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Ultimate Guide to Tire Cleaning and Detailing

Considering how important tires are to the overall appearance and performance of a car, I’m always surprised how neglected they are, even by enthusiasts. Most people just spray on a thick coat of some no-name greasy silicone based “tire shine” and call it good.

Bad. Just bad.

Tires are somewhat of a sacrificial part of your car, truck, or motorcycle. They wear way over time from use and from the elements and even from sitting. Road tar, dirt, salt, brake dust, oils, UV, oxygen, and ozone all degrade your tires over time.

In fact, even if you haven’t worn your tires down it’s recommended to replace them every 5 years to prevent sudden failure from the deteriorated rubber.

Cheap tire dressings, usually silicone based, can actually speed up this break down of your tires due to their chemical makeup. They can also sling onto your paint and begin discoloring and breaking that down too.

The goal in cleaning and detailing tires should be to both improve their appearance (look new) but to also protect the tires so they safely last a long time.

Tire Browning & Blooming

Tires are manufactured with a chemical called Antiozonant that helps prevent degradation (splitting, cracking, oxidizing, etc..) from the tire’s contact with ozone (a gas that is part of our atmosphere).

Tires are designed to work the antiozonant throughout the rubber to the outside as the tires are rolled across the pavement providing a protective layer against the element.

Unfortunately, antiozonant quickly oxidizes to a brown color once in contact with the air. This is the brown film you see on the outside of your tires after prolonged use without cleaning. It’s often confused with just being a layer of brake dust on the tire.

The correct term for this discoloration is blooming. Look at other cars tires the next time you’re in a parking lot. You’ll see this affect on almost all of them.

Sitting Tires and Dry Rotting

Tires that sit (cars that don’t move much like your garage cream puff) cannot work the antiozonant to the surface and therefor don’t have much protection from the elements (unless you add some).

The tires will quickly break down and begin developing cracks along the side wall known as dry rotting. These cracks can and will lead to premature failure the tire. This is part of the 5-year recommendation to replace tires.

It’s important to treat tires that sit to prolong their life. We’ll get into that in a bit.

First let’s talk about how to clean tires and deal with the browning / blooming.

Tire Cleaners

Before you can apply a tire dressing you need to clean the tires. Cleaning helps remove the blooming, bringing back the black appearance of the tire, and provides a better surface for the dressing to cling to.

On well maintained tires you can simply use your regular car wash soap or an all-purpose cleaner (APC)  with a dedicated wash mitt or brush. On more neglected tires you’ll need to use a more specific cleaner meant to remove the blooming.

When looking for a tire cleaner (which you’ve no doubt noticed there are way too many) make sure you purchase one that is safe on your particular wheel finish just in case you get any on them.

Related: Beginner’s Guide to Wheel Cleaning

It’s also important to note that many commercial tire cleaners contain harsh chemicals and detergents that can actually speed up the breakdown of the outer layer of rubber and speed up the blooming. This is why it’s important to try the least aggressive means of cleaning your tires first and use commercial cleaners sparingly. If you have to resort to a tire cleaner, try a cleaner such as McKee’s 37 Tire and Rubber Rejuvenator first which isn’t harsh but still cleans blooming, tar, and brake dust really well.

It’s ok if there is a little of the browning remaining after cleaning. It’s nearly impossible to remove it all. The brown appearance will go away once you add a quality tire dressing.

How to Clean a Tire

The actual cleaning of a tire is very simple:

  1. Rinse the tire with your hose.
  2. Using regular automotive shampoo and water, scrub the tire in back and forth motions with a dedicated wash mit, sponge, or brush.
  3. Rinse the tire with your hose.
  4. If any grime remains you can pat the tire dry and spray with APC (all-purpose cleaner).
  5. Scrub back and forth with a sponge or brush.
  6. Rinse the tire with water again.
  7. If the tire is still in bad shape, you’ll have to repeat scrubbing with a dedicated tire cleaner.
  8. Rinse one last time.

Tire Dressings (aka Tire Shine)

Before applying a tire dressing make sure you’ve cleaned the tires. Tire dressings adhere better to clean rubber and will have a more even, black appearance. White walls and raised white lettering will look better as well.

Just like there are a ton of tire and wheel cleaners available, there are a ton of tire dressings (most being terrible).

There are two primary types of tire dressings: water-based and solvent-based. Water-based dressings are a combination of synthetic polymers and natural occurring oils carried in water that usually provide a non-greasy, matte black to satin finish on the tire. This is my personal preference in appearance. It’s that “new tire” look versus the greasy plastic look of cheap solvent cleaners.

Water-based dressings also absorb into and nourish the tires rather than just sitting on top and potentially slinging off onto your paint. Many even contain UV inhibitors adding a layer of UV protection to the tire which helps prevent fading, hardening, and cracking. Plus, water-based dressings are typically eco-friendly.

The only drawback to water-based dressings is their longevity. If your car is driven in the rain the dark, satin black appearance of the dressing will fad in a week or two. If your car is a garage queen that is only driven when it’s nice out you’ll get several weeks of protection and appearance.

Solvent-based dressings, on the other hand, last a much longer time. Solvent-based tire dressings typically use a hydrocarbon silicone to carry the polymers and oils. Unfortunately, this usually imparts a greasy, plastic-like appearance that I’m not fond of. They also have a tendency to sling off of the tires onto surrounding trim and paint.

The solvents in these dressing can also be harsh on the tires over time, especially in cheap no-name dressings, providing a superficial benefit and ultimately wasting your money.

My general recommendation in tire dressings is to start with a quality water-based dressing such as Meguiar’s Hyper Dressing or Optimum Opti-bond Gel. You’ll have to re-apply them more often if you drive in crappy weather but they won’t attract dust like silicone dressings, wont degrade your tires, and sling off onto your paint and surrounding trim.

Tire Coatings

Tire coatings like Mckee’s 37 Tire Coating are a new product to the detailing market. Different brands use different formula but they are all generally an acrylic or other polymer suspended in a solvent that evaporates and leaves a micro thin, flexible coating on the tire. It’s like a flexible clear-coat for your tires.

The claimed benefit of these coatings is the longevity, lasting up to a year with proper prep and application. Being that it’s a really niche product you’re not going to find a lot of love on the major shopping sites that cater more to the layman.

The downside is they require a perfectly clean tire to work well, which is hard to obtain if your tires have solvent-based silicone tire dressings on them in the past or are just really really neglected. You’ll spend quite a while on each tire scrubbing away the previous dressings, blooming, and other road grime.

At the moment I’m not sold on these coatings and can’t recommend them. I have yet to have a perfectly positive experience with them and can get similar, if not better, results using the more common dressings out there.

How to Apply Tire Shine (Tire Dressings)

Application of a tire dressing depends entirely on what brand and what type you use. For the best way to apply tire dressing consult the directions on the bottle. In general, I prefer to:

  1. Apply the dressing to a dedicated microfiber towel or sponge.
  2. Use the towel or sponge to wipe the dressing on the tire in a zig zaging motion up and down motion from the wheel to the outside of the tire around the whole tire. This helps with full coverage from tread to wheel.
  3. Even out the dressing by wiping around the tire in a circular motion around the wheel. This smoothes out the appearance of the dressing.
  4. Wait for the dressing to absorb or dry for a few minutes and then follow up with another dedicated microfiber towel around the tire to remove any residue and again smooth out the appearance.

How to Apply a Tire Coating

Tire coatings are very manufacturer specific. I can’t really give any general advice on the application of a coating other than to make sure your tires are extremely clean before putting the coating on. If your tire still repels water after washing and before coating then it’s not clean enough and you need to hit it again with your APC or tire cleaner and more elbow grease.

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