAND of product on every type and age of paint………..this is an absolute sign of inexperience BUT he does like to update his website every year to tell you how long he has been in business.

    We always keep a microfiber cloth in the glove compartment just for the screen on the dashboard don’t want to take any chances

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