A clean car can turn heads, but detailing a car by yourself may seem daunting if you’re not familiar with auto care. So let’s make it simple. We’ll talk about how to detail a car like a professional and share tips from automotive experts on how they approach cleaning a dirty car.
What Is Car Detailing?
Car detailing is a term that is often thrown around but can mean different things. Essentially, car detailing at the professional level means cleaning and restoring a vehicle to peak cosmetic condition.
“This can be a very open answer,” said Clark Webster, an auto detailing trainer with Checkered Flag Detailers in Wilmington, North Carolina. “But generally speaking, it’s anything a vehicle owner would do, past the normal routine washing and vacuuming, that enhances the beautification and/or cosmetic appearance of the vehicle.”
Detailing encompasses a variety of cleaning processes for the car’s exterior and interior, including:
- Protective coatings
- Car washing
- Headlight restoration
- Installing air fresheners
- Paint correction
- Upholstery restoration
- Waxing and buffing
As Webster noted, auto detailing can be general or very specific, like simply using glass cleaner on a windshield or adding specialized coatings to preserve the vehicle’s finish. An example of the latter would be applying a ceramic coating to the exterior of the car.
Amateur Vs. Professional
You may be reading this and thinking some of these tasks don’t require hiring a professional, and that’s true. Simple things like a car wash or replacing a burnt tail light bulb can be performed at home or figured out after a quick internet search.
But what separates the DIYers from professionals is the tool kit. Professional detailers typically have access to more powerful cleaning agents or tools that allow for more thorough car cleaning. These cleaning products are different from items you find at home and are specially designed for parts of the car, like cleaning the nooks and crannies of door panels.
What Do I Need To Detail A Car?
Here are a few common items used in auto detailing:
- Car wash soap
- Microfiber towels, wash mitts, and drying towels
- Clay bars
- Buckets to hold soapy water
- Special tools to clean out crevices
- Car wax
- Upholstery cleaner
- Leather conditioner
- Tire cleaner
Whether you’re cleaning the exterior or interior of a vehicle, it is recommended that you use a microfiber cloth. These are less abrasive on sensitive surfaces and better at collecting particles than other household towels. Webster noted that having plenty of microfiber towels on hand is a necessity.
“There are many to choose from,” said Webster, “especially ones designed for drying, so it’s good to have plenty at your disposal, some in different colors, for specific tasks.” For example, a yellow towel for the interior, blue for windows, and green for waxing.
Kyle Marker, Parts Manager at Leith Lincoln in Raleigh, North Carolina, echoed that sentiment. He advised that in many car cleaning situations, it makes sense to apply the solution to the cloth instead of the car’s surface to help mitigate messes.
“The most common mistake people make is over-application,” said Marker. “I guarantee you, you use too much [of the cleaning solution]. Because you’ll get in the car, and you’ll go to grab the steering wheel or the dash and it’ll have that tacky feeling, like undried paint. And it’ll look bad. It’ll collect dirt, actually, because it’s sticky and all the dust will get attracted to it.”
The car’s exterior is the most visible and exposed part of the vehicle, so it is very susceptible to grime and contaminants. Cleaning exterior body panels and windows requires a gentle hand. Using the wrong towel or applying too much force can scratch the car’s paint.
Here are a few basic tips for DIY exterior car detailing:
- Make sure the vehicle is not in direct sunlight.
- Use water from a trusted source (garden hose or tap water).
- Use two buckets to avoid cross-contamination (one for dirty microfiber cloths and the other for clean towels).
- Wipe down starting at the top of the vehicle and working your way down.
- Avoid using circular motions. Clean the car in small, overlapping horizontal strokes to avoid swirl marks.
- Use a separate towel for drying the vehicle. A used towel can embed grime, and air drying the car may leave water spots.
- Apply waxes or any other protectant layer as a last step.
Cleaning Tires And Wheels
Tires are unsurprisingly one of the dirtiest parts of the car because they make direct contact with the road. On top of that, brake dust often collects around wheels and rims, adding to other road grime that gets stuck in crevices.
You can purchase separate cleaning products for wheels and tires, although we found in our testing of wheel cleaners that combination products like the Turtle T-18 topped our list. We’d also recommend a set of bristled brushes for caked-on dirt.
Most cars come equipped with plastic headlight lenses that become foggy over time. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun causes them to oxidize and become cloudy, but there are some remedies short of buying new headlights.
A headlight restoration kit typically involves sanding the oxidized lenses with several different grits of sandpaper and applying a polish or protective sealant.
“You have to seal it afterward,” said Marker. “Most people, they’ll refinish their headlights and then they’ll ignore the clearcoat part of the solution. And then they wonder why it’s hazy in six months.”
Wax Vs. Ceramic Coatings
One way to preserve that clean car look is with automotive coatings. Two popular choices are car wax and ceramic coatings, both of which add protective layers and sheen to your vehicle. However, there are certain times when you will want to use one instead of the other.
For instance, new cars typically come from the automaker with a protective coating. It will wear down over time, but that process can take years so applying a car wax would be more reasonable for a new car.
However, if you have an older vehicle, you likely want to use a ceramic coating.
“Ceramic coatings are far more durable than waxes, so from a [performance, durability, and longevity] standpoint, you’ll get more protection and less environmental breakdown from a coating than you would a wax,” said Webster. “In general, a wax will last between three to four months. A coating can last anywhere from six months to five years.”
Cleaning a car’s interior is an entirely different animal than exterior detailing, mainly because of the materials. Interior surfaces range from leather to plastics to carbon fiber on some vehicles, and floors are usually carpeted.
Below is a simple step-by-step guide to interior detailing:
- Remove the front and rear floor mats for cleaning. In addition to soapy water, use bristle brushes for rubber floor mats or carpet cleaner where appropriate depending on the material.
- Vacuum the interior including the cabin floor, seats, and cup holders.
- Clean the dashboard, air vents, and storage areas with a microfiber cloth. Apply the appropriate interior cleaning spray after built-up dust has been removed.
- Apply the appropriate cleaner to your car’s seats. This could be a leather cleaner or standard upholstery cleaner depending on the material.
- Apply a glass cleaner to the interior-facing part of the windows.
- Deodorize the car with the scent of your choice.
Leather Seats Vs. Cloth Seats
While leather upholstery is typically a luxury marker in a vehicle, it can be more difficult to maintain than cloth upholstery. Prolonged exposure to the sun can cause the leather to dry and crack. To prevent this, auto detailing experts recommend applying a leather conditioner.
Although leather requires more upkeep, some benefits of a leather interior include:
- Less porous surfaces
- Easy to clean
- Difficult to stain
- A premium-looking interior
Why Should I Detail My Car?
Other than keeping your car in pristine shape, there are a few benefits to detailing your vehicle. Cleaning your vehicle regularly will help reduce normal wear and tear on both exterior and interior surfaces. It will also make your car easier to clean in the event of an accidental mess.
Plus, if you decide to sell your car, Webster notes that it will command a higher asking price compared to a dirty one.
“A well-cleaned vehicle not only reflects the care and pride of its owner, [but] it provides a statement to those who see or even ride in it,” he said. “Pride in ownership is the single biggest factor in why vehicle owners either invest their own time cleaning their rides or invest in someone else doing it for them.”
And finally, having a clean car just makes for a more enjoyable driving experience.
How Often Should I Detail My Car?
The ideal cadence for cleaning your car depends on your lifestyle. Drivers who transport children or pets regularly may find themselves cleaning up messes more often than other motorists. Also, if you own a utility vehicle or use a truck for DIY projects, it may be necessary to clean out mud, wood shavings, and other debris from your car on a regular basis.
“Basic washing and vacuuming [should] be a regular occurrence,” Webster said. “Waxing a car, machine polishing [and] buffing would be things done a few times a year. Quick detailers are wonderful for ‘in-between’ washes that provide a quick, glossy finish to your vehicle. Even a quick dusting or walk around the car, once parked, to look for and remove road grime and other environmental impacts (like bird droppings and bug guts) can help prevent unwanted pitting and degradation of painted surfaces.”
Webster added that temperature also impacts how detailing products react to the vehicle’s surface – describing the optimal temperature for detailing as 55.0 to 70.0 degrees Fahrenheit.
“During the winter months, it’s very important to keep your chemicals at room temperature and, if at all possible, clean your car in a covered or heated garage,” he said. “Cold panels also have adverse effects on chemicals and can make it difficult to work the product(s) as intended. There are also ‘no rinse’ car washes that can be used in colder weather, or for those with limited access to a water hose for washing their vehicles.”
Car Detailing: Bottom Line
Detailing a vehicle can either be an involved project or as simple as drying a wet hood. What is clear is that keeping a clean vehicle can help maintain the value of your investment and allow you to take pride in your vehicle. Whether it’s something you want to do at home or pay a professional to go the extra mile, it’s important to find the right cleaning products and techniques for your vehicle.
Our Review Standards
To ensure the accuracy of all the tips and information in this guide, we consulted our network of experts for their thoughts on detailing. These experts have over 100 years of combined experience in the auto industry, in fields ranging from detailing to accessories to tires, and everything in between. Interviewing experts ensures that all the information and advice we publish is as accurate as possible and delivered in a way that’s helpful and easy to understand.
Our team then combed through dozens of resources such as federal safety studies, research from reputable institutions, verified firsthand accounts, interviews and videos from credible automotive professionals, and our own prior testing conducted by our expert testing team.
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How To Detail A Car: FAQ
*Data accurate at time of publication.