Knowing how to wash your car and clean the interior might seem straightforward, but there are a few things to know before you reach for the bucket. Do it right, and your car can look like a gleaming new showroom model and be a place you actually want to spend some time in.
Don’t just throw a bucket of soapy water over your car though – give it a proper clean! Here are 10 tips for cleaning, valeting and detailing your car the right way:
1 When to clean a car?
Don’t try to wash and wax your car in extreme heat or direct sunlight. If it’s hot, then water will evaporate quickly and form grimy residues before you have a chance to wipe them off.
Dark-coloured cars can absorb so much heat they become hot to the touch – this doesn’t just burn your fingers, it can affect some of the chemicals used for car valeting.
2 How to clean a car interior?
Before you clean the outside, clean the inside. Start by removing any obvious rubbish from the ashtrays, door bins, glovebox and other interior storage spaces. Don’t forget to check under the seats for sweet wrappers, missing spectacles and mislaid coins (hey, you never know).
If you use seat mats, take them out and clean them separately. A quick dusting down won’t usually do it, so if they’re rubber, wash them with warm soapy water. If you use carpet mats, you may even be able to run them through the washing machine – but check the instructions.
3 Using a vacuum cleaner
Now you can vacuum up all the dust and grit, but first you have to loosen it up or move it out into the open where the nozzle can reach it. So use a stiff brush to loosen any dirt in the upholstery or carpets.
If you have a pet you’ll know how difficult it can be to shift pet hairs, so try a moistened rubber glove or wrap sticky tape around your hand with the sticky side facing outwards.
Finally – and this is a cool tip – use a compressed air canister to blow dust and grit out of nooks and crannies you can’t reach with a brush or the vacuum cleaner nozzle.
4 Clean a car dashboard
We’re not quite done with the interior yet. The dash and instruments collect a lot of dust too, but these are more delicate, so use a damp cloth on the dash and controls – there are dash and upholstery cleaning products for this – and try using a soft paintbrush to flick dust out from the rims of the instrument dials.
Don’t be tempted to use a silicone spray to add some shine – a shiny dash can create horrible glare, and if any overspray gets on to the pedals it can make them dangerously slippery.
5 The bits you miss
Finally, while all the doors are open, fetch a bucket and clean the sills and door openings. These are easily overlooked during a regular car wash, but stick out like a sore thumb when you open the doors later.
6 How to wash a car?
So there’s lots of advice about the best way to wash a car. Some suggest you wash down the car with plain water first to get the worst of the dirt off. That’s not a bad idea if your car is especially dirty, and it will reduce the risk of rubbing grit into the paintwork later. You can use a pressure washer to do this, but don't get too close to the paint or you'll risk driving the dirt into it.
Now wash your car with proper car wash solution. Don’t clean the car with dishwashing liquid because this will strip away any protective wax layer on the paint.
Start from the roof, then work your way down the sides, front and rear of the car. This gives the car wash solution a little more time to soak into the grimiest areas near the bottom and means your water stays cleaner for longer.
Be careful that your bucket is not collecting grit. You can get grit guards to fit in the base – effectively a plastic grid that stops your sponge reaching the bottom of the bucket – or you can just keep an eye on the colour of the water or feel any grittiness in the base of the bucket as you rinse out the sponge.
If in doubt, get a fresh bucket of car wash rather than risk rubbing grit into the paint.
If you’ve got some stubborn spots, don’t just keep rubbing away because this may damage the paint. Instead, use a tar and bug remover spray. And if you have any dirt that appears to be bonded into the paint, you can use a clay bar to remove it – though read the instructions carefully, because this is professional valeting territory.
7 Add a layer of wax
You don’t have to wax your car every time you wash it. There are car shampoos that contain wax too, but most valet/detailing experts would rather wax the car properly 2-4 times a year. If you use the right car wash solution, any existing wax layer should be preserved.
You will need to rinse off the car before waxing it and allow it to dry too. Don’t leave water to ‘puddle’ and dry naturally because this will often leave some residue, even when the water looks clean.
Instead, use a chamois leather or a silicone squeegee. These aren’t designed to dry the surface on contact – instead, they spread the water out into a thin layer that evaporates more quickly and cleanly.
If you do see any puddles of water, you can use compressed air to blow the water away.
So now apply your wax, following the makers’ instructions carefully. You apply the wax in straight lines – you don’t buff the paint surface in circles – then you leave it to dry before polishing it off. A microfibre cloth is perfect for this.
Don’t use more wax than the instructions tell you to. It won’t make the car any shinier, but it will make it more likely to get trapped in seams and fittings where it will dry, look messy and be hard to shift later.
Some valeting pros will wax the car twice, and there’s a clever test you can do to check the depth of the shine – place a ruler perpendicular to the surface and see how many numbers you can read off in the reflection. The more you can see, the better the shine.
8 Clean your wheels!
Don’t forget the wheels. You’ll probably need a pretty stiff brush to remove all the brake dust and road grime, and here’s a handy tip – when you think you’re done, push the car forward through half a rotation of the tyres and do it again so that you clean the parts you couldn’t get to properly the first time around.
There are special wheel degreasers and cleaners which will remove grime without damaging paintwork in the way a regular detergent might. Some even contain sealants to help protect against grime and pitting in the future.
You can also get tyre cleaners that give your wheels that new car look. The shine soon fades away, but it looks great while it lasts and it’s a handy tip if you’re just about to sell your car.
9 Don’t forget the glass
Now’s the time to clean the glass. It’s a good idea to leave this until last because the windows tend to pick up dirt and grime from all the other steps.
You need a good glass cleaner for this, but choose one designed for automotive use and not a regular household glass cleaner because these may contain ammonia, which is bad for vinyl upholstery.
Make sure you wind down the windows to get to the top edges, otherwise these will still carry a strip of grime even though the rest of the car is spotless.
10 Cosmetic surgery
While you’ve been cleaning your car you’ve probably noticed a couple of cosmetic flaws that need some attention. Dings and scrapes are best left for the body shop, but faded paintwork and plastic trim can be fixed.
For faded paint you need polishing solution and a bit of skill. Just remember, polish is not wax. Polish is abrasive and designed to remove the top layer of paint that’s faded to reveal the true colour underneath. If in doubt, leave it to an expert.
But bumper polish is easy. Many cars have black plastic bumpers and trim that fades to a patchy grey over time. Bumper polish can be messy to apply, but it’s also pretty easy, and restores that showroom gleam to faded plastics.
So even if your car is 10 years old, it doesn’t have to look it. A good clean will leave it looking years younger, and it will also highlight any little nips and tucks you can get done at the body shop to finish the job off properly.