10 Things You Should Never Use to Clean Your Car


a car on a driveway next to a bucket of cleaning solution
Washing and waxing your car regularly will help protect it from the elements when done properly. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Suds and water hose at the ready, millions of car owners take to their driveways on any given Saturday, looking to do things the old-fashioned way, cleaning a vehicle by hand. This isn’t just a time-honored tradition to clean your car. It’s a crucial part of vehicle maintenance and rust prevention. Because neglect breeds premature paint correction, taking the time to guarantee your ride stays squeaky clean seems to be a small price to pay if you want protection from the elements.

Regularly cleaning a car’s candy-coated shell not only keeps it looking pristine, but it also prevents foreign contaminants from embedding themselves in the clear coat. While this transparent protective layer might not seem like a crucial component to some, it plays a much more significant role than one might expect.

If a vehicle’s clear coat becomes compromised it exposes the paint beneath it to the elements, which in turn leaves the metal surfaces beneath vulnerable to all manner of malady. Rust, surface bubbles, fading, and discoloration are all threats to an automobile’s appeal and longevity, so nipping a superficial issue in the bud will help prevent it from growing into a much larger, malignant concern down the line.

Unfortunately, many car owners continue to use whatever they find lying around the house to clean their cars, a move that often hurts more than it helps. Not having the proper tools on hand and substituting them with something else is rarely a wise decision to clean your car. If you wouldn’t clean your television with shower spray, chances are your car won’t appreciate it either.

Here are 10 products that should never be used to clean your car and why they can be counterproductive in prolonging an automobile’s lifespan.

1. Skip the automatic car wash

An automatic car wash
An automatic car wash might leave you with more dirt than you came with. | Mr. Clean Car Wash via Facebook

Many drivers either don’t have the time or interest in polishing their prized automotive possession. So naturally the appeal of a drive-thru car wash is a very tempting offer. Although it might appear spotless, with its bright lights and white walls, a close look at those bristles and shaggy strips of drying cloth will more than likely expose a disgusting hive of road grime and scum.

Take a moment, and consider how many filthy automobiles have passed through that car wash before you. And now imagine the same scenario in a public shower situation, where you have to use the same loofah and towel as everyone who came before you. Gross, right? Plus, nobody likes rashed wheels, and that automatic conveyor belt is itching to mar your alloys the minute you pop that gearbox in neutral.

2. Not everyone likes it rough, Trebek

steel wool
Using steel wool or Brillo pads on your car will cause all kinds of damage. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Caked-on road grime, salt deposits on side sills and exhaust tips, and stubborn tar balls clinging to alloy wheels might seem difficult to remove. But that doesn’t mean you should go all out, and grab the most abrasive element you have at your disposal. Steel wool and Brillo pads are notorious for scratching surfaces, so be sure to avoid them at all costs. As an alternative, look into using concentrated amounts of engine degreaser, metal polishing compounds, and brushes specifically designed for automobiles.

3. Eternal sunshine of the not-so-spotless shine

2016 Mazda CX-5 in a ray of sunlight
Direct sunlight and heat are not your cleaning friend. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

When washing and waxing your car, direct sunlight can quickly cause a cleaning catastrophe and should be avoided if possible. Water spots appear at a rapid rate and are slow to fade when enough heat is applied. So keep that ride in the shade if you don’t want to spend valuable time buffing out blemishes. The same goes for a hot hood, which will instantly turn a sudsy bath into a spot-filled disaster if the engine beneath it is toasty enough. Keep it shady people. Your paint jobs will appreciate it.

4. Damn you, dish soap

a bottle of dish soap next to a soap dispenser
Never use dish soap to clean a car as most of them have detergents that will eat into a car’s clear coat. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Even though the detrimental effects of using dish soap on a car have been proven time and again, people still use it in a pinch, often with irreparable results. Many of the detergents and degreasers in the common bottle of kitchen soap will eat into a car’s clear coat, thus causing premature fading and corrosion. Paint job issues are an expensive fix. And because car cleaning supplies are sold at every grocery chain and dollar store out there, taking a quick trip down the street remains a sensible solution when a big bottle of dish soap is the only thing on hand.

5. No, it’s not rag time

a stack of towels
Fresh microfiber towels are important, so always be sure to send them through the wash. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

One of the biggest mistakes car owners make when they’re cleaning their vehicles happens once the entire washing process is complete, and it’s time to clean up. Instead of doing the logical thing and washing their microfiber towels, many people will opt to let them air dry and toss them back in the bag or box from whence they came.

Even though a piece of cloth might appear pristine, it more than likely is loaded with little bits of grit and grime, which will surely leave swirls and scratches in the clear coat the next time the car gets toweled off. Toss that microfiber in the wash with the rest of that week’s laundry in order to save yourself a headache later.

6. Pressure washer of unprecedented consequences

A 16000 psi pressure washer ready for use in a driveway
A pressure washer is ready for use on a driveway — but not on a car. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

That engine bay might be completely coated in old engine grease, road salt, and all kinds of carbon build-up. But that doesn’t mean you need to open up a can of highly pressurized whoop-ass on it. Modern engines are filled with sensors and electronics. And though automakers engineer their electrical systems to handle unavoidable waves of rain water, exposing them to something that’s designed for blasting stain off wooden decks is a poor decision. The same goes for all the other areas of a car. All it takes is getting too close for a second or two, and the next thing you know you’ve got a section of exposed metal staring back at you.

7. The bucket list just got bigger

A wash bucket and scrubber mitt next to a car
A wash bucket and scrubber mitt are two key tools when it comes to cleaning a car. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Having a bucket filled with soapy water is one of the key components if you wish to successfully clean your car. But every time that wash mitt or sponge drops back in that cleaning solution, all of the contaminants and particles picked up during that last sweep of your car’s exterior are getting deposited into the bucket. You can avoid this problem by using a trio of clearly labeled pails and a little more water.

The first container should be your filthiest bucket, which will have nothing more than rinse water in it. The second is for rinsing off any stubborn particles that might still be suspended in the mitt or sponge. And the third should be filled with fresh car wash liquid and water. As you go through the cleaning process in this order it is advisable to dump and refill all three buckets if the water begins to appear compromised.

8. Super stinky glass cleaner

bottle of glass cleaner
Ammonia-based glass cleaner should be avoided when cleaning cars. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

There’s a reason why there are so many cleaning products on the market that are specifically engineered for automobiles. Take household glass cleaners for instance. While they might do a great job of polishing that windshield to a crystal clear shine, they are also prone to leaving stains and discoloration all across your dashboard due to the ammonia in them. Certain window tint films are susceptible to bubbling, peeling, and fading if the wrong kind of cleaner is applied. That’s just one more reason why a certified automotive glass cleanser should always be used.

9. Avoid the chamois craze

Chamois skin
Chamois skin | The Original Chamois Company

While chamois cloths are super absorbent and do a great job of soaking up water, they pose a real threat to your car’s exterior. Unlike microfiber towels, which have specially designed strands that spirit leftover grime away from the surface, a leather chamois cloth traps these impurities along its surface. That allows these contaminants to be smeared across the surface of the vehicle. This encourages swirling and scratching, something your car’s clear coat will find difficult to cover up.

10. Rough towels make headaches

a white bath towel
A rough towel can cause scratches and swirl marks when drying a car. | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Don’t grab any old towel from your washroom, and expect amazing results. Unless you like to dry off with microfiber when you climb out of the shower, chances are massive bath towel of yours is going to inflict some serious harm to your clear coat. Rough-seamed edges and the way in which most towels are woven make it easy for deeply ingrained grit to scratch the surface of a car when drying. Microfiber is your friend. Never underestimate its benefits.