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A guide to cleaning your car’s exterior

Cleaning Your Car's Exterior (1)

Let’s be honest, cleaning your car isn’t what most of us look up to. Either we’re too busy, lazy or just outright exhausted, so it’s best to have the whole thing sorted by a professional detailer. One downside to this is the fat bill at the end and the fact that most UK households have more than one car parked in the driveway. The out-of-pocket costs will be high even if you have the vehicle sitting around, not to mention cars that see daily use and quite a bit of miles.

Why is it important to clean your car regularly?

With the weather taking a turn for the worse, cars end up a crying mess in no time. Thorough cleaning inside and out not only ensures that the car looks good but also stays protected at all times.

Roads are full of debris, be it dirt, mud, oil or animal droppings, that can potentially eat away at the paintwork but also damage and corrode the car from underneath. Winters are especially nasty, with salt doing much of the damage to tyres, alloy wheels and the undercarriage, leading to safety issues down the road. A good clean will also keep vital areas like windscreens, windows and lights free of muck, so it helps with seeing and being seen.

So, if you notice the car has been through better days, time for a good wash. This should also be a weekly habit, even in vehicles that are still presentable. The range of cleaning products today is huge and makes keeping vehicles in top condition easier. The only thing left is a bit of elbow grease and the dedication to keep it that way.

Cleaning the exterior

Cleaning the Exterior
Cleaning the Exterior

Thorough cleaning and detailing of the car can be difficult if you don’t know where to start. There are quite a few stages done in the right order and with the right auto exterior cleaner in each one. The goal is to remove any collected gunk and also protect the whole vehicle. Sounds daunting? The short guide that follows should remove any fears you have and make you a pro in a flash. 


Always start with the wheels. They collect the most grime, so they require a pre-soak and a decent wheel cleaner to break down stubborn or dried spots. Brushes do a good job of getting hidden stains in hard-to-reach places, and a soft mitt fitting snugly over the hand is less likely to hold onto remaining dirt. Go with either soft lambswool or synthetic microfibre mitts to reduce the likelihood of unpleasant swirl marks. Of course, you’ll also need a separate bucket other than the one you’d be using for the rest of the car. 

Pre-clean and pre-soak

This stage breaks down bigger, crusty dirt spots and insects and prevents them from spreading in the wash stage. A good contactless pre-wash or pre-soak solution is tougher than the standard car shampoo, but always choose something gentle and free of alkalis or caustics to avoid the risk of damage. A sound choice here is to use a film remover or citrous concentrate (in a 1:5 ratio), let it soak, and then rinse it away with a pressure washer or hose. 

This is followed by spraying snow foam on a wet car. Water gets rid of the top layer of encrusted dirt and foam, sitting snugly in a compatible lance (and connector) for your pressure washer to do the rest. Spray foam from bottom to top, ideally in clean horizontal lines, until the whole car is covered. Let the foam do its thing for a few minutes, remove the lance, and rinse with the pressure washer from bottom to top. 

The two-bucket wash 

Now comes a bit of elbow grease. Have two buckets ready, one for washing, and the other for rinsing. One bucket is filled with car shampoo of your choice diluted in water and the other just with clean water. Mitts also rejoin the washing process at this stage. Work your way from top to bottom, rinsing dirty mitts as you go. Be sure to get into tight spots, like the window seals, and use soft-bristle brushes for stubborn bits. Rinse, going from top to bottom. 

Dealing with stubborn contaminants

While shampoo gets most of the dirt out, there can be a few leftovers that won’t come out. This could be hardened bird droppings, rust particles or iron fallout and tar spots you’ve picked up in roadworks. All require their auto exterior cleaner. 

Clay bars or less aggressive mitts and blocks deal with the most ingrained contaminants, especially tar spots, while rust is best contained with an iron fallout cleaner. Moreover, birdlime not only looks horrible but causes flaking in the paint and rust in the long run. This should be removed as soon as possible using a dedicated solution for more stubborn cases, and wipes to get rid of remnants. 


This can be done by hand using a bigger microfiber towel, and working from top to bottom, dealing with each panel at a time. Or to speed things up and prevent water spots from forming, a quicker way is to use an electric car blower. This connects in a mains outlet, has adjustable temperature settings, blows filtered air for utmost safety and is ideal for drying around difficult areas like wheel spokes.

Polishing and Waxing

Polishing and Waxing
Polishing and Waxing

To get a nice showroom sheen, polishing deals with swirls, scratches and the overall finish in the paintwork. This can be done by hand, or with a polisher. 

Different polishers handle different tasks. Scratch removers contain specially formulated abrasives to get rid of scratch and swirl marks. Standard polish has less aggressive abrasives and is good as a general-purpose filler while bringing back the glossy finish to the paint. Some also have added UV protection to keep the car glistening but still protected in scorching sun. Lastly, filler or glaze polish is a prep phase before waxing and when dealing with minor imperfections. 

Waxing is all about protecting the paint once it is polished. Waxes add a durable, protective layer. A popular choice is ceramic wax to prevent water beading, and chemical resistance while increasing colour depth, gloss and shine. Waxing sealers are applied with a microfibre cloth or wax applicator in smaller amounts, left on for a few minutes, and then buffed off with a clean cloth. 

Tending to the tyres 

Tyres can be brought back to their new look using tyre cleaners to remove staining and fill in minor damage and dressing to add sheen. Cleaners are sprayed, left to settle and any stubborn grime is dealt with a brush. The dressing gives a high gloss or satin look and is applied with a brush or dressing applicator. Both help prolong tyre life by preventing the effects of road debris, water-borne contaminants and UV degradation. 

And, the Glass

Clean glass is not only for looks but for safety too. Tend to windscreens once weekly using a spray-on glass cleaner and use sealant to repel water and keep the glass cleaner for longer. Also, don’t forget the mirrors. 

Wrapping up

Regularly cleaning your car’s exterior goes a long way in keeping it spotless, shiny and protected. This should ideally done every fortnight, or in obvious cases, and clear weather without too much sunshine. Exterior car care products are specially formulated for each stage of the cleaning process and varying car parts, are easy to find, affordable for what they offer, and easily applied. The results speak for themselves.