How to wash, clean, and detail your car

car being washed


Posted April 01, 2024

Tips for washing your car inside and out, including step-by-step instructions for cleaning windows, headlights, tyres, and interior surfaces.

Keeping your car clean can protect the paint and finishes, prevent corrosion and rust, and help increase the vehicle's resale value. A clean and tidy car also makes you feel good.

Although it may seem more convenient to use a car wash and detailing service, you can save money by washing and detailing your vehicle yourself, and have the satisfaction of a job well done. 

From exterior detailing to interior cleaning, here are some cleaing and detailing tips for keeping your vehicle looking pristine.

man cleaning car tyres

Clean and shine your wheels and tyres for a pristine look. Image: Getty

How to get professional looking car wash results

Remove droppings and stains

Bird droppings, tree sap and tar can harden and damage your paintwork. Clean any contaminants off as soon as possible to preserve the look and integrity of your car's exterior.

To remove, soak the area with soapy water. Use a specialty car wash soap as dishwashing liquid can damage the paintwork. 

Gently wipe with a clean microfibre cloth. Repeat until the stain is gone. Take your time so you don't damage the paintwork.

More: How to protect your car’s paintwork.

Clean the car from top to bottom

Focus on one section of the car at a time, starting with the roof, then hood, sides and rear. Follow these instructions for professional looking results. 

  • Before applying any cleaning products, give your car a thorough pre-rinse with a hose or pressure washer. This helps loosen dirt and debris, making the washing process more effective.
  • Use a pH-balanced car wash soap, which is designed to safely remove dirt and grim without stripping away wax or damaging the paintwork. Dilute the soap in a bucket of water according to the instructions on the container. 
  • Wash the roof and work your way down the vehicle. If you start at the bottom you'll end up with dirty water running down over the parts you've already cleaned. 
  • Use a soft sponge or microfibre mitt to gently clean the surface.
  • To minimise the risk of scratching the paint, use two buckets: one with the soapy water, and one with clean water to rinse your sponge or mitt.
  • After washing each section, rinse off the soap with clean water to prevent it drying on the surface and leaving water spots.
man wiping down car door jambs

Using a soft microfibre cloth helps remove dust and dirt. Image: Getty

Important car areas to clean for safety and visibility

Pay attention to your windows

Clean windows are important for visibility, as well as aesthetics. 

Roll your windows down slightly to clean the outer edges before continuing with the rest of the window panel.

Use a microfibre cloth and a quality glass cleaner to clear away grime before buffing the window with another clean microfibre cloth for a streak-free finish. Circular motions are the most effective way to remove dirt, dust, and fingerprints.

Avoid using newspaper and paper towels. These both leave lint on the windows and contribute to streaking. If your vehicle has tinted windows, avoid ammonia-based window-cleaning products. 

Clean and restore your headlights

Yellowed or cloudy headlights are a driving hazard. The discolouration is caused by prolonged exposure to harsh UV rays, environmental pollutants and general wear and tear.

There are several ways to clean your headlights. 

Toothpaste is a popular choice because it is abrasive but won't scratch the plastic. Apply the toothpaste to a rag, and scrub the headlight lens until the yellow film disappears. Rinse with water.

Another method is to soak the headlights with vinegar, then apply baking soda and scrub with a soft sponge. Rinse with water.

For the best results, buy a headlight cleaning kit at an auto store. Whatever method you choose, apply painter's tape around each headlight before you start, to protect your car's paintwork.


rear light of black car covered in soap bubbles

Yellowed headlights are a driving hazard, but there are ways to remove the discolouration. Image: Getty

Finishing touches that make a difference to your car

Shine your tyres

If you're going to the trouble of cleaning your car, don't forget your tyres. Hose off the bulk of the grime, then use a soft bristle brush and warm soapy water to remove any remaining dirt and debris.

If the tyres look dull, there are products designed to make them shine. 

More: Tyre maintenance, roadworthy and safety checks.

Rinse off your door jambs

The door jambs, where each door connects to the body of the car, are a trap for dirt and food spillages. 

For the best results, dislodge any debris with a detailing brush, then wash the door jambs with an all-purpose cleaner and a microfibre cloth. Keeping these areas clean with decrease the risk of rust, especially in older cars.

Clean the undercarriage

Cleaning the underbody of the car is important because this part of the car is exposed to dirt, rocks and mud, as well as road salt if you drive to the snow. Drainage holes can get clogged, and any exposed metal is vulnerable to rusting.

It is recommended that the undercarriage is washed once a season, and more if you like off-road activities. You'll need a high pressure washer but it can be a daunting task and you may prefer to leave it to a professional car wash and detailing service.


man vacuuming fabric car seats

Fabric and leather seats can both be easily cleaned. Image: Getty

Tips for a cleaner car interior

Clear out your boot

This is a task that many people put off, but a regular boot clean will prevent stains and damage. 

After you've removed all items and given the boot a thorough vacuum, sprinkle baking soda on the carpet and rubber liners to help lift stains and odours. Leave for about an hour and then vacuum off. For stubborn stains, use warm water and dishwashing liquid.

To clean the boot seals, wrap a microfibre cloth around a narrow bristle brush, which will help you get into narrow crevices without damaging the seals. 

Clean your car seats

It's always a great feeling when you hop into a car with clean seats. Vacuum first, then use an upholstery or brush head to remove crumbs, dirt, pet hair, and other grit.

If you have leather seats, gently wipe them with a damp microfibre cloth and leather cleaning solution. Buff them dry, then apply leather conditioner to prevent cracking and staining.

For fabric seats, use a car upholstery cleaner and follow the instructions. For tough stains, spray and work the cleaner into the area with a cloth or soft-bristle brush, lightly rinse and blot dry.

Parts of the car that are often forgotten

  • Sun visor - dampen a microfibre cloth with water and a squirt of mild liquid soap , then gently rub away the grime.
  • Glovebox - keep a pack of wet wipes handy or use damp microfibre cloth with a squirt of mild liquid soap.
  • Cup holders, door panels, floor mats, under seats and under the pedals. These areas can attract ants, bugs and spiders. A vacuum with a narrow nozzle attachment will do the trick, while antibacterial wipes can remove germs and stickiness.
  • Air vents and dashboards - clean with a microfibre cloth.

Tips for keeping your car clean for longer

  • Wash your hands to prevent  dirt, oils, and germs transferring onto surfaces such as the steering wheel, gear shift, and door handles.
  • Clean your shoes to stop dirt, mud, sand and debris getting in the car.
  • Use sear covers, car mats, boot liners and dog beds.
  • Reguarly clean your car.
  • Dry with a microfibre towel, using gentle blotting motions to avoid scratching paint.
  • Apply wax for added protection and shine, and to repel water and dirt.
  • Park undercover or in a garage to shield your car from bird droppings, tree sap, and harsh weather conditions.
  • Additionally, utilise a car cover when parking outdoors, especially in areas prone to debris or sap from overhanging trees.  


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