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9 Obvious Mistakes You're Making When Washing Your Car

Annie Kang
by Annie Kang
April 24, 2014

My car wash technique used to involve nothing more than an old rag, dishwashing soap, a bucket, and a hose with running water. It's a bare bones, old school tradition handed down to me by my parents, and it got the job done in a pinch, so it was good enough for me. Until I spoke with the owner of Creative Motion, a mobile auto detailing specialist company, that is. According to Frank Ortiz and his crew of car wash professionals, I've been making some of the most common, obvious mistakes that can damage a car.

"When you look at a car and see those spiderweb-looking scratches on it, it's basically because the owner didn't use the right soap or rag when washing and drying their car," Ortiz said. 

No car wants to be marred with spiderweb markings, so follow our guide to washing your car the safe and expert way.

Rookie Mistake: Using Dishwashing Soap

Many of us have been guilty of this most common mistake - using dishwashing soap to wash our cars. Why? It's cheap and we all have some on hand. However, "dishwashing soap has too many chemicals that are harsh on a car's paint," said Ortiz.

Invest in some car wash soap. You can get a 16 oz. bottle for less than five dollars.  Also, use separate cleaners for different parts of the vehicle. Creative Motion uses a special cleaner for wheels and tires as they attract harder-to-clean brake dust and road grime. The crew also applies a cream-based product for plastic trim and the interior.

"This helps protect the various parts of the vehicle and give it a better shine, and for longer," said Ortiz.


Rookie Mistake: Using the Wrong Cloths

Get rid of the grimy cotton rag you've retired from the kitchen, and switch to a microfiber cloth for washing your car. Not only can cotton towels scratch your car's surface, but it doesn't absorb dirt. Microfiber is designed to lift and hold on to dirt and dust. Microfiber is also gentler on your car's paint job than a cotton towel or a kitchen sponge. To make your job more efficient, use a microfiber wash mitt. You'll cover more surface area with less effort. You can get one for around five dollars. 

Ditch the cotton towel when it comes to drying your car as well; you end up pushing excess water around instead of absorbing it. And although soft and absorbent, avoid the popular leather chamois; it can scratch your car's surface. The chamois also doesn't pick up dirt, so any residual can be dragged across your car's finish while drying it. Again, microfiber is the best option. 

Microfiber cloths should also be used when cleaning windows.

"Don't use paper towels; they leave lint, and don't use newspaper either; it creates streaks and gets ink all over your hands," said Ortiz. 


Rookie Mistake: Using the Same Cloth for Different Products

Now that you know you'll need more than just dishwashing soap to get the job done right, don't make the mistake of using the same cloth for different products. You'll be applying residual product from one car part to another, kind of like cross contamination. You definitely don't want to be applying wax on your windows - unless you like smears.

And change your cloth when it gets too dirty; otherwise, you're just pushing dirt around instead of picking it up.


Rookie Mistake: Not Applying a Finishing Product

Ever wonder why you can't get your car quite as spotless and sparkling clean as when you pay the professionals to do it? That's because you don't use a finishing product after washing and drying your car like the professionals do.

"Finishing products have a bit of wax in it; it gets rid of any smudges, fingerprints, smears, minor topical defects, and it gives your car a nice shine too," said Ortiz.

Creative Motion uses Final Touch by 3D ($8.99 for 24 oz.) Again, use a clean, microfiber cloth to apply the product, and use separate cloths for the vehicle's exterior and interior. 

While not using a finishing product isn't a mistake that can damage your car, why go through all the effort of washing it if you're going to skip a step that makes a big difference in the result? 

"One of the biggest mistakes people make is not giving the full effort, so we'll always do a better job than people who wash their cars at home," said Ortiz. Don't let the professionals one-up you! 


Rookie Mistake: Working in Direct Sunlight

Washing your car in direct sunlight will cause it to dry faster, and unless you wipe it down ASAP, you'll get those annoying water spots that you'll never be able to get rid of unless you wash your car all over again (Unfortunately, I know, because I've had to do it).

"Work when the sun isn't as bright; it's easier at night, said Ortiz. "And hustle to get your car dried as quick as possible to avoid spotting."


Rookie Mistake: Over-Applying Products

"Streaking comes from excess of liquid," Ortiz said.

To avoid this common mistake, Ortiz recommends applying the product to your application cloth, instead of directly onto the car.

"Use one side of the cloth to spray the product on, and then the other side to wipe down your car." This will also help avoid over-applying a product. 


Rookie Mistake: Not Cleaning Your Car Before Applying Armor All

Don't make the rookie mistake of applying a protectant to a dirty surface.

"People will often use Armor All without cleaning the car with a multi-purpose cleaner first," said Ortiz. "Armor All doesn't remove dirt, buildup, or fingerprints - it's a protector, not a cleaner."

And never apply Armor All to seats. "It will make your seats slippery and get on your clothes," said Ortiz. 


Rookie Mistake: Rolling Down Windows Before They're Dry

One of my biggest "doh!" moments comes soon after I've washed and dried my car to perfection - rolling down my windows only to roll them back up and see huge water streaks left behind.

According to Ortiz, depending on the weather, it can take 2-3 hours before you can safely roll up your windows. 


Rookie Mistake: Over-Washing Your Car

If you care about preserving your car's paint job, then yes, over-washing is possible. Even when you use products designed to be gentle on your car, you're still applying chemicals to your car that will dull its paint job over time. If your car is pretty much clean from dirt and grime, and just has light surface dust, then wipe down your car with water only before drying it.

"It keeps up the paint, and it's just better because you aren't using all these chemicals on your car," Ortiz said.

For more tips on how to wash your car, watch our video on car wash tips from the experts at Meguiar's.



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