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Six mistakes to avoid when washing your car

Is your car looking a bit sorry for itself after not being used? Follow our top tips to clean your car effectively and avoid damaging your paintwork

Six mistakes to avoid when washing your car

The events of the past months have probably meant that keeping your car clean hasn’t been at the top of your agenda. But now that driving restrictions have been eased slightly, you may have returned to your car to find it smothered in sticky pollen or – worse – bathed in bird poo.

Whether you love spending time giving your car some TLC, or see it as a thankless task that will just need doing again in a week or two, it’s a job that’s surprisingly easy to get wrong.

Car washing is actually a common way for drivers to damage their own cars. Done incorrectly, it can result in scratched or marked paintwork.

However, with the correct equipment and proper technique, you can keep your car looking its best in the short and longer term. Read on to discover the common mistakes that people make when cleaning their cars, and how best to give your car a spruce-up.


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Mistake 1: Using a car wash

Automatic car washes are a convenient way of making a car look presentable. However, if you really want to look after your paintwork, they should be avoided.

The fast-spinning rollers collect dirt and grit from previous cars, which can cause fine scratches or ‘swirl marks’ in your paint. These are more noticeable on dark-coloured cars, but will make the paint on any vehicle appear duller over time.

Self-service jet washes are similarly hazardous. The brush will have been used by countless others and then left on the ground, so it will be full of grit, which could scratch your paint as your rub it over your car’s bodywork.

Do this instead

Somewhat inevitably, the best way to wash your car’s exterior involves a bit of elbow grease. Equip yourself with a clean and grit-free bucket and sponge, some car shampoo and an outdoor water source – preferably a pressure washer or hosepipe.

Mistake 2: Washing your car in bright, direct sunlight

It can be tempting to make the most of the good weather and wash your car when the sun is at its peak, but water on your car’s bodywork will evaporate much more quickly than you can dry it when the metal is hot, which will leave ugly water marks.

If it’s particularly warm, the soap could also dry out before you’ve rinsed it, which will make it much harder to clean off.

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Wait until a cooler part of the day and place your car out of direct sunlight if possible. A driveway or other private land is the ideal place to wash a car, but there’s nothing wrong with doing it on the street if it’s easier to avoid direct sunlight there, provided you’re not causing an obstruction.

Once your car is clean and shiny, if possible avoid positioning it under a tree, where it will get covered in sticky sap and bird poo, or near sources of dust such as building sites.

If your car has a specific ‘car wash’ mode, don’t activate it if you’re washing it at home. It’s meant for automatic car washes where the car is pulled along on a track.


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Mistake 3: Using washing-up liquid or abrasive sponges

Your car will have been designed to protect you in an accident, but its paintwork can be surprisingly delicate, and using the wrong cleaning equipment can cause damage.

Washing-up liquid, for example, is designed to shift baked-on grease and will strip any wax that’s already been applied to your car. Your car will appear clean and shiny, but repeated use will also affect the paint’s protective clear coat. Ultimately this will age your paint faster and make it more prone to defects.

And, whatever you do, don’t use an abrasive dish sponge unless you want to quickly ruin your paintwork.

You don’t need to spend a fortune, but investing in the right gear will make cleaning your car much easier and protect it from damage.

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Step 1 – Pre-rinse your car

It’s important to pre-rinse the car before you take to it with a sponge. This will remove loose dirt and make your job much easier. Running a damp sponge along dry, dirty bodywork will almost certainly cause abrasions in your paint.

A hosepipe will work adequately with sufficient pressure, although the best tool for shifting that first layer of dust and getting your car sponge-ready is a pressure washer. Our guide to cleaning your car with a pressure washer explains how to do so safely and effectively.

Buckets of water can work as a last resort, but you’ll need to throw a fair few bucketfuls over your car to achieve the required result.

Step 2 – Give your car a shampoo

Firstly and most importantly, use a proper car shampoo, rather than a dish cleanser, to clean your car.

A large sponge is perfectly adequate for cleaning a car, but for the best results use a properly designed wash mitt. Usually made from lamb’s wool or microfibre, they’re much less likely to leave surface scratches, as the deep fluffy fabric absorbs dirt and grit away from the surface more effectively than a sponge.

With the clean, grit-free sponge or mitt, start from the top of the car and work downwards, as the bottom of your car is likely to be far dirtier. Washing the car with the sponge in straight lines rather than a circular motion will reduce the risk of swirl marks.

Professional car detailers swear by the two-bucket method of cleaning cars. Rather than simply rinsing your dirty sponge in the bucket of soap suds, which will leave grit suspended in the solution, have a second bucket filled with cold water to clean it out. This will vastly reduce the chance of there being dirt left clinging to your sponge when you re-apply it your paintwork.

For bonus points invest in a grit guard. These plastic grates sit at the bottom of your second bucket and will trap grit, stopping it from floating around in the water.

Step 3 – Dry your car off properly

If you want your car to look its best, you shouldn’t leave it to drip-dry, as this can result in those aforementioned water streaks.

To dry your car, use a proper microfibre towel or chamois leather. These are non-abrasive on the paint, unlike regular or paper towels. If you’ve got a particularly absorbent microfibre towel, you can simply pat the car dry, rather than running the towel along it.

If you’re feeling particularly keen, a hairdryer or leaf blower will quickly expel water out of crevices, such as in wing mirrors.

Mistake 4: Scraping off bird poo

Bird dirt is acidic and will leave permanent marks on your paint if left too long. Worse still, it sets like concrete once it dries. Tempting as it may be to scrape it off when you spot it, using hard, sharp-edged devices to remove dried-on bird poo can scratch your paintwork.

Even a rapid, overenthusiastic attack with a sponge is ill-advised – it probably won’t work and can damage your paint.

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If bird poo lands on your car, it’s best to clean it off as soon as possible (before it dries) – although this isn’t always an option if the bird in question makes a stealth attack while you’re away from the car.

If it has dried on, drench a cloth in hot water and place it over the affected area for a few minutes. This should soften the poo sufficiently that it can be wiped off.

If you’re in a hurry or it’s a persistent problem, you can buy bird poo cleaning wipes, which quickly break it down for easy removal.

Mistake 5: Rushing the job of polishing and waxing

Polishing and waxing a car can be a good way to make a car look its best once you’ve cleaned it.

Rushing the job won’t get the best results, though – and don’t be tempted to use a mechanical buffer to apply car polish. It’s a quick ticket to ruining your paint unless you really know what you’re doing.

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Polishing should be done before waxing, although it won’t always be needed. Polishes eat into the top layers of paint very finely to reduce the appearance of blemishes and fine scratches. Waxing, on the other hand, adds a protective layer to the paint while giving a shiny finish.

Polish and wax are both easy enough to apply, but require a consistent hand and plenty of patience for the best results, so take your time.

Mistake 6: Using greasy ‘cockpit shine’ products on your car’s interior

We’d avoid ‘cockpit shine’ type products, which are polishes designed for car interior plastics. Not only do they give dashboard trim a sheen not otherwise seen outside of a 20-year-old minicab, they’re greasy to the touch. That’s not only unpleasant, but a potential hazard if you get the product anywhere near your steering wheel, gear stick or pedals.

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There are plenty of potions available that claim to bring out the best in your car’s interior, but the truth is you can do most of the work with a simple vacuum and dust, followed by running a damp cloth over most of the surfaces.

Tips for using a pressure washer to clean your car

A pressure washer can help make light work of cleaning your car, but using one incorrectly could risk inadvertent damage. These tips can help ensure maximum shine with no damage.

  • Avoid using your pressure washer on a gravel surface: if aimed at the ground, the high-pressure jet could cause stones to fly up and hit the paintwork.
  • Select the right setting: strong enough to clean the car but not damage the paintwork. If in doubt, start off with lower pressure and increase if needed. Use less-powerful settings on fragile areas, such as lights or old tyres (fierce spray settings have been known to make old tyres explode). If the power isn’t adjustable, control it manually by standing further away (about a metre should be safe).
  • Consider using ‘snow foam’: if you have a pressure washer that accepts soap attachments, you may want to consider buying a pre-wash or ‘snow foam’. These create heavy foam as it’s sprayed on the car, which breaks down tar and other road debris that’s stuck to the paint. Leave it on for a few minutes, rinse off, and you’ll find the actual washing stage much easier.
  • Make the most of different attachments: an attachable car brush can help tackle more stubborn dirt, while some pressure washers come with detachable heads that let you change the direction of the water spray – handy for wheel arches, for example.

If you’re tempted to speed up the task of washing your car with the help of a pressure washer, discover the best pressure washers for cleaning your car, including models from Karcher and Nilfisk.


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