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Cleaning Alloy Wheels — What You Need to Know

Jeff Zurschmeide
by Jeff Zurschmeide
August 2, 2020
3 min. Reading Time
AdobeStock 259645313 ・  Photo by Adobe Stock

AdobeStock 259645313 ・ Photo by Adobe Stock

Your wheels are among the dirtiest parts of your car. Not only do your wheels splash through muddy water frequently, they are also the first destination for brake dust, which is created every time you step on the brakes. Add in oil and grease that wheels pick up from the road, and you've got a cleaning challenge.

In particular, brake dust is difficult to clean because it's made of tiny particles of metal, ceramic, and the binding medium that holds the friction materials together. The dust is sticky, and it accumulates quickly on your wheels. Cleaning any set of wheels can be straightforward and easy, or it can be very risky. The difference is in the products you choose to clean your wheels. Some products will destroy the finish or even eat away at the metal of a wheel. You need to pick the right cleansers and use them correctly. It may come as a surprise, but the expensive chemical cleaners are not always the best solution. Here is what you need to know about cleaning alloy wheels. 

Do you have steel or alloy wheels?

To clean your wheels safely, first you need to figure out what kind of wheels you have. For most of us, our vehicle's wheels are made of steel or aluminum alloy. It's easy to tell if you have steel wheels. You can stick a magnet to them. Also, if you look closely, there's usually some rust where the paint has been chipped or worn away.  

Aluminum alloy wheels are very common on cars made in the last 20 years. Automakers and consumers tend to prefer alloy wheels because they're lighter and look better on the car. Alloy wheels tend to be clear-coated or sometimes painted, at least on the outward-facing side. An alloy is a combination of different metals and different wheels use different alloys. However, most wheels are made primarily of aluminum with small amounts of a few other metals mixed in for strength. Technically, steel is an alloy, too. But when we talk about alloy wheels, we mean aluminum alloys.

 Photo by Smolaw-Adobe Stock

Photo by Smolaw-Adobe Stock

How to Choose a Wheel Cleaner

When it comes to alloy wheels, it's important to know what kind of wheel cleaner you're considering. Read all labels carefully, because some chemical compounds will eat away at paint and aluminum. Any product that contains sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda, will damage aluminum. Virtually all aluminum alloy wheels are painted with clearcoat from the factory, so what you're really cleaning is that clear paint surface.

If you use wheel cleaner spray, make sure it's labeled as safe for your wheel material. Most wheel cleaners on the market are safe for aluminum, but it's worth your time to be sure.

 Photo by Adobe Stock

Photo by Adobe Stock

The Easiest Alloy-Cleaning Solution

The easiest solution is to clean your alloy wheels with the same detergent car wash you use on the rest of your car. Just remember to make a special bucket of water and car wash for the wheels, and wash them before you wash the rest of the car. Get yourself a different mitt or sponge just for your wheels, because you don't want to carry grit from your wheels to your car's paint job. A soft brush is also handy for getting into the holes and crevices.

It's important to get rid of the used soapy water after you wash your wheels. Even if it looks clean, it's full of brake dust and dirt that will scratch your paint. Discard all the mixture and carefully rinse the bucket to get rid of all traces before you mix up new car wash for your paint. If you're planning to use any tire shine or similar treatment, that goes on after the rest of the car has been washed. 

 Photo by Nejron Photo - Adobe Stock

Photo by Nejron Photo - Adobe Stock

Cleaning Powder-Coated Alloy Wheels

If you buy aftermarket alloy wheels or your car has been modified, you might have powder-coated wheels, sometimes called "powder painted" wheels. Powder coating is a form of plastic that is applied to the wheel and then baked. The powder melts and forms a very tough paint-like surface. You can clean and polish a powder-coated alloy wheel like any painted surface, and it usually requires a specialized paint-stripping solution to remove powder coating.

As with any other wheel, simple car wash detergent is usually adequate to loosen brake dust and other dirt from a powder-coated wheel. The key is to get in and use your mitt and brush to scrub the impurities off the wheel.

 Photo by Aleksandr Kondratov - Adobe Stock

Photo by Aleksandr Kondratov - Adobe Stock

Recap: How to Clean Alloy Wheels

Cleaning your vehicle's wheels is not a complicated process. You don't need specialized formulations if you're willing to do the work by hand. Remember these points:

  • Know what your wheels are made of
  • Buy products formulated for your wheel material
  • You can use ordinary car wash to clean any wheel
  • Have a dedicated set of wheel cleaning mitts and brushes
  • Wash the wheels first
  • Discard the cleaning solution before washing the rest of the vehicle
 Photo by Adobe Stock

Photo by Adobe Stock


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