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How to Clean Your Car Properly - Wax On, Wax Off

The fine art of cleaning up your whip

Aaron Bonk
May 6, 2016

Chances are you've got one of two paint jobs: the one that's about as dull as a worn-down No. 2 pencil with enough swirl marks and scuffs to make a sheet of sandpaper look smooth, or the brand-new paint job that's just waiting for you to scratch it up.

Either way, you ought to be doing more than lathering your ride up with dish soap twice a year or running it through the neighborhood car wash where the chances of your paint escaping without a new scratch from the community scrub brush are about as good as you being able to buff out that ninja-sized booty print from your rear fender left from the last car show.

Knowing what sort of products to apply and how often to do it, though, is about as tough as knowing how exactly to use them.

How to clean your car properly meguiars cleaning products Photo 2/8   |   How To Clean Your Car Properly Meguiars Cleaning Products

The number of compounds, polishes, and waxes can be overwhelming, which is partly why you haven't hosed down your whip since the summer of '08. Companies like Meguiar's have embraced simplicity with its Mirror Bright lineup that's only five products deep, which means you'll spend less time contemplating the molecular science of polymers vs. pastes and more time making your paint look how you want.


According to Meguiar's Customer Engagement Leader RJ de Vera, "Evaluating the surface at the beginning is key." In other words, your first step toward your paint looking the way you want it to is knowing what sort of condition it's in before starting. You can't do this without washing it first, though. Now's your chance to determine whether or not you've got surface contaminants by rubbing your hand across the paint and eyeballing it for swirl marks or even scratches, any of which will require more than soap to get rid of.

Speaking of soap, put down your mother's Palmolive and get yourself something from the car-care aisle. The right kind of soap will remove loose dirt, dust, and road crud but without stripping that layer of wax you should've put on two months back.

Car Wash Pro Tips

  • Use a dedicated wash mitt—not an old pair of boxer shorts—and keep it clean by tossing it in the washing machine after each use.
  • Arm yourself with two buckets: one for the soapy water mixture and the other for periodically wringing out that filthy mitt.
  • Wash from the top down because, well, gravity.
  • Keep your car out of direct sunlight when washing, making sure its paint is cool to the touch.
  • Do all of this at least twice a month and avoid the mess you're in now.

Assessing The Paint

According to Meguiar's Director of Training, Events, and Consumer Relations, Michael Pennington, your car's paint is bound to fall into one of three categories, which'll determine what path you ought to follow and what products you should be using:

1. Like-New. We're talking about the sort of paint you'll find on a new car that's free of any swirl marks, scratches or contaminants. Don't be so quick to toss your freshly painted FR-S into this category, though; newly applied paint can require up to 90 days to cure, which means you shouldn't be applying wax if you've recently visited the body shop.

2. Average. Here, your paint's in decent condition but is either wrought with surface contaminants or a handful of lightweight scratches along with a few swirl marks. Not both.

3. Neglected. You haven't washed your car since '08. Swirl marks, scratches, and a layer of bird shit abound.

There are two ways you can go about cleaning up whatever it is that you've got, no matter which category you've fallen into: quick or thorough. Consider your expectations before moving forward, though. Car care products have come a long way, some of which allow you to apply a coat of wax through a spray bottle in less than a half-hour, but according to Pennington, "You're not gonna be ready for a car show with just 30 minutes of work." Which is exactly why you want to be thorough, and which is exactly why you ought to follow the plan the good people at Meguiar's have laid out.

How to clean your car properly scuff marks Photo 3/8   |   How To Clean Your Car Properly Scuff Marks

No detail job in the world will fix some problems. Scuff marks like these mean you ought to be visiting the body shop and not the car-care aisle.


Situation: Surface contaminants are everywhere and paint is rough to the touch

Paint category: average (no swirl marks or scratches) or neglected

Not applying wax directly on top of 12 months worth of hardened filth is your first step toward a proper detail job. Clay bar kits come with everything you need to remove all kinds of surface contaminants, making polishing and waxing a whole lot more effective. Be sure to apply plenty of the supplied spray detailer for smooth application and reform the clay after each section to avoid pushing the same solidified crap all over the place.

Situation: You've got more swirls and scratches than you can count

Paint category: average (no surface contaminants) or neglected

Your first step toward you resurrecting your run-down paint job is to apply some sort of rubbing compound. Compounds can vary a whole lot; apply a professional-grade one wrong and you might ruin your already shoddy paint job. Consumer-friendly versions that you can pick up at most auto parts stores come with a whole lot less risk and can get rid of most swirl marks, scuffs, and minor scratches without damaging that clear-coat.

Be sure that your paint's free of surface contaminants before applying any sort of compound, though. Don't and you'll be grinding whatever debris is on top of your paint right down into it. Compounds can be applied by hand or with a dual-action polishing tool for quicker, more effective results. Stay away from the body shop's professional-grade rotary tools that you don't know how to you use and will destroy your otherwise decent paint job if you're not careful.

How to clean your car properly swirl marks Photo 4/8   |   How To Clean Your Car Properly Swirl Marks

Getting rid of these sort of swirl marks isn't impossible. As it turns out, all you'll need is something like Meguiar's Ultimate Compound, a couple of micro-fiber towels or a dual-action polisher, and a couple hours out of your day.

How to clean your car properly paint fade Photo 5/8   |   How To Clean Your Car Properly Paint Fade

Rubbing compounds can also restore faded paint, which is typical with deeper, darker colors like red. Apply a coat of wax when you're done to keep all of this from happening again.


Situation: Your paint's lost its glossiness and overall shine

Paint category: average (optional) or neglected

You could go straight for the wax after claying or applying that rubbing compound but you might not get that high-gloss finish you're hoping for. That's what polish is for, and is exactly what can make dark-colored paint darker, reflections deeper, and give you that always-wet look.

But polish isn't always necessary. According to Pennington, modern paints are so good that, a lot of times, polishing is optional. "Polishing was more important with some of the older paints," he says, "and, as far as lighter-colored cars go, it isn't as necessary."

How to clean your car properly microfiber towels Photo 6/8   |   How To Clean Your Car Properly Microfiber Towels

Micro-fiber towels are what you ought to be using for just about everything but the washing stage. They work better, do their job quicker, and don't leave streaks like other towels can.


Situation: You want protection from the elements and you've got the time to do it right

Paint category: like-new, average, or neglected

No matter what sort of paint you started with, no detail job can be finished without a proper wax. Nowadays you've got your choice between spray-on waxes, easy-to-apply liquid waxes, and the same sort of carnauba paste wax that your pops used to use. No matter which one you choose, it's the wax that'll protect your paint from the sun's harmful rays and, according to Pennington, a liquid or a paste will give you the best protection. "Quality- and longevity-wise, a polymer wax is the way to go versus a more traditional carnauba," he goes on to say. "It's like comparing conventional motor oils to synthetic ones; there's a difference."

It doesn't take much, either. According to Pennington, it shouldn't take more than a couple of ounces of wax to coat an entire car. If you find yourself applying gobs thick enough to run down your arm and onto the floor, you're doing it wrong. And despite what your dad tells you, it doesn't matter whether you apply it in circular motions or in a straight line. "If you're scratching the paint while you're waxing or polishing," Pennington says about the misconception that circular application can hide imperfections, "you've got much bigger problems."

How to clean your car properly compounds polishes waxes Photo 7/8   |   How To Clean Your Car Properly Compounds Polishes Waxes

Compounds, polishes, and waxes can all be applied with micro-fiber towels, but a dual-action polisher can speed up the process and make for better results.


Situation: You want protection from the elements but you don't have a lot of time

Paint category: like-new, average, or neglected

Detail jobs don't get much faster than when some sort of spray-on wax is involved. Just because it's quick doesn't mean it's got to suck, though. So long as your paint is clean and you've followed the steps above sometime in the recent past, a good spray-on wax can darken up the paint and give it that extra layer of protection you haven't had time to apply.

How to clean your car properly paint properly cleaned car Photo 8/8   |   How To Clean Your Car Properly Paint Properly Cleaned Car

Do it right and your paint should end up looking like this. Wash it all down regularly, apply a spray wax every month or so, and you've just bought yourself some time between now and your next all-day detail job.


Irvine, CA 92614
By Aaron Bonk
417 Articles



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