Car Cleaning Mistakes and Myths – How to Clean Car at Home

how to clean a car

Cleaning is terribly simple. How hard can it be to clean your windows, cars, hands and house? The answer is that it’s actually terribly complicated. The picture on the left is both an amusing and extreme example but there really are a lot of mistakes large and small made by the majority of amateurs.

Tips and tricks that professionals use aren’t always common knowledge and common mistakes actually do more harm than good. Some mistakes may seem incredibly obvious to you but for many, these are VERY common.

This is especially important when it comes to cleaning your car as poor cleaning can actually drop it’s value or even reduce its lifetime.

This article aims to educate people on the most common mistakes made by amateur car cleaners and hopefully save them both time and money.

How To Clean A Car – Mistakes You Should Avoid

1) Using Sponges

Sponges are a great tool for cleaning. We use them to clean a wide variety of things including dishes and even our own bodies. Sponges are excellent at absorbing water, they pick up dirt very easily and are able to hold cleaning solutions for a long period.

These properties have made sponges a favorite tool for cleaning in general, so it’s only natural that when it comes to cleaning our cars a wide number of people make the major mistake of using sponges. There is another factor in the popularity of using sponges for car cleaning.

The fact that the damage sponges do to our cars isn’t entirely obvious at first means that people are unaware that their sponges are doing damage and will continually clean their car using them.

So what exactly is the problem with using sponges to clean your car? As stated before sponges are a great cleaning tool which is popular for a reason. When used to clean cars they will function just as well at removing dirt from your car. However, in the process, they will damage your car’s paint.

Whilst sponges DO lift and remove dirt from your car just like they do on your dishes and other surfaces, they continue to hold onto that dirt. Car paint is quite delicate and the grit that is held in your sponge will be wiped across that delicate surface causing paint swirls and in the worst of cases deep scratches.

If sponges are so bad why do people repeatedly use them? Deep scratches aren’t common from sponges but can occur for those who use sponges.

The real problem is the small scratches which aren’t immediately obvious. If the surface of your car is going from dirty to faintly scratched it is unlikely you’ll notice the scratches as overall your car has become cleaner. However, these paint swirls when compared to a well-kept car are obvious, especially in the sunlight.

The minute scratches also dull the paint and in the long run, will make your car paint less shiny and when you want to sell your car will give your car a poor appearance and therefore lower selling price.

The best alternatives to sponges are microfibre towels. These towels are designed to reduce the risk of dragging dirt whilst being incredibly absorbent and in my opinion are just better at cleaning practically everything. A really convenient piece of equipment is car cleaning mitts. These gloves are made of microfibre towels which you can wear on your hands.

In summary. Sponges damage your paint by causing paint swirls and dull your paint. In the worst cases, they can cause deep scratches. This makes your car look like it’s in poor condition and lower its value. Use designed car cleaning towels instead.

2) Automatic Car Washes

Using automatic car washes is another frequently used car cleaning equipment. Automatic car washes have been around for a long time and they’re used by most drivers. So what’s the problem with them?

There are a lot of problems and myths associated with automatic car washes which I’m going to address. I’m going to try and be quite fair on automatic car washes in this section as despite the numerous problems with auto car washes there’s also a lot of unwarranted negativity towards them as well.

The first problem with automatic car washes is that they simply aren’t that great. Despite how old automatic car washes are and how far they’ve developed over the years they simply aren’t that great at cleaning your car.

Now I’m going to have to point out that auto car wash quality can vary wildly depending on which one you go to. Some car washes may actually provide great value and leave your car pretty clean. However, these aren’t that common even now in 2013.

Most car washes will get rid of most dirt but difficult grime will linger and quite frankly most car washes are pretty poor at cleaning nooks and crannies. As for the few that provide a good clean they still won’t be able to compete with a quality detailer or DIY. When it comes to automatic car washes its convenience vs quality.

The second problem is damage. Just like the problem with sponges car washes have gained notoriety for scratching cars amongst car cleaning enthusiast and experts. Again I’m going to try and take both sides of the story. Auto car washes first developed this reputation quite a while back when practically all car washes used very harsh chemicals which softened and dulled paint.

They also used rough brushes and bristles which would leave scratches and swirls on cars. Nowadays car washes have improved greatly and these damaging chemicals and brushes tend to have been replaced to reduce damage to cars.

Because of the persistence of this myth, there are also now contactless car washes which don’t use brushes and bristles at all and instead provide cleaning through chemicals.

Car washes have come a long way and whilst most car cleaning professionals will try and dissuade you using the argument that car washes will damage your car I will try to be unbiased and say that the number of car washes that will cause serious damage to your car is very rare.

However, paint swirl causing car washes are not completely gone and it is infinitely safer to get a professional to clean your car. Some contactless car washes are also poorly kept and a few have been known to still damage cars as their equipment including water is not clean and end up blasting dirt onto your car at high speed. In summary, car washes have improved standards when it comes to car protection but it can vary wildly depending on where you go.

Environmental concerns have also increased over the years as people have become more Eco-aware. Car washes use far more energy and water then a professional or DIY would and are inefficient at cleaning.

On top of this water and ground pollution from cleaning products and chemicals, they have become a growing concern and Eco-friendly car washes are likely to become increasingly important.

All in all auto car washes have retained a poor reputation from their early years which is probably no longer true. However when it comes down to properly cleaning your car whilst making sure its treated well the best options are simply to get a professional to clean it or learn to do it yourself.

Even now automatic car washes are not yet up to the standard of a human hand. Clean your car yourself but if you don’t have the time, take it to a professional.

Nowadays, one of the most popular automatic systems is foam gun for car wash. You may check our another review about foam guns.

3) The Rain Will Wash My Car

This is one of the most common myths about car cleaning which you will see all the time. People joke about the poor weather but claim that at least their car is getting cleaned. So the simple question is can the rain clean your car? The answer, however, is not quite so simple.

Whilst it is true that the rain will wet your car a major component when it comes to cleaning your car. It is also true that a lot of debris and dirt can be washed off the surface of your car during a downpour. So in a way yes the rain can clean your car very slightly.

However, relying on the rain to wash your car is quite ridiculous as there is no way even in a strong downpour that the rain will be able to wash away the grease and grime attached to your car paint. Professionals use powerful Traffic Film Remover which is designed to lift this debris from the surface of your car.

Shampoo, Polish, Wax, Clay bars and high-pressure washers are all used to remove the toughest of dirt. There’s simply no way the rain can remove all of this grime.

Another side of the rain cleaning myth, however, is that you must not clean your car during or before it rains. As stated before the rain can provide a light rinse which you can use to save money by applying car shampoo to your car and allowing the rain to rinse off your car.

This is a nice way to save money whilst providing a light clean. Many people do not like to clean their car before it rains as driving a newly cleaned car through puddles will quickly make it dirty again. But if you do not plan on driving your car whilst the road is wet you can save a little money and be a little eco-friendly too.

Furthermore, if you live in an area where the rain is more acidic (This tends to occur in more polluted areas) then the rain can actually be fairly damaging to your paint. In these kinds of areas, it is better to completely avoid leaving your car in the rain if possible.

4) Polish vs Wax

The vast majority of people don’t actually realize that polish and wax are two separate products for two different purposes. To make matters worse many vendors often list polish and wax in the same categories which create confusion and misunderstanding.

2 in 1 Wax and Polish products are becoming more common which allow inexperienced to use both products without having to understand the differences but these products again blurs the distinction between the two. It is not surprising that the two are therefore often believed the perform the same purpose.

Both Polish and Wax are mistakenly thought to make your car paint shine. Whilst both products may provide a greater finish for your car and make your car paint shine their intent and the way they achieve this are very different.

Firstly I shall address what Polish is and what its aim is. Polish products can come in the form of abrasives or chemical polish. Their job is quite simple. Polish is designed to remove or reduce scratches and swirl marks in the paint. It does this by grinding a fine layer of paint which levels out fine scratches and reduces the visibility of deep scratches.

Polish will make your paint appear new because it lightly scrubs away the thin scratched top layer of paint on your car. As you can imagine however long-term and frequent use of polish is actually damaging to your paint and should be avoided. This is why the confusion between wax and polish can be quite damaging to those who are not aware of the differences.

Watch the differences between WAX and POLISH: 

Polish is a great way to reduce swirl and scratch marks but it should only be used for that purpose and understand when the polish is not suitable for use.

Wax, on the other hand, is a favorite of car cleaning enthusiasts. Wax-like polish can leave your car paint appearance shiny but this is not its primary purpose. Wax’s most important function is to protect your car. Many of the most commonly found car waxes are made from natural waxes in plants.

When applied to a car the wax acts as an extra layer on top of the car the protect the paint from dirt, scratches, and water. The wax can also fill in the gaps in the paint temporarily and therefore give the paint an appearance of looking shinier despite it still being scratched.

Another benefit of using wax is that it makes cleaning the car in the future easier as any dirt that does cling to the wax is easier to remove. Because of the numerous benefits that wax provides, it is used by practically all car cleaning enthusiasts at the end of a car clean.

So both products can make your car appear shiny but how they do this and their actual intended use are quite different. Wax should always be used on your car after cleaning whereas Polish is a highly situational product which should be used sparingly to renew the look of your paint when it has become damaged or worn out.

5) Using Dish Soap

Using dish soap instead of designed car shampoo is a common mistake made by amateurs. It can be daunting to pick out a suitable cleaning product from the huge range available and many often fall back on just using what’s available at home. Another part of the problem is that it is a common piece of advice to use soap to clean the car.

It is certainly true that soap can be an effective cleaner but it also creates far more problems. Soap and many other household cleaning products are simply too harsh to be used on cars. Dish Soap contains powerful degreasers which will certainly clean your car but will also remove any protective wax on your car paint.

On top of this, some household products may go further than removing your wax and also damage your paint. Whilst the damage may not be immediately noticeable the damage can easily build up over time and dull your paint and eventually cause oxidization by removing the protective layer from the paint.

It is simply not worth it. A specifically designed car wash will provide even greater cleaning power whilst being considerate of your car’s paint and wax. If you continue to use dish soap as a substitute the paint will tell the story and the value of your car will pay the price.

6) Cleaning in the Sun

In the previous section, I mentioned how cleaning in the rain has benefits and disadvantages. For this post I will talk about cleaning your car in the sun. There are two sides to this.

The first is that new car cleaners don’t realize that cleaning under the sun or when its particularly warm makes your job more difficult than needed.

The principle is quite simple. If you clean under the sun the surface of the car will be very warm. When this is the case the water and soap you are cleaning with ends up drying too quickly and will leave streaks and marks behind. This means that if you clean in the sun you’ll end up having to go back over parts you’ve already done if you want to get rid of these soapy streaks.

It is not however damaging or bad to clean in the sun as some have been led to believe. For some, it is a written rule that you should not wash your car in the sun but they don’t really understand why.

It is possible but is simply more difficult. Tips for cleaning in the sun if you can’t avoid it are to clean your car in sections. This will allow you to soap up a section of your car then rinse and dry it with water and a cloth before the soap and water can be evaporated by the warmth.

7) Cleaning What’s Visible

It’s tempting to make a quick job out of a chore. One of the ways to make the process of cleaning quicker is to skip unnecessary parts such as the areas which aren’t visible. After all, we clean our cars to make them look clean and if they can’t see the other dirty parts it’s not a problem.

Except that visibly looking clean is only a part of why we should clean our cars. For those care about their cars, car cleaning is actually one of the best ways to protect the car and keep everything working for longer as well as look good throughout its life.

This is why you should clean the car as wide as possible even in areas which no one will ever see. The most commonly skipped areas are tires and wheels. This is a common mistake which can be costly in the long run as built-up dirt and dust behind the wheel can speed up how quickly your car brakes deteriorate and end up costing you even more money in the long run.

Wheel brushes allow you to clean the inside parts of the wheel more easily and can save you a lot of time. Ridges, dips, nooks and crannies are places where dirt build up quickly and easily. This also includes the interior of the car. Hoovers and brushes are very efficient at cleaning out these difficult to reach places.

Be as thorough as possible and every little extra effort you put in will be rewarded greatly later. Savings tires, upholstery and brakes will more than makeup for a few extra minutes of cleaning and when it comes to selling the car later you will get far more because of how great the condition of your car is.

8) Regular Cleaning

Car cleaning, in general, should be done regularly. Unlike much of the advice out on the internet which recommends you wash your car monthly or even in some cases weekly my advice is that it varies. Depending on where you live and how often you drive will make your car gather dirt more quickly.

So you shouldn’t clean your car needlessly simply because you were told to do so. Once a month on average for someone who uses their car regularly should be what you use as your base to decide how often you need to clean your car.

To maintain the health of your car you should clean off tree sap, bird droppings and bug splats when left alone can eat through the protective layer on your paint and eventually damage the paint itself.

Get rid of these as soon as possible not only to save your paint but also because it’s much easier to get rid of them early on. It’s only a minute or two to get rid of these whereas if they’re left to dry they can require a lot more scrubbing.

It is understandable that not everyone can clean their car as often as is required but if looking after your car and protecting its resell value is of any importance you should ensure that dirt is not allowed to build up. If you don’t have the time to do it yourself consider getting a professional detailer to clean your car and save you the effort.

9) Keep your Equipment Clean

Clean equipment for a clean car. This simple principle is one of the most important philosophies you should use when cleaning your car. If your equipment is dirty then it will be less effective at cleaning your car. If it’s dirty enough then it may just make your car dirty or damage your paint. Your water, brushes, cloths and other equipment should constantly be cleaned as you clean your car.

After cleaning each section ensure that dirt has not built up in your cloth by giving it a rinse. If you don’t use a pressure washer or hose then I suggest you use the two bucket method. By using one bucket to clean dirty equipment and one bucket to keep clean you can help separate contaminants and reduce the risk of dirty water being used to clean your car.

Buffers are another piece of equipment where dirt easily builds up can scratch the surface of your car. Because of the pressure, they can apply the scratches can be quite deep so you should always keep your buffer clean especially before and after using it.

10) Take Care With Traffic Film Remover

Some amateurs often use Traffic Film Remover without understanding what it does. In some cases, some amateurs have never used Traffic Film Remover at all. Traffic Film Remover is a powerful cleaning solution which is designed to clean away tar, oil, and all sorts of contaminants which can be found on the road and other cars. Your car will naturally pick up traffic film as your drive and Traffic Film Remover is an effective way to deal with it.

The problem is a lot of people either don’t understand its purpose or has never heard of it. Traffic Film Remover does not always need to be used and is generally quite a powerful solution. If you have driven amongst a large amount of traffic or your car is particularly unclean then you should consider using Traffic Film Remover.


I hope you’ve found any of the tips here useful. Treat your car well and you will be rewarded down the line. For those who don’t have the time to give their car a personal wash then get a professional to do it rather than risk using an automatic car wash. But make sure that you go for a high quality and well reputable cleaner as there are just as many cheap and dangerous car cleaners as there are highly qualified professionals. Feel free to leave comments with your own tips.

David Hanley

I am a contractor. I love my job to the moon and back. I like to try new tools that can ease my work and satisfy my clients. I am not a blogger, am a DIY person who wants to help my fellow friends.