Whether you're taking care of a prized weekend ride or just trying to extend the paint life on the family sedan, hand washing your car is the best way to return its original factory glow. Sure, sometimes making a quick drive through the automatic car wash is what you need to keep things clean and under control during the rainy season or a long road trip. However, there's a difference between quickly knocking out a chore and taking the time and care to restore your car's showroom shine. A really thorough hand washing with the right exterior detailing products can even help protect your car's paint for months to come.
Not only is hand washing your car a better way to get it clean while preserving your paint's original luster, but it can also save money in the long run. Plus, it's a relaxing and satisfying way to spend a sunny weekend afternoon!
Is it Better to Hand Wash Your Car?
Automatic car washes are so quick and convenient that it begs the question: what are the benefits of hand washing your car instead? While it's true that automatic car washes are convenient and can save you some time here and there, they rarely get your car truly clean. The large, flexible brushes and powerful spray jets can actually end up grinding dirt into the side of your doors or scratching your paint—all while not even reaching the parts where the real stubborn grime builds up. So safe your paint from horrible swirl marks and scratches by hand washing your vehicle.
What Do You Need to Wash Your Car at Home?
To do a basic hand wash, you only need the following:
- Hose with gentle spray settings
- High-quality car shampoo or automotive soap (no dish soap)
- Two wash buckets (one for soapy water and one for rinsing)
- Car wash mitts (something soft, preferably microfiber)
- Tire cleaning brush
- Detailing brushes
- Microfiber drying towels
Now, if you want to do a full detailing after the car wash (and it isn't a bad idea to do this every few months), then you should also have the following on hand:
Best Way to Hand Wash a Car: Step-by-Step
SETTING UP YOUR WASH
Park in the shade (if possible): This one isn't huge, but the harder the sun's beaming down on your hood the quicker the soap will dry once you start washing. That can leave you racing to get your whole car lathered, rinsed, and dried before it develops streaks or water spots. (To avoid this, see our note below about continually rinsing the car as you go.)
Get all your materials ready: For the same reason as above, you don't want to get halfway through a hand wash and then realize you're missing something. Get your wash and rinse buckets, wash mitt and scrub brushes, microfiber drying towels, clay bar, wax or sealant, and anything else you might need ready before you start.
Take off watches, rings, etc.: Few things are going to throw a shock down your spine while you're hand washing your car like the sound of metal screeching down your driver's side door. Remember to store away anything that can ding or scratch your paint until after you're done.
WASHING: THE TWO-BUCKET METHOD
Hose down the whole car from the highest point all the way down to the tires using a gentle stream setting. This helps break up dirt and other residue so the soap can more easily reach the deeper layers of grime and road debris.
- Car Wash Tip: Don't forget to give your tires, wheel wells, and undercarriage a good hosing down here too. That's where a lot of salt and road grime build-up occurs!
Fill your two wash buckets: One with a mixture of soap and water (make sure there's enough to get a shampoo-like lather while you wash down each part of the car), and the other with clean water. We really like having a grit guard in each bucket to help clean your mitt off after every dip into the buckets. The grit guard will help pull dirt and debris from your wash mit and will trap the dirt under the guard which cuts down on the chance of creating swirls and scratches in your clear coat.
Rinse-Wash-Rinse-Repeat: Now get a good amount of soapy water on your wash mitt and softly run it over the surface of the car until you notice the suds and mitt starting to get dirty. Once this happens, dip the wash mitt in the bucket of clean water and give it a good shake to rinse off any dirt and debris. Then dunk it back in the soap bucket and go back to gently washing down the surfaces of the car.
Wheels first…: Wash your wheels and tires first with a separate sponge or tire brush that can scrub the toughest stuck-on bits. Before you get to cleaning however, make certain your wheels are not hot. If you just drove your car for an extended amount of time there is a chance your wheels might be hot. Let them cool down before you start washing them or you could cause staining from the liquid burning into the finish. Most importantly, you should also have a dedicated wheel and tire bucket that is separate from your two wash buckets. (You want to use a separate, softer wash mitt on the rest of your car.) This is where most of the salt and debris that your wheels kick up resides, so make sure to get the treads and insides of the wheels. Using a good all purpose cleaner or wheel & tire cleaner will help break down brake dust, dirt, and other road grime a lot faster than just soap and water. Scrub your tires until any brown film is no longer visible. Using wheel brushes and detailing brushes make cleaning your wheels much easier and will allow you to clean around your lug nuts and in the barrels of your wheels. Take your times and work the brushes around the face and openings of your wheels and don’t forget to clean your brake calipers if you can reach them. Cleaning your brake calipers is a good way to increase their longevity.
...then top-to-bottom: Wash the rest of your car from the top to the bottom, always allowing soap and broken-up dirt to run towards the ground. This will help you get soap evenly distributed across all surfaces and ensure you're not just moving dirt from one section of the car to another.
- Car Wash Tip: Gentle is key here. Scrubbing too hard even with a soft wash mitt or sponge can grind dirt and other hard materials into your car, scratching the paint. We also recommend a new wash mitt for every panel of your vehicle as this will make sure you are not contaminating other parts of your vehicle with a dirty mitt.
Clean and rinse in stages: No matter how fast you move, it can be tough to prevent soap from drying on your hood while you're washing down the driver's side and trunk areas. Try to fully wash and rinse each section of the car before moving on to the next one. This helps prevent soap from drying and streaking (and you having to rewash the whole car again).
Double check for bug splatters and other spots: Areas like your headlights, windshield, hood, and wheels are more likely to have bug splatters embedded deeper than just regular dust and grime. Give these areas some special attention once they've already had a once-over with the sponge, but remember not to scrub or scrape too hard to remove them—just let the soap do its job as you wash.
Keep the whole car wet until it's time to dry: To avoid water spots and other blemishes that can ruin your car's shine, keep the whole thing wet (or at least misted with the hose) until you're done washing and can hand dry with a microfiber towel.
DRY AND DETAIL
What is the best way to dry a car? Working through the car in sections like before, carefully dry everything with a clean, dry microfiber drying towel or mitt. A dirty towel can drag bits of debris across your car and scratch it, so make sure to reach for a fresh one if the one you're using gets too wet. There are many microfiber towels out there and we prefer a waffle weave towel as they hold a lot of water and do a really good job in protecting your paint. Do not use cheap towels for drying your car, truck, or SUV or you can do more bad than good.
Optional: Apply Sealant, Wax, or Detailing Spray
You always need to wash your car before you seal, wax, or detail it, but you don't necessarily have to do each of those things every time you wash your car. If you're using high-quality car detailing products then you can get anywhere from several weeks to several months out of a thorough detailing job.
A ceramic paint sealant like Lithium's Seal and Squeal can help remove oxidation and other tiny imperfections on your car's surface post-wash, giving it that glass-smooth finish to perfectly highlight all your hard work. Using a clay bar to remove contaminants is time consuming but it is a crucial step before laying down a paint sealant or ceramic spray coating if you want a durable and long lasting result. If you don't have time to put on a new coat of wax or polish, our Color Crush quick detailing spray is a great drying aid for getting that extra sheen without a ton of extra work. Just spray it on after you rinse and buff it dry with the rest of your car!
Should You Use Dish Soap to Wash Your Car?
No, absolutely not! While there are a lot of different ways to hand wash your car at home, you should never use dish soap on your car. Dish soap has harsh chemicals and abrasives that can wear away at your car's wax and can severely dull your paint.
If you're not able to get some decent car shampoo or soap designed for automotive paint, you can always give your car's underside and wheels a good rinse with the hose to help keep salt and debris build-ups at bay. Just keep in mind this is not a substitute for a thorough hand wash, and will leave dirt and grime (and probably some streaks) on your car until you can wash it properly with car soap.
How Often Should You Wash Your Car?
This one really depends on where you live, how often you drive, and how much satisfaction you get out of seeing that freshly restored mirror finish in your driveway. For just basic maintenance, most drivers could get by with washing their car every two weeks. If you live in an area that gets lots of rain or snow, or you're doing a lot of highway driving, washing the car every week definitely isn't going to hurt.
Plus, once you've seen the light glinting off that smooth, newly rejuvenated paint job, you're going to want to keep it that way!