Here at iFixit, we’re all about longevity. We think keeping devices around for longer is both economical and good for the environment. This also goes for your car, and not just the moving parts—the shiny exterior also needs care and maintenance. A well-maintained clear coat protects the paint and prevents the underlying metal from rusting, creating bigger problems down the road.
You can accomplish a long-lasting look with a basic hand wash every now and then, but you’ll need the right supplies to get the job done.
Why Not Just Go to the Automatic Car Wash?
It’s incredibly tempting to stop by the local car wash and get your vehicle cleaned up in less than a minute, but there are a couple of downsides to the automatic washes.
The large brushes in an automatic car wash are often abrasive, and they store all the dirt and grime they collected from the cars in front of you and transfer some of it to your car. Sure, it gets rinsed off at the end of your wash, but it already did damage to your car’s paint, thanks to those brushes swirling it all around the surface of your car’s exterior.
This results in fine scratches to the paint surface, which aren’t noticeable at first. But every time you take it through the wash thereafter, those fine scratches will get progressively worse and cause noticeable damage to the clear coat and the paint.
Furthermore, many automatic car washes aren’t powerful enough to wash away dried up bugs sitting on your front bumper, especially brushless car washes. Left there for any significant amount of time, the acidity of the bug guts can slowly damage the clear coat and eat away at the paint and the metal beneath.
Here’s What You Need to Hand Wash Your Car
If I scared you away from the convenience of an automatic car wash, good! I hope you’re excited about hand-washing your car, which requires a few things.
Two Buckets: As with many hand-washers, I’m a true believer in the two-bucket system—one bucket to suds up your wash mitt (more on that next) and another to rinse it out periodically.
This system cuts down the amount of dirt and grime that gets into your suds bucket. If you just had one bucket for rinsing and sudsing, it’s too easy for the dirt you just rinsed off your wash mitt to make its way right back onto it.
You can buy a couple of cheap five-gallon buckets at the hardware store, but I personally prefer the smaller two-gallon buckets. They’re usually the same price as the larger buckets, but I like the portability of the smaller ones, and you really don’t need five gallons worth of water in your buckets to begin with.
Wash Mitt: A good-quality wash mitt goes a long way to getting your car shiny and clean. Plus, they’re convenient and easy to use, since you just wear them like a glove.
I’m a big fan of The Rag Company, and they make a really good, affordable wash mitt with a super-thick nap that catches and traps all kinds of dirt and grime. The two-pack is a great purchase, as you can use one for the top half of your car, and then switch to a new, clean one to wash the bottom half of your car.
Microfiber Towels: You’ll want a couple of microfiber towels to dry your car so you don’t leave water spots (which can leave behind calcium and mineral deposits that can harm the paint long-term). This is where waffle-weave towels are great, since there’s more surface area for water absorption. This two-pack of large 20”x40” waffle-weave microfiber towels should be enough to dry a whole car, compact or mega-SUV.
You’ll also want a handful of smaller, general-purpose microfiber towels for buffing, touch-ups, and smaller cleaning jobs around your car. This 10-pack of 16”x16” towels is simple and affordable, and should be enough to get you through an entire wash session.
And be sure to take care of your microfiber towels—they’re really easy to ruin in the wash.
Car Soap: As long as you use soap specifically for cars, you don’t need to be too picky. Meguiar’s Gold Class is a great choice, and a one-gallon jug will last you several years—seriously, you only need to use a very small amount of soap, usually just one ounce for every gallon of water.
Car Wax: This adds a protective layer on top of the paint to protect it against UV rays, bugs, dirt, and more. Better yet, you only need to apply it once every couple of months (but only do it right after a wash).
Car wax comes in different forms, including liquid and paste. Collinite is a favorite in the auto detailing world, and they make both a paste and liquid wax. Use your general-purpose microfiber towels, or get special applicator pads for an easier time, to lightly apply a thin coat to the paint surface. It’ll look hazy, but give it about five minutes and wipe it off with a clean microfiber towel. It’ll immediately get the shine back and the paint will be protected.
Quick Detailing Spray: Did a bird just poop on your car? It’s probably not worth busting out your entire car-washing kit just to clean it off. This is where a cleaning spray comes in handy.
Meguiar’s Quik Detailer spray is a good choice, and paired with a microfiber towel, it’s great for quickly cleaning off the occasional bird poop or bug splatter between car washes.
Bug and Tar Remover: While you likely won’t need to use it every time you wash your car, you’ll eventually need something more potent than regular car soap to remove stubborn contaminants, like bugs, road tar, and tree sap. Tarminator is a great choice, and it makes quick work in these kinds of situations where a regular wash doesn’t cut it.
There are a lot more products you can add to your car-washing kit, like glass cleaner, clay bar, wheel and tire cleaner, and specialized brushes, but the above list of basic items, a two-bucket system, and some calendar reminders will go a long way to keeping your car looking spotless and clean for years to come.