It may seem counterintuitive, but frequently washing and waxing your vehicle is the best way to maintain its exterior paint finish for years to come, regardless of the constant wiping and rubbing it entails — but only as long as you're using the right products in the correct order. All major brands of car washes, car waxes and related detailing products are specially formulated to work gently on the clear-coat paint finishes found on every car built since the mid-1990s. They're ideal for removing dirt above and below the surface, eliminating swirls and other imperfections and leaving a high-gloss shine.
Such obsessive-compulsive labor need not be arduous, however. While there are multiple procedures involved in washing and waxing a car to perfection, it's not necessary to do them all at once. Some steps should be taken weekly. Others can be employed every few months or annually. If you want to watch some pros using the techniques described in this story, check out the instructional videos from car-care product companies Meguiar's and Mothers.
At all times, there are some simple car wash rules to keep in mind:
- No matter which stage you're at in the car wash and wax process, it's always best to have the car parked in a cool, shady place.
If the water you're using to wash the car is hard — meaning that it contains a lot of minerals — it will leave spots on the paint's finish when it evaporates. That happens more quickly in hot sunlight. And although many modern, synthetic polymer-based car waxes are sun-friendly since they won't dry too quickly and become difficult to remove, you'll expend less effort if you use them on a cool surface. For best results, the car's surface should be no more than warm to the touch.
- Be sure to have a good stock of microfiber towels on hand for washing and drying the car, and for applying and removing car wax and related car-care products.
A microfiber towel is gentler to a car's finish than a cotton towel or chamois, which could mar the finish, creating slight scratches or ruts that accumulate over time. Microfiber towels require special care, however. Wash them separately from all other laundry and especially not with linty cotton towels. Use hot water and don't use fabric softener. Run them through at least one additional rinse cycle in the washing machine. Then dry them on a low-heat setting. Finally, stop using them on painted or glass surfaces when they begin to show their age by, for example, shedding lint. Instead, use them for polishing wheels and, later, for polishing stainless steel exhaust pipe tips.
- Keep the car's paint in showroom condition through a four-step process: washing, cleaning, polishing and waxing.
It's important to use the correct products at the correct stages. This will prevent unnecessary damage to your car's finish.
The most critical of the four steps is washing, which removes the loose contaminants that gradually accumulate on the surface of the finish, creating a gritty residue that could cause scratches in later steps if it's not removed properly first. This requires a genuine car wash product (such as Meguiar's Gold Class Car Wash, Mothers California Gold Carnauba Wash and Wax or Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Car Wash). These products are pH-balanced and formulated to loosen and lift surface contaminants without stripping away waxes.
You should avoid normal dish soap, laundry soap and household cleaners. They are designed to remove and dissolve grease and oil, and they will strip away the waxes and in some instances could damage the car's finish.
Wash the car thoroughly, working from the top down and utilizing a lamb's wool or microfiber washing mitt. Professional car detailers prefer these because the nap of the lamb's wool or microfiber draws the dirt particles away from the paint. Re-dip the mitt in the bucket after each panel of the car is washed. That cleans the mitt and ensures that you're again working with fresh suds.
For soft convertible tops, dip a soft bristle brush in the suds and work the dirt out of the grain using small, circular strokes. If the top is heavily soiled or stained, use a product designed for convertible tops, such as Meguiar's Convertible Top Cleaner. These products are pH-balanced to safely lift dirt from cloth and vinyl tops without damaging the stitching.
Dry the car thoroughly with a soft, absorbent waffle-weave microfiber drying towel. Do not store the top in the down position if it is still wet, says the Haartz Corporation, a leading manufacturer of convertible tops. Make sure the top is completely dry before storing.
Experts recommend washing a car this way weekly.
For casual touch-ups between washes, you can use a spray-on product called a detailer (such as Meguiar's Ultimate Quik Detailer, Mothers California Gold Showtime Instant Detailer and Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Spray Detailer). Detailer products slough off light surface dirt, but don't offer any protection.
Cleaning the Gunk
Next, inspect the paint, searching for above-the-surface bonded contaminants such as a thin film of tree sap, bird droppings or pollen and below-the-surface defects such as swirls, oxidation caused by the sun's ultraviolet radiation or etching from acid rain.
Lightly sweep your flat hand along the paint. If it does not feel as smooth as glass, you have above-the-surface contaminants. A clay bar designed for car care (such as the one included in Meguiar's Smooth Surface Clay Kit or in Mothers California Gold Clay Bar Kit) is mildly abrasive to shear off and remove these contaminants. It should be the first product you use to try to remove them. Rub it over the affected area, kneading and turning it to expose a clean area when necessary.
For below-the-surface defects, you can use a cleaner with mild abrasives (such as Meguiar's Ultimate Compound or Mothers California Gold Pure Polish). Use a microfiber-covered or foam applicator pad to apply it, using small circular, overlapping strokes. Never use hard pressure.
Cleaning a section of the vehicle at a time, remove the cleaner with a microfiber towel that you've folded into fourths. Use one side to break up and wipe away the hazy product, then flip the towel over to a clean side to remove any additional residue. Your paint should now feel smooth and should be free of swirls and defects.
If upon the initial inspection you do not find any defects — either above or below the surface — you can skip the cleaning step altogether and go straight to polishing and waxing. However, experts say that use of a clay bar probably will be necessary every six months.
Polishes and glazes add luster but do not protect the finish, so using them is entirely optional, especially since clear-coat finishes are highly resistant to oxidation. Even years-old cars generally retain their shine today.
Nevertheless, products such as Meguiar's Ultimate Polish and Mothers California Gold Micro-Polishing Glaze can restore the natural oils your paint once had, making the car's surface more reflective and shiny. Using a polish or glaze once a year may be helpful. Although light-colored paints such as white, silver and tan may not display much change, darker colors such as black, burgundy and navy blue will reflect light like a mirror after proper polishing.
As you did during the cleaning process, apply the polish or glaze by hand, using small circular, overlapping strokes with a microfiber-covered or foam applicator pad on one section of the car at a time, removing the polish with a microfiber towel after the product becomes hazy. Don't allow the polish to dry completely. Trying to remove dry polish will almost certainly result in scratches to the finish.
For protection, you need to apply a car wax, and experts recommend that this be done at least every three months. However, there are varieties of wax that can be used much more frequently. If you're really obsessive, some can be used as often as every few days.
The newest synthetic polymer-based waxes (such as Meguiar's Ultimate Wax, Mothers California Gold Synthetic Wax and Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Liquid Wax) generally provide longer-lasting protection and are easier to use in the sun than older-style carnauba-based waxes (such as Meguiar's Gold Class Carnauba Plus Wax and Mothers California Gold Pure Brazilian Carnauba Wax).
Normally, the newer liquid or paste waxes provide the longest-lasting protection — usually three or four months if the car is kept in a garage and not exposed to a harsh environment.
When applying a liquid or paste wax, you'll use the same technique: small, circular, overlapping strokes, using a microfiber-covered or foam applicator pad and working one section of the vehicle at a time. As in the other steps, remove the wax with a microfiber towel that you've folded into fourths, using one side to break the waxy surface, then flipping the towel over to a clean side to remove any additional residue.
Spray waxes (such as Meguiar's Ultimate Quik Wax, Mothers California Gold Spray Wax and Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Spray Wax) are designed for quick application but generally don't offer the same long-lasting protection as the liquids or pastes. Experts say that spray waxes should be used as a booster between the quarterly applications of the liquid or paste waxes. Some car-care experts recommend using these spray waxes as often as twice per week. Some say once a month is sufficient.
A Special Caution on Matte Finishes
Except for washing with a car wash product, nothing should be done to or applied to a car covered in a matte paint with a flat finish, such as Mercedes-Benz's "designo Magno" series. These matte paints also can be cleaned in a brushless automated car wash as long as the machine does not apply any shine agents. And as with a car that sports a glossy finish, it is important to clean bird droppings, tree sap and other surface contaminants from a matte paint finish immediately.
Your Car Wax Mileage May Vary
Despite their suggestions for how often owners should clean and wax, product manufacturers won't make any firm promises for how long any of their products will actually protect a vehicle.
"How long a wax lasts on Car A is not necessarily true how long it lasts on Car B," says Michael Deddo, senior research chemist at Turtle Wax in Willowbrook, Illinois. "Every car is like its own paint canvas. Every one is different."