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Time Needed: Less than an hour, Difficulty: Beginner, Cost: $20-100 all in

Thoroughly detailing your car can be a giant time suck. If you’re not trying to correct paint imperfections and simply want to remove most of the dirt on your car, washing is an easy task. All you need to do is spray it down, wipe it with some water and soap, then dry it off. Still, you want to avoid damaging your paint by making swirls and scratches, so we’ve got some tips and tools here to help you do it right.

As part of our informational series of articles, we want to show you exactly how to maintain and care for your vehicle, and that starts with washing it. Below, we’ve gathered all the information about what you’ll need and how you’ll need to do it. We also answer commonly asked questions and debunk a few myths on the way. Let’s get started.

The Safety Brief

As long as your car is in park and you’re out of the way of any traffic, washing a car isn’t too dangerous. However, you’re still dealing with chemicals, so if that’s something you want to avoid, grab some arm-length rubber gloves and a set of safety glasses. If you get chemicals in your eyes or mouth, stop what you’re doing and immediately rinse.

Oddly enough, washing your own car is not always allowed, depending on what type of building you live in and where you live. Certains cities, towns, communities, and homeowners associations have specific rules or laws that prevent people from cleaning their own cars and allowing the chemicals to seep into the ground or the sewers. If this is the case, you’ll need to find an open car wash bay where it is allowed.

A lowered car with blue wheels rinsed with water.
Proper rinsing is key to removing dirt at the start of your wash. Arndt Herzwurm / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Tools & Parts You Need

Make sure you have the proper tools, cleaners, and supplies before you start the job. 

OK, Why Two Buckets?

The two-bucket method is a tried-and-true way to wash your car that’s been used by professionals and first-timers forever. The first bucket is for dipping the mitt in soapy water that will clean the car. Once the mitt is dirty from wiping the car, you put it in the second bucket to rinse off the just-accumulated dirt. Once that dirt is off, you put the mitt back into the soapy water to coat it with fresh soap. This helps keep damaging dirt particles off the mitt and off your car.

The Prep: Tips Before You Start Washing Your Car

  • Get a washing partner if you can. With one person washing and the other person rinsing, the job is significantly easier. 
  • Be aware of hard points on your clothes. Things like rivets on jeans or your trusty pocket knife can easily scratch or damage your paint.
  • Label your buckets! Seriously, or paint one of them a different color. It’s easy to get two identical-looking buckets mixed up, and you never want to be putting more dirt onto your car that could be scrubbed into the paint.
  • Don’t use dirty microfiber towels. 
  • Avoid dish soap if you can.
  • Don’t use your wheel brush or towel on the body of the car or vice versa.

The Job: How To Wash a Car

1. Park in the Right Spot

The most important thing is to park in a spot that is not in direct sunlight. The sun will bake the car, and that means the water will dry faster, which is a recipe for spots, streaks, and water marks. It also helps if you’re on a slight slant so all of the dirt, soap, and water runs off and you’re not stepping around the vehicle in puddles.

2. Prepare Your Equipment

Gather all of your tools, sprays, and buckets before you get started. You don’t want to start the job only to have to stop halfway through to conduct a search and rescue for that wheel cleaner.

3. Rinse the Car Down

Use a high-pressure setting on your hose nozzle (or a light setting on a pressure washer) to rinse the car off. Make sure you hit every spot on the car, including the underside and wheel wells. You’re not only getting the car wet and prepping it for the wash, you primarily want to rinse off the surface dirt and grime. It’s important to remove the surface dirt so you’re not rubbing it into the paint when you wash the car. 

4. Start With the Wheels First

You don’t want to wash your car, then wash the wheels and fling a bunch of brake dust and road grime back onto the paint. After rinsing the car, spray wheel cleaner on a wheel, let it soak for a bit to allow the soap to work itself in, then use a wheel brush to scrub and clean the wheels and tires. Rinse the area down thoroughly and move to the next wheel. 

An older woman washes a car windshield with a microfiber mitt.
Start your wash with the roof and windows, then move to other sections of the car. Nancy Brown / Getty Images

5. Spray Degreaser, Then Work Top to Bottom and in Sections

Once the wheels are clean, rinse the car down again, and grab your microfiber mitt and buckets. If there are any areas with heavy-duty dirt like bug guts, spray it down with some degreaser and let that soak in a bit to break it up.

Once you’re ready to start washing, dip your mitt in the first bucket with clean soapy water, then start on the roof of the vehicle and work your way down. Do one section at a time, and slowly progress around the entire vehicle. After washing each section, dip your dirty mitt into the second rinse bucket, shake off the dirt and let it fall into the dirt traps down low, squeeze out the dirty water, then dip the mitt back into the first bucket with the soapy water. Move on to the next section until the car is completely clean. 

6. Keep Rinsing as You Go and Once More at the End

Streaks and water spots appear on your car when the water and/or soap dries up on the surface. To prevent this, keep rinsing your car with water as much as you can to keep it wet and lubricated. Once you’re completely done washing, including inside the wheel wells, rinse the entire car again.

7. Open the Doors and Clean the Jambs

Use a clean microfiber towel, get it a little damp, and wipe down the insides of your doors.

8. Dry With Two Towels

Using your drying towel or a shammy, lightly drag your towel over the car’s surface to pick up the large majority of the water. Don’t worry about getting it all the first time, just get the majority of it with the first towel, squeezing out excess when needed. Once the first quick wipe-down is done, then go back around the vehicle with the second dry towel and detail dry. Pay close attention to areas like your side mirrors where water will collect and could drip down later if not addressed.

9. Detail and Protect

Once you’re done washing your car, you can then proceed to deeper cleaning and detailing techniques like clay-barring and protecting the car with waxes and coatings…if you want to. 

Why Hand-Washing a Car Is Better Than Automatic Car Washes 

The only type of automatic car wash we trust is a touchless wash, and those only clean your vehicle to a point, they aren’t perfect by any means. By a long shot, it is always better to wash your car by hand than doing the quickie option. There’s a high risk of damaging your vehicle with scratches and swirls when using an automatic wash.

A microfiber towel on shiny car paint.
Microfiber towels are preferred over household towels due to their extra-soft fibers. Rapeepong Puttakumwong / Getty Images

FAQs About Washing a Car

In this section, we’ve selected and answered commonly asked questions about and related to the topic of washing a car.

Q. Can you wash a car with only water and no soap?

A. You can. We have, and people do it all the time. However, you will not be getting the vehicle as clean as it can get by only using water. Some dirt, grime, and film that attaches to your car’s paint will require chemicals to break down, and water will only remove surface dirt that is easily removed.

Q.How often should a car be washed?

A. There is no one single answer for this. If somebody drives a car 100 miles a day and constantly drives through inclimate weather, the car might need to be washed every few days to keep it right. If somebody only drives to and from work down the street and lives in an extremely dry climate where it doesn’t rain or snow, then it might be okay to go a few weeks before washing it. As a general rule, enthusiasts and obsessives have been known to wash their cars once a week, while casuals might wash their cars once a month or longer. Just make sure you wash your car when it’s dirty, and be aware that certain types of grimie like bird poop and bug guts need to be cleaned off quickly. 

Q. What’s the best time of day to wash your car?

A. It’s best to wash your car in the shade when the air is not too hot or cold.

Q. What soap is safe for cars?

A. We recommend using a soap that is specifically formulated for cars. Technically it is possible for dish soap to potentially harm modern automotive paint.

Q. Should I still wash my car if it’s going to rain?

A. If it’s going to rain, then not rain for a while, just wait to wash the car. If your car is super dirty and needs a wash, wash it immediately. More washes is good, not bad. Think of rain as a forced reminder to wash your car more often.

The Video Tutorial on How To Hand-Wash a Car

Car Bibles’ editors understand that not everyone is a text-based learner. For the visual people out there, we have your back with a video showing you exactly how to wash your car the right way. We pulled it from a trusted source, and it’s a great additional resource.

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