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Jeffrey N. Ross | Jan 21, 2021


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Keeping your car properly maintained is important to keeping it on the road, but knowing how to wash your car the right way is how you keep it looking good for years. As much that has changed in the automotive detailing world (such as ceramic coating and vinyl wraps), the basics to proper car washing are still the same, so we had a chance to talk to Mike Pennington, Director Global Training, Event Marketing and Consumer Relations at Meguiar's, who broke down the five steps to clean your car like a pro.

No matter what product you choose, Pennington's biggest piece of advice is to always read and properly follow the directions when you're cleaning the paint, tires, wheels or interior. Secondly, he says to figure out how much time and/or money you're willing to invest and be realistic about your car washing expectations, and in both regards, keep in mind that there are no miracle products.

Whether you're trying to keep your brand new car looking showroom fresh or clean up your classic for a car show, here are five steps to get the most of your car-washing time and give your paint maximum protection. 


The most basic way to clean your car, of course, is by washing and drying it. This important process helps remove loose contaminants from the paint reducing the amount of damage that can be done. The more often you wash, and dry, your vehicle (including waterless car wash and quick detailer spray), the less work you really have to do to keep your car looking good. As Pennington put it:"the longer stuff sits on your vehicle, it will eventually bond to the paint causing more work in the long run."


When it comes to washing the pain, a two-bucket system offers the best protection for your paint. Fill one bucket with soap and water and the other with plain water. Before you dip your wash mitt back in soap, rinse it off in the bucket of plain water to remove dirt or any other contaminants from your wash water as these could lead to scratches. After washing, be sure to dry your car to eliminate water spots, and do so with something that is gentle on the paint such as a microfiber towel.

Prepping The Surface

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Washing your paint is just the first step in cleaning your car like a pro. Next, you need to prep the finish for polishing and waxing, and this is done with clay and compound, as needed. To determine if you need to do these steps, Pennington says to look at and feel the paint. Above-surface contaminants will make your paint feel rough (event after a wash), while below-surface defects such as light scratches and oxidation affect how your paint looks.

If your paint feels rough or gritty, use a clay bar or even synthetic clay to remove above-surface contaminants to give the finish a nice, smooth feel. Compounds are used to remove the below-surface defects, and depending on the product you choose, today's compounds can be applied by hand or by using a power polisher.


The clay and compound preps the paint surface for polishing and waxing, but Pennington says that it's the polishing that brings out the richness of your car's finish. After you've removed the above-surface contaminants and below-surface defects, you can then move on to refining the finish with a good application of polish.

The best way to think of a polish like a moisturizer for your skin, and it enhances the shine and provides a glossy, wet look. Polishing is perhaps the one area where a power applicator far outperforms applying by hand as this step is what really gives the car its depth and "wow" factor.


Polishing gives your paint a rich look, and wax helps protect that finish: just think of wax like a sunscreen for your car's paint. Waxing is one of the areas where Pennington points out that following directions is crucial. Some waxes can be applied in direct sun while others require shade, some waxes will dry clear and others dry to a haze and some waxes dry white on trim and others don't discolor trim.

To prevent damage and/or disappointment, you should closely follow the instructions for application as required by that particular product.


Finally, there's maintaining the shine and paint protection you spent so much time and money to create. In between car washes, products such as quick detailers help to quickly remove bug guts, tree sap, or bird droppings before they have a chance to harm your paint. If left on the paint for too long, these could discolor your finish, or even erode your clear coat.

The bottom line is that you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on a professional detailing. Pennington says that the best way to get the most from your car washing time and money is to 1) evaluate your car's finish, 2) choose the right product to take you wherever you want to go with your finish, and, most importantly, 3) follow the directions as each car-care company has its own steps for applying the products.

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