common car wash products

The old standbys- Dawn, hand towel, and a 5-gallon bucket.

This is the first post in a series of how to properly wash you car or truck in the comfort of your own driveway. Without argument, the washing and drying stages of exterior car maintenance and detailing are usually responsible for the majority of damage inflicted in the top layer of the paint system- the clear coat.  By the end of this series, you will be aware of the ideal equipment, techniques, and products to limit the amount of wash/ dry induced paint defects (swirling/ scratching/ marring.)  A well executed wash will maintain the like-new appearance of a your vehicle longer, reduce needed polishing, and help ensure the longevity of the paint system.  This series, if read and understood holistically, will benefit you in terms of time and money saved.  In these posts I will share my employed wash/ dry processes, techniques, and explain why they are the foundation of a sun-friendly, exterior appearance.

Part 1: The Common Car Wash and How to Avoid It

Before we get to the red meat of how to properly wash and dry a car; I need to highlight the necessary products that will lay the foundation of success when washing. And remember, I am not “pointing a finger” at anyone because I have been guilty of following the same regimen earlier in life.

I am sure every home in America is stocked with a supply of Dawn, well used bath towels, and 5-gallon buckets. Growing up, those three staples were just as plentiful as milk, eggs, and coffee in my household.  Humans tend to take the path of least resistance and when you don’t have to drive to the local auto parts or big-box retailer; grabbing the Dawn from the under the sink, an old t-shirt or hand towel from a bottom drawer, and the dedicated (but dirty) 5-gallon wash bucket from the garage can be understandable.

So we have our supplies and proceed to mix our wash solution with an eye-balled amount of Dawn dispensed into the bottom of our bucket. Spraying with a jet stream from the hose we try to dilute the Dawn but the bucket is quickly filled with 75% foam and only 25% wash soap.  ‘No problem,’ we quip to ourselves… ‘We will just keep adding water as necessary.’  Then we randomly pre-spray the vehicle knocking off a little superficial grime and start washing the nearest panels with one or two terry cloth towels.

I will stop right there with the scenario as there are some very important items that are crucial to saving you time and money, in the long-term.


While I have no real objection to using a dish detergent as a car soap since it can be used to help strip wax from paint and cut through grime; I do feel it should be used infrequently.  A dedicated car shampoo performs the intended job of cleaning- helping the wash media catch and remove dirt from the surface- in a safer manner than a soap designed to clean grease off pots and pans.  Without getting too technical, dedicated car shampoos tend to be PH-neutral (easier on your coat of wax,) contain conditioners (helps with hard-water deposits/ water spotting,) and lubricating agents (surfactants which reduce surface tension and encapsulate fine dirt particles.)  These qualities and chemicals combine to work for and with you to maintain a clean, protected, and shiny exterior.

Professionally, I tend to use mail order car shampoos but would not hesitate to use Meguiar’s Gold Class Soap in a pinch.  If you intend switching from Dawn to a dedicated car soap make sure to follow the dilution ratios on the back of the packaging.

Wash Media-

good car wash products

Two of Each! 2 Buckets, 2 Mitts, & Car Shampoo

When cleaning paint, I will not condone the use of an old rag, an old t-shirt, and definitely not an old terry cloth towel.  These textiles are simply not designed to be gentle and thick enough, to carry an excess amount of wash solution to the painted surface and then safely carry dirt away after wiping.

The aforementioned materials tend to induce swirls and scratches into the paint at a far greater rate versus lambswool, microfiber, or chenille mitt.  When hand washing be sure to use a minimum of two wash mitts.  One mitt dedicated to the lower portions of the vehicle and another for the upper half.

Sourcing wash mitts locally is fairly easy and I don’t have a specific recommendation for an over-the-counter mitt.  If you are in the market for lambs wool be aware a majority of over-the-counter products are synthetic lambswool and do not hold up over time versus 100% lambswool.  Which ever media you purchase launder it prior to use with ‘clear & free’ laundry detergent preferably with no other garments or towels.

One Two Bucket(s)-

two bucket method for car wash

Grit Guards help separate your wash & rinse solutions from the dirt that settle to the bottom. Note the dirt and grime at the bottom on the bucket with the black Grit Guard!

A two bucket wash method is equally important as the previous items.  (Actually, I use a three bucket method but who’s counting anyway?)  One bucket will be used for the wash solution, the second bucket will be used as a rinse solution for the wash media containing just water, and the third bucket is dedicated to wheels/tires/undercarriage only. Grit guards placed at the bottom of your wash and rinse buckets are strongly recommended and can found locally at Industrial Finishes as well as online.

Basic Car Wash Fundamentals Covered!-

At the end of the day, the wash process is absolutely necessary but also fraught with potential danger. Anytime we touch our cars, be it to wash, wax, or polish, the risk of inducing marring into the paint goes up 100%.   While I do not believe a perfectly safe wash process exists (many will argue and that is fine), we should not let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good.’  To that end, I encourage readers to consider their own wash process and to incorporate any or all of the products/ techniques that I have described above in order to mitigate the hazards of a typical car wash.

Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or questions about the information in this post, please submit them in the text box below or contact me via email or social media.

In the next installment of this series I will highlight an effective plan of attack when washing. Yes, 5 minutes of reading the second blog post will absolutely decrease the amount of wash induced defects in your paint!  Stay tuned!

Best regards,