Car Advice

How to wash your car (without the fuss) and the myths that need busting

When it comes to washing your car, getting out the bucket and sponge a couple of times a month will keep your car looking brand new.

WASHING YOUR CAR shouldn’t be a chore. It’s about preserving your investment. More than just being about a bucket a sponge there are a whole heap of myths around car washing that need busting, like the one about using dishwashing liquid to wash your car… but the tips first.

  1. It’s good practice to avoid washing your car in full sun if possible. Growing up in Bathurst, where the summers were/are scorching hot, I would leave my car parked in the shade before washing it in the afternoon, or get up early and wash it, or if it was being washed on a hot day I’d hose it down first to cool the surface and loosen any muck that had baked on. More than that, letting car wash (soap) dry onto the surface of the car in the baking sun can damage the paint’s protective polymers. And let’s not forget that you’re likely to get watermarks as the water dries on your car in the sun before you can get to it with a chamois.
  2. If you’ve ever washed your car with you kids helping, you’ll know that it can be a soapy free for all. But it’s important you wash your car in sections and despite what you might have seen on The Karate Kid, it’s a good idea to move your sponge in straight lines, rather than in a circular motion. Because the circular motion can cause any grit you might have picked up to leave micro swirls in the surface of the paint. When washing, I tend to make one or two passes, squeezing the sponge in a clean (second) bucket of water as I go before dipping the sponge back into the (soapy) bucket to ensure any grit I might have picked up falls away into the bucket. And I rinse regularly and then go back over the section if necessary. Never lean/scrub a section of suborn muck as you could end up scratching the paint. Just keep soaking it with soapy water, rinsing and repeat. If the spot is stubborn you might end up needing to use a clay bar.
  3. Don’t wait to wash your car when it’s dirty, although there are exceptions to this rule, like when you’ve been off-roading and your 4×4 is covered in mud. If you must wash a particularly dirty car, then make sure you hose the car down first to loosen and hopefully wash off loose grit and muck. If you were to dive straight in with the sponge without rinsing, then you’ll end up scratching the paint with a sponge that’s clogged with dirt and acting more like sandpaper.
  4. It’s a good idea to wax your car at least twice a year, once leading into summer and once leading into winter. This will ensure a good layer of sacrificial protection on your car’s paint. And, remember, polishing and waxing are two separate things; polishing your car will make the surface shiny, while waxing adds a layer of protection, although carnauba-based waxes can give the surface a wet look.
  5. If you use a waterless car wash, and I have and they’re great, then make sure you use a good quality microfibre towel (or several) and fold it up so you’ve got a bunch of clean sides to use, say, fold it in half and then in half again. Once you’ve completely used all sides then swap to a new towel. Always wipe in one direction because, remember, you’re wiping off grit and grime without using water. Therefore, you need plenty of towels. The good thing about a waterless car wash is that it usually contains wax so that as you’re cleaning you’re also providing a sacrificial protectant to the paint.
  6. Use warm water because often times it can help to loosen grime and muck easier than cold water… It’s why we use warm/hot water to wash dishes. Thanks to Steve-O for the reminder.

And the myths…

  1. Dishwashing detergent is designed to strip grease and grime from your crockery and will do the same to your car. Putting dishwashing liquid will strip all protective coatings off the paint’s surface and speed up the deterioration of the paint. If, however, you’re looking to remove all of the coatings and apply something new, then it’s okay to use dishwashing liquid…
  2. Waxing can remove swirl marks in paint… um, no, it can’t. And I should know, because when I was 18 I thought it could and waxed the life out of my car’s bonnet to try and resurrect the swirly paint. I went from using elbow grease and a buffing pad to a rotary buffer. And, guess what? I just made the marks worse. There are numerous ways to remove swirl marks and none of them involve wax.
  3. An old terry-towel nappy is great for cleaning a car. Nope. Rather it picks up and holds grit from the surface of the car and ends up scratching it as you’re rubbing. A microfibre towel is best.
  4. Carnauba wax is king. Yes, and no. In the old days, most car wax was comprised of a good proportion of carnauba wax, usually around one-third carnauba. Sure, carnauba wax which can generally provide a more lustrous appearance than a synthetic wax, it doesn’t like hot environments and can end up looking cloudy. Generally-speaking, for people like you and me, a synthetic wax will be the best way to go as it’s generally available in a spray pack, instead of as a paste, and is both easy to apply and has a higher melting point. It should also last a bit longer than carnauba-based wax products.
  5. A clay bar is only for professionals. Nope. Wrong again. Anyone can buy and use a clay bar kit which is a great way of removing all bits of tree sap, etc from your car’s paint.
  6. Let your car air dry. Absolutely, if you want water spots on it. A quick wipe down with a chamois after washing takes only a few minutes and will leave your car looking like new.
  7. An automatic car wash is water wise. Yes, of course it is because it’ll likely have a water reclamation system in place. But, if you use a two-bucket method, one for the soapy water and one for rinsing the sponge, this will get the grit off your sponge and keep the soapy water from becoming contaminated. Then lightly hose off each section of car you’ve washed. Yes, you’ll use a little more water… if, however, you use water from a rain water tank, then washing your car will become a much ‘greener’ process. Or, just use waterless car wash (see above).

Question: Have I missed any tips or myths? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

  • Steve-O

    Washing with warm / hot water makes it so much easier to chamois dry I find

    • That’s a great tip. My old man uses warm water… I’d totally forgotten about it. Cheers Isaac

  • JohnGC

    At the end of the ‘Back to the future’ movie Biff gets in trouble because he’s didn’t put a second coat of wax on George McFly’s car. Can you really put a second coat of wax on a car? The instructions say on my wax ‘use sparingly’. I’ve tried to do a second coat, but I couldn’t see any difference and it felt like I was just wiping off the first coat. Also, bugs and tar are the most difficult to remove on the front of the car, but I’ve found a can of 5 star bug and tar remover from BigW works best but I still see some of the bug marks (acid from the bug I think).

    • Generally you can apply one thin coat of wax and allow it to cure, usually overnight, and then apply another thin coat… Isaac

      • KJ

        Use WD-40 on those hard tar and bug marks, works wonders and doesn’t damage the paint.

  • 1250

    I find if you bye the car shampo that has wax in it ,you are doing two jobs at once rinse off with clean water and finish with the chamois and warm water easy !!!!,
    And alway do It in the shade !!!!
    My ute always look great after my attention (mertalic blue )

  • Steve-O

    And also wash the car in sections (or panels) so you do a thorough job.

  • Territory46

    As a young bloke I worked in a servo where we washed the client’s cars- see how old I am. I was taught to start at the roof and work down after hosing the car down first. This allegedly moves the dirt down the car as you wash and means that you’re not washing dirty water down over areas already cleaned.

  • SgtCarlMc

    For those who have seen the GREEN scourers in supermarkets, these are the colours, White, Green, Red, Black, Brown, Yellow, Blue as a cleaner for a Club, these scourers are put on the polisher for wooden dance floors, BUT, the White scourer is perfectly safe for duco, it is the only NON-Scratching scourer

    I buy the white circle scourers at a Cleaner Wholesaler, wash my cars with these, better than sponges as they wipe off bird crap, bugs etc etc, you can get 4 pieces off each circle

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober was born in the shadow of Mount Panorama in Bathurst and, so, it was inevitable he’d fall into work as a motoring writer. He began his motoring career in 2000 reviewing commercial vehicles, before becoming editor of Caravan & Motorhome magazine. He then moved to MOTOR Magazine before going freelance and contributing to Overlander 4WD, 4×4 Australia, TopGear Australia, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Australian, CARSguide, and many more.