What’s the best way to wash your car?

The last time I took our car in for service, the man at the check-in counter asked me if I’d like a free car wash, which they routinely offer as part of the service visit. “Of course!” I told him I’d love for someone to wash my car every day! (Don’t you love driving a just-washed car?) Then he said something that surprised me. “That wouldn’t be good for your car.” What? Cleaning my car too much was a possibility? Turns out, it depends on how you wash it.

Here are the best — and worst — ways to wash your car:

Best: Wash your own car at a stall. The best way to wash your car, if you want to maximize efficiency, minimize environmental impact, and take the best care of your car’s paint job — is in a self-service car wash stall with pressurized hoses (that you use carefully). Use the power nozzle to spray under the car. To avoid scratching the paint, use soft, microfiber sponges or cloths when washing. Use separate sponges or cloths for the body and the wheels (which tend to be much dirtier.) If you drop a sponge or cloth, make sure you rinse it well before using it on the car again. Use a microfiber or other soft, clean towel for drying. And be gentle. You don’t want to keep rubbing and possibly imbed any particles into the paint. 

A silver car entering an automatic carwash

Middle ground: Touch-free automatic wash. The next-best method is a touch-free automatic wash. These drive-throughs aren’t perfect because — while there aren’t brushes rubbing dirt particles into your paint as with other automatic car washes — the high pressure can still drive dirt into your paint. Also, unless you dry your car well afterwards (the automatic dryers rarely do), you’ll have water spots, which aren’t great for the finish either. 

Middle ground: Wash at home. Done properly, if you wash your own car at home you can certainly take stellar care of the finish. It’s not the most environmentally friendly way to wash your car, though. That’s because commercial car washes minimize water usage and treat their dirty water runoff, unlike the dirty water from washing at home that makes its way to nearby waterways. See below for tips on washing your car at home. 

Worst: Automatic car washes. These places look like they’re doing a great job as you watch your car make its way through all those suds, but they are the hardest on your car. That’s because they contain all the grime (on the brushes) of all the cars that went through before you. While lots of water dilutes the grime a bit, it can still get rubbed into your paint and scratch it. 

How often should I wash my car?

It depends. (It always depends, doesn’t it?) If you’re a person who likes a definitive answer, experts recommend that you wash your car every couple of weeks under normal conditions. What’s not normal? Well, you’ll want to wash your car more often if it gets salt on it (from a nearby ocean or from winter road treatments), or if you drive through dirty areas (like construction sites), or you live in an area with a lot of environmental contaminants, such as pollen, dirt, dust, and pollution (acid rain can damage paint). You may also want to wash your car more often if you park it outdoors rather than in a garage. 

BTW, leaving your car out in the rain isn’t a dependable way to get it clean, either. Rainwater can induce rusting (especially if you don’t dry it off), and, if you live in an area with pollution, the rain can do more harm than good. So if you can park your car in a garage, its finish will benefit.

A person washing the front bumper of a silver car

When should I was my car immediately?

There are times when you should wash your car ASAP. If your car has something corrosive on it, at least wash it off (even if you can’t manage a complete wash right then). Remove ASAP:

• Bird droppings

• Dead bugs

• Tree sap

• Tar

These substances can cause the paint to stain and fade and the metal to rust. Besides, the longer you wait the harder it is to get off. I once used a power sprayer to get some bird dropping off my car, and I got the nozzle too close. It took a chip of paint right off with the dropping! 

How often should I wax my car?

Waxing your car does more than make it look pretty. That wax coating keeps all those damaging substances off your paint. It also makes it easier to wash. Here’s how to tell if your car needs a waxing: Sprinkle some water on the paint. Does the water bead up? If not, it’s time to wax. Usually a good waxing will last about six months, so schedule it for twice a year. And always make sure your car is nice and clean before you wax it.

What’s the best way to wash my car at home?

If you want to wash your car at home, here are some tips for doing a good job and keeping the task as environmentally friendly as possible:

• Avoid car-washing products that contain harmful chemicals such as phosphates. Choose biodegradable, gentle car-cleansers. And don’t use too much of them.

• If you can, park your car on the grass or near bushes that can benefit from the water as you spray. Or park it on gravel, which will filter the dirty water at least a bit as it runs off.

• Don’t let the hose run the whole time. Turn the water off while you soap up the car.

What about the interior and glass?

A person washing a windshield with an orange rag

Cloth seats can be cleaned with a little mild detergent swished in warm water. For stains, try equal parts vinegar and water. For grease stains, try sprinkling with cornstarch. Let sit about an hour, then vacuum it up.

To freshen the interior, sprinkle the cloth seats and carpeting with baking soda. (I like to mix some dried lavender in with it.) Leave it on overnight, then vacuum. 

If you have leather seats, clean and condition them every few months to keep them from cracking.

For the dashboard and other hard surfaces, I like to use Murphy’s Oil soap or Dr. Bronner’s soap diluted in water. Rinse well and dry well. There are also many natural car interior cleaners on the market, or you can make your own

To wash the windows and mirrors (inside and out), I use the same homemade glass cleaner I use in the house.

How and how often do you wash your car? What products do you like using?

You might also like: 7 ways to make your tires last — Simple steps to take to get the most mileage out of your tires

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