The ultimate guide to car cleaning

Car cleaning can be a really satisfying way to spend a couple of hours. Put in the work and you’ll be rewarded with a car that not only looks great inside and out, but is protected for the future too.

In this article, we’ve laid out our step-by-step detailing process for how to clean your car like a pro and achieve a showroom-worthy result.

If you’re looking for a more streamlined car cleaning process, then check out our article on How to clean your car in 3 easy steps.

Step 1: Prepare

The first step in the car cleaning process is to loosen any stuck-on bugs and road tar, and loosen and lubricate road grime, prior to shampooing. This pre-wash stage reduces the risk of a sponge or wash mitt moving over heavy contaminates and causing scratches or swirl marks during the washing stage.

Snow foam is the perfect product to use during the pre-wash stage, as it will cover your vehicle in a rich blanket of foam that clings to your paintwork and gently loosens dirt. The foam can also be added to a pressure washer or foam gun for easy application.

The process:

  1. Check that your bodywork and wheels are cool to the touch and out of direct sunlight.
  2. Rinse your car thoroughly from top to bottom with water to remove any heavy or loose dirt.
  3. Apply your bug and tar remover to affected areas, which will normally be the front bumper and leading edge of the bonnet. The trailing edge of wheel arches and front doors can also be areas where tar accumulates.
  4. Allow the bug and tar remover to re-hydrate and loosen stubborn deposits according to the instructions on the product, then rinse it off.
  5. Mix your chosen snow foam as instructed on the bottle and adjust your pressure washer or foam gun settings as required to increase or reduce the level of foam.
  6. Spray an even layer of foam onto the vehicle. Start from the top and ensure that all exterior surfaces are covered, including glass and wheels.
  7. Leave the snow foam on your vehicle to loosen the dirt for the length of time that’s listed in the instructions on the bottle. Don’t allow it to dry on.
  8. Rinse your vehicle thoroughly, from top to bottom.

The product checklist:

Type We recommend Why we love it
Bug and tar remover Auto Finesse Citrus Power Remove bugs and grime easily with the Auto Finesse Citrus Power Spray. The gentle but effective formula can be used for both maintenance washes and more thorough cleans.
Snow foam Autoglym Polar Blast Snow Foam Ideal for use in a pressure washer or snow foamer, this snow foam produces a dense foam blanket that helps loosen dirt from your paintwork.
Pressure washer Karcher K2 Full Control Car Pressure Washer The Karcher K2 Full Control Car Pressure Washer comes with a trigger gun, a Full Control Vario lance, a Dirt Blaster spray lance and a dedicated car cleaning kit.
Shop car cleaning

Step 2: Wash (body)

With the pre-wash done, it’s time to move on to step 2: washing the main body of your car. Keeping your car’s bodywork clean will not only keep it looking its best, but will also go some way to removing the films and particles that can eat away at your paintwork.

The process:

  1. Prepare two buckets, the first with water and your car shampoo or car wash of choice, and the second with just water.
  2. Use the first bucket and a microfibre wash mitt to apply the shampoo to your car, starting from the roof and working down.
  3. Rinse the car as required to remove the dirt before the shampoo dries (rinse more frequently on warm days).
  4. Use the second bucket periodically to rinse your wash mitt. This will remove the dirt and grime that it’s picked up from your car, and help to prevent scratches on your paintwork.
  5. Once your car is clean, rinse it once again with water to remove any excess shampoo.
  6. Use a microfibre drying towel to dry your vehicle.

The product checklist:

Type We recommend Why we love it
Bucket Meguiar’s 5 Gallon Yellow Bucket Heavy duty and with a capacity of 22 litres / 5 US gallons, this bucket is the perfect car cleaning accessory.
Car shampoo Meguiar’s Ultimate Wash & Wax Not only is the Meguiar’s Ultimate Wash & Wax a luxurious car shampoo, but it’ll leave your car with enhanced protection, gloss and shine.
Microfibre wash mitt Halfords Wash Mitt The Halfords Wash Mitt is highly absorbent, is easy to use and provides a secure fit. The microfibre loops make short work of lifting dirt and grime.
Microfibre drying towel Meguiar’s Water Magnet Microfiber Drying Towel This extra-large microfibre drying cloth from Meguiar’s absorbs up to twice as much water as traditional towels and gives fast, spot-free results.
Shop car cleaning

Step 3: Wash (wheels)

Our third step concerns washing your wheels using a wheel cleaner. Wheel cleaners contain a powerful blend of cleaning agents and degreasers that separate brake dust and road dirt from your wheels on contact. It can also be a good idea to apply a tyre dressing to really make your tyres shine, lifting the appearance of your whole car.

The process:

  1. If your chosen wheel cleaner requires wet wheels, then rinse your tyres thoroughly with water.
  2. Spray your wheel cleaner along the entire tyre, allowing it to work for the time stated in the instructions on the bottle.
  3. If required, use a wheel brush to agitate the cleaner and remove any stubborn brake dust deposits.
  4. Rinse the cleaner off the wheels and use a microfibre cloth to dry them.
  5. Use a tyre dressing (follow the instructions on the product) to give your tyres an instant deep black shine that restores them to their showroom appearance. We'd recommend using a tyre dressing applicator to make this job much easier and less messy.
  6. Finally, use a wheel protector to minimise brake dust adhesion so that your wheels remain cleaner for longer.

The product checklist:

Type We recommend Why we love it
Wheel cleaner (600ml) Wonder Wheels Colour Active Super Wheel Cleaner This acid-free cleaner is suitable for use on all wheel types. It also contains an active indictor that turns your wheels red as it reacts with and dissolves the dirt and brake dust.
Alloy wheel brush Halfords Barrel Wheel Brush The Halfords Barrel Wheel Brush has hard-working bristles that’ll make short work of removing deep-seated grit from your wheels.
Tyre dressing Halfords Wet Look Tyre Dressing Restore the deep, wet-look shine of your tyres with the Halfords Wet Look Tyre Dressing. The formula’s fast-drying and adds a protective layer.
Tyre dressing applicator pad Meguiar’s Tyre Dressing Applicator Pad The Meguiar’s Tyre Dressing Applicator Pad makes short work of applying a tyre dressing and helps to keep your hands mess-free.
Wheel protector Autoglym Wheel Protector The Autoglym Wheel Protector helps to keep your wheels gleaming for longer by applying a hydrophobic, durable barrier. It’s ideal for use on white, silver and other light-coloured alloy wheels.
Shop car cleaning

Step 4: Polish

The misconception about car polish is that this is the step that will make your car shine. However, what polishing actually does is essentially exfoliates your paintwork and removes a minute layer (i.e. any dirt, scratches and other minor imperfections). This then sets up your car for waxing during the protect stage.

The process:

  1. Make sure you’re not working in direct sunlight and that your bodywork isn’t warm. This can make it harder to buff off the polish later.
  2. Apply a small amount of polish to a microfibre cloth or foam polisher pad and start working it into your paintwork. Some people like to use circular motions while others like to go up and down. Either way works, so it’s up to you.
  3. Apply more polish to the cloth or pad as you go. You’ll see when you need to apply more because there will be less left behind on your paintwork.
  4. Follow the contours of your car’s bodywork evenly. To get an even spread it can help to work one panel at a time. Also try to avoid getting too much polish on rubber trims as it can leave behind a chalky residue.
  5. Use a clean microfibre cloth to buff off the polish and wipe away any remaining residue, leaving your car ready for waxing.

The product checklist:

Type We recommend Why we love it
Car polish (500ml) Auto Finesse Ultra Glaze Make metallics pop, dark colours deeper and reds fierier with the Auto Finesse Ultra Glaze. It’ll also help to reduce the appearance of fine swirls.
Car polish (1L) Autoglym Super Resin Polish The Autoglym Super Resin Polish is suitable for all paint types and colours, will remove light scratches and marks, and will give your car a deep, glossy finish.
Foam pad Halfords Car Polish Applicator Pads (Pack of 2) These applicator pads make short work of applying car polishes or waxes to your vehicle.
Microfibre towel Meguiar’s Supreme Finishing Towel This super-soft microfibre towel makes it easy to remove polishes, waxes, spray detailers and spray waxes from your car.
Shop car cleaning

Step 5: Protect

Applying car wax adds a layer of sealant on top of the paintwork that fills any remaining minor swirls and enhances the gloss. Waxing will also keep your car looking glossy for longer and will make it easier to wash the next time around, as dirt finds it much harder to stick to waxed paintwork.

The process:

  1. Make sure you’re not working in direct sunlight and that your bodywork isn’t warm. This can make it harder to buff off the wax later.
  2. If you’ve chosen a paste or liquid wax, apply it to an applicator pad or microfibre cloth and work it into your paintwork. Use circular motions to ensure an even coverage.
  3. Once you’ve waxed the entire vehicle, buff the wax off with a clean pad or cloth starting from the first panel you covered and working your way round to the last.
  4. If you’ve chosen a hybrid spray-on wax instead, simply spray the wax onto your car’s paintwork and wipe it off.

The product checklist:

Type We recommend Why we love it
Spray wax Turtle Wax Hybrid Solutions Pro Graphene Flex Wax This versatile car wax from Turtle Wax delivers depth of colour, gloss, slickness and protection against chemicals, UV rays, water and stains.
Paste wax Autoglym Ultra High Definition Wax Kit Give your car a mirror-like shine, more depth, more detail and greater durability with the Autoglym Ultra High Definition Wax Kit.
Foam pad Halfords Car Polish Applicator Pads (Pack of 2) These applicator pads make short work of applying car polishes or waxes to your vehicle.
Microfibre towel Meguiar’s Supreme Finishing Towel This super-soft microfibre towel makes it easy to remove polishes, waxes, spray detailers and spray waxes from your car.
Shop car cleaning

Step 6: Vacuum

With the outside clean and protected, it’s time to turn our attention to the interior. A good vacuuming will help to remove any loose dirt, stones, dust, leaves and more that have built up in your car during use.

The process:

  1. Remove any car mats you might have.
  2. Carefully vacuum the surfaces inside your car, including the footwells, seats and boot.
  3. Make use of any special brushes or nozzles that your chosen vacuum has to reach narrow areas (such as between the seats) or to clean more sensitive surfaces (such as the dashboard).
  4. Finish up by vacuuming the car mats and returning them to your car.

The product checklist:

Type We recommend Why we love it
Car vacuum Karcher WD 3 Car Vac With its high suction power, low power consumption and variety of special brushes and nozzles, the Karcher WD 3 Car Vac is ideal for thoroughly cleaning vehicle interiors.
Shop car cleaning

Step 7: Finish

The final step in our ultimate guide to car cleaning is finishing the interior. There are a range of products you can use here to make your upholstery, surfaces, dashboard and glass shine.

The process:

  1. Clean and disinfect the high-touch areas in your car such as the steering wheel, door handles and belt buckles to help keep your car germ-free.
  2. Use an interior car shampoo to remove any marks, spills and stains from all your interior surfaces.
  3. If you’ve got leather in your car, use a leather detailer to clean, condition and protect the material.
  4. Use your chosen interior detailer to clean all of your hard surfaces and leave them with a clean satin shine.
  5. Finally, use a glass cleaner to remove any dirt, dust, grease and more from your windows, windscreen and glass surfaces.

The product checklist:

Type We recommend Why we love it
Cleaner and disinfectant (500ml) Auto Finesse Wipe Out Auto Finesse Wipe Out cleans and sanitises the interior of your vehicle, killing bacteria and leaving nothing but a fresh scent behind.
Car interior shampoo Autoglym Car Interior Shampoo A multipurpose cleaner for your car, the Autoglym Car Interior Shampoo can be used on seats, interior plastics, carpets, mats, gear sticks, doors and more.
Leather detailer Meguiar’s Ultimate Leather Balm This premium leather balm from Meguiar’s cleans, conditions and protects to leave behind leather that looks great and is soft to the touch.
Glass cleaner Autoglym Car Glass Polish The Autoglym Car Glass Polish is a deep-cleaning glass polish that can be used inside and out for crystal clear, smear-free vision.
Shop car cleaning