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How to Wash Your Car Without Destroying Your Paint

I think you’ll agree with me when I say:

The best way to learn is to start with the basics!

Because I really really want you to learn how to take care of your awesome car, we are going to start with the absolute basics of not destroying your car’s paint while washing it.

How exactly is that accomplished? I’m glad you asked!

The main concept you need to understand is that touching your paint with anything even remotely abrasive (rough, not smooth, not soft, etc…) damages it. Touching your paint with anything non-abrasive (soft, smooth) while there is dirt and grime on it damages it.

The proper way to clean a car is to use the least abrasive means of cleaning it and not spreading around the dirt that is already on it.

Absolute Least Supplies Needed

Two buckets, towels, a hose, and shampoo for washing a car.
  • A pressurized water source (spigot, faucet, etc..)
  • A decent water hose with a nozzle
  • Automotive shampoo (DO NOT USE DISH DETERGENT)
  • Two buckets (any cheap 3-5 gallon bucket from the hardware store will do)
  • Two GritGuards (find out what they are and why they are important here)
  • Two wash rags, mitts, or sponges made of microfiber (I like to have a couple backup mitts just in case I drop one on the ground)
  • A towel for drying, preferably chamois or waffle wave microfiber

Why the two buckets and two mitts?

The two buckets are to have one for clean, soapy water and the other for rinsing off your mitt after you’ve filled it with dirt from your car.

This cuts down on abrading (scratching) your cars paint by leaving the dirt in the dirty bucket instead of refilling your mitt with sediments when you are refilling it with soapy water. This is referred to as the “Two Bucket Method.”

The two mitts are so you can use one to clean your wheels and tires and the other to clean the rest of your car.

Why? Because brake dust is nasty stuff.

You also want to make sure your drying towels are designed for car use. Bath towels and terry wash cloths can be abrasive and may scratch your paint.

Getting Started

I suggest parking your car, truck, or motorcycle in the shade. You can also wash your car early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the sun isn’t beaming directly down.

This prevents the sun from drying out the soapy water on your car before you can rinse it off. Soap spots are a royal pain to remove. They also look terrible.

Place your grit guards in your buckets. Attach the nozzle to your hose and the hose to your faucet or spigot. Fill your buckets with water.

Add the recommended amount of shampoo that is listed on the bottle to one of the buckets.

Why did we add the water first?

You add the shampoo after the water so you aren’t overflowing the bucket with suds while trying to fill it up.

Stir the water with your wash mitt to distribute the shampoo and build suds.

If you prefer more sudsy water, you can fill the wash bucket with warm water from inside your house instead of using the hose. Cold water doesn’t hold suds as well.

Contrary to popular belief, suds are not necessary for soapy water to clean.

Wheels First

Soapy chrome wheel.

Why wheels first?

There are two schools of thought here. One is that it prevents water spotting from the rest of the car drying while you’re washing the wheels. The other is you don’t want to clean the rest of the car and then splash the grime and brake dust from your wheels and tires all over it.

Warning: Make sure your wheels and brakes are cool before washing them. It’s never a good idea to spray cool water on hot metal. You also don’t want your wash water drying before you can rinse it.

Start by using the hose to spray down your wheels, tires, and wheel wells (area under car that wraps around the tire, sometimes filled with a plastic panel). Your wheels and tires are going to be the nastiest things on your car.

Bust out one of your wash mitts and dunk it into the clean water bucket (bucket with shampoo in it).

One at a time, wipe down your wheels, then tires, and then your wheel wells to best of your ability. If your wheels have an intricate pattern and are hard to clean with the mitt you may benefit from a set of wheel woolies.

Any time your mitt looks exceptionally dirty, dunk it into the dirty water bucket (bucket with plain water in it) and shake it around to remove the dirt, grime, and sediments. Dunk your mitt back in the clean water for a shampoo recharge and continue cleaning until all your wheels and tires are clean.

If you’re having a hard time wiping the dirt off of your wheels you may need to turn to a good wheel cleaner. Wheel cleaners can be a complex subject so for now just use a good acid free and ph balanced cleaner such as Sonax.

Rinse everything off with the hose.

When finished with the wheels and tires change out the water in the buckets before washing the rest of the car. You never want to use your wheel water on your paint.

Toss the mitt used on the wheels into the “to be laundered pile” so you don’t use it on the rest of the car.

Top Down

Blue chenille microfiber wash mit

Next, use your hose to spray down the rest of the car, starting from the top down and front to back.

The order I prefer is to spray the roof and windows, then the hood and trunk, then the front bumper, doors, and back bumper. This is because the worst dirt tends to build up on the lower, rearward panels.

Grab your second clean wash mitt and load it up with shampoo water from the clean bucket.

Start wiping your car down from the top down. I say wiping and not scrubbing because you want to minimize scratching the paint. Save the scrubbing for pots and pans.

If you have to scrub a spot to remove it then spray it with a bug and tar remover to soften it so you don’t have to scrub. I reviewed a great one here.

Anyway, let’s continue.

I prefer to wipe in single passes from right to left. If you go back and forth you end up grinding the dirt you just removed back into the paint.

I personally wash the windows first, rinse out the mitt in the dirty bucket, and then proceed to wash the painted roof, hood, and trunk.

Spray off the soap with the hose to prevent it from drying as you move on to other panels.

Next, with your clean soapy mitt, wipe down the side panels of your car from front to back. Rinse with hose.

Proceed to wiping down your front and rear bumpers.

I live in a very buggy area so I personally save my front bumper for last because it’s usually a murder scene of insects and I don’t want to spread that dirt around my other panels.

Rinse the car down with the hose and admire the cleanliness before you.

Unfortunately, you’re not quite finished. We have to dry the car still.

Why? Because of water spots. Water spots never look good.


If your car is waxed and water still beads up on it, start by removing the nozzle from your hose and flooding your cars panels with water.

Again, do this from the top down.

You’ll notice the water will sheet and will actually pull most of itself off the panels as it runs off, leaving you with less little droplets to dry up.

Water sheeting on silver car before applying sealant
Water Sheeting
Water sheeting on silver car after applying sealant
After Water Sheeting

Grab your towel. My preference is a waffle weave microfiber towel. Start drying your car using back and forth strokes.

Don’t dry in circles. Should you accidentally scratch the car, lines are easier to remove than circles.

I find it easiest to dry the vertical panels first, such as the windows, fenders, and doors because they have the least water left on them. I then proceed to wipe up the water on the horizontal panels such as the hood and roof.

If you want to learn some other methods of safely drying a car, check out my article “Guide to Properly Drying Your Car.

Once the paint is wiped down proceed to wiping down all of your door jambs, wheels, and  engine bay with multi-purpose detailing towels. You don’t want to use your premium drying towels in these areas because you risk soiling them.

Congratulations, your car is clean, you didn’t have to use any fancy and expensive equipment, and you didn’t install any unnecessary scratches, therefor prolonging the life of your paint!

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