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7 Beginner Car Wash Mistakes to Stop Doing!

At 16, washing your vehicle can be a fun thing to do. It was for me, and I honestly didn’t think much about it until much later. As it turns out, there are a ton of mistakes beginners like me do to their vehicles every day while washing them.

I have done virtually all of these.

In this post, I want to not only break down 7 of the most common car wash mistakes I see beginners making, but also discuss why these mistakes are actually bad. I’ll follow things up with what to do instead to achieve better results.

1. Relying only on leather or vinyl care wipes for your interior

This is one of the seemingly harmless things you can do to your vehicle, but not totally terrible. The reason I believe these are mistake really comes down to the form factor.

Sure, wipes are great for wiping flat surfaces like a glove box or console lid, but what you those hard-to-reach rounded areas near your cupholders, or inside of a door panel.

Good leather and vinyl cleaners on the market are intended to be used with detailing brushes (or at the very least a microfiber mitt). Agitation is important when removing dirt, dust or debris, since dislodging these particles is important for actually…cleaning.

Opt for liquid cleaners instead

Based on my experience, wipes are great to use for spills but can sometimes make the surface of your vehicle look a little too shiny or artificial. I recently reviewed several of these wipes in this post to show you what I mean.

No matter the product your use (I prefer Lexol’s cleaning and conditioning products), just make sure that you can properly apply these with applicators. Wipes tend to dry out (or be pretty dry to begin with), and will not properly clean areas even if you use the entire tube!

They simply aren’t made for deep cleaning, much less protecting.

2. Throwing your wash mitt in the bucket

How many times have you thrown your wash mitt into a bucket full of suds before cleaning tires or stopping briefly to do something else?

It seems pretty harmless, but it’s important to understand that dirt collects at the bottom of every bucket, and your wash mitt will sink to the bottom.

In other words, you don’t want your applicator in the bottom of a dirty bucket of water. Even if you keep your mitt clean by spraying it off before re-dipping, contamination will still happen. Dirt will still collect, even if you can’t see it.

The solution: The solution to this common problem is to purchase what’s called a grit guard. This device sits in the bottom of your bucket, and gives your wash mitt a nice little ledge to rest on, as opposed to floating to the bottom where all the dirt is.

3. Using circles

This one is a personal pet peeve of mine, simply because how common it is. I never thought twice about doing this until several years ago, but it really has a direct impact on the formation of circular scratches (also called swirl marks).

The problem: swirl marks

If you’ve ever seen a car’s hood on a hot day, you’ve seen these circular scratches. These are typically formed as a result of washing a vehicle in a circular pattern, oftentimes using too much pressure.

Dirt can be quite abrasive, and since the purpose of using soap and a wash mitt is to simply to carry away that dirt, you run into problems when you apply pressure.

With proper lubrication, you really shouldn’t apply any pressure at all. Simply graze your wash mitt over the area, and let the soap do all the work.

Since creating circles with your wash mitt creates friction, this is why it’s so easy for tiny rocks or other particles to drag across the surface of your clear coat and dig in, causing scratches.

4. Using sponges on paint

Sponges on car paint are like peanut butter and jelly for most people…they just go together, right? This is what I originally thought until I started doing more research on the topic.

The problem with using sponges is their form factor. Since sponges are flat, they really don’t do a great job at lifting dirt particles from your vehicle. They’re great for sliding these small jagged rock particles across your paint (which leads to swirl marks and scratches), but not so good at actually lifting them or grabbing them.

The solution: Both wash mitts and microfiber towels are ideal for washing your clear coat, since they have raised fibers designed to safely lift substances, not simply slide them around.

5. Using the same towels for different applications

Glass products, leather cleaning products, vinyl sprayers, leather conditioners..the list goes on and on. While all of these products are important, they are very chemically different in many cases.

For this reason, it’s important to not use the same microfiber towel or applicator. If you don’t seem to be achieving very good results when cleaning your windshield, this may be the reason.

Avoiding cross-contamination

It’s also extremely important not to use any damp drying towels (that may contain wax) on surfaces like seats or dashboards. When it’s been a long day, it can be tempting to just use one towel and be done with it, but take the time to use dedicated towels for each product you use.

While it may take a little more time to be diligent about this, your results (especially on mirrors and glass) will speak for themselves.

6. Using brushes on paint

If you’ve ever been to a self-service car wash, you probably have seen those long handled brushes. These are among the worst devices you can use on car paint, simply because brush bristles are really difficult to keep clean, and many are not very soft to begin with.

The problem with using these is they tend to get carelessly dropped on the ground, especially at car washes.

When to use them

I do think that sometimes there is a logical reason to use brushes on some vehicles. For example, if you own an older truck that is lifted, they can be helpful for washing the roof as long as you rinse them well and keep them clean.

They’re also nice to have for campers and RVs, although the gelcoats used on these are less prone to scratches often times.

As a general rule, I would stay away from brushes on car paint, and instead, pick up a detailing step ladder like this one on Amazon. They make it easier to hand wash your entire vehicle without needing a long-handled brush.

7. Washing your car in direct sunlight

In direct sunlight, washing your car with soap you may not think twice about, but if you really want to do an effective job, it’s best to find some shade.

The main reason is because soap can dry before you have a chance to remove it.

I’ve had this happen before unknowingly, only to see large water and soap spots the next day.

I recently wrote about when the best time to wash your vehicle is here (hint: early morning), but it’s more about being smart than any thing else.

Tip: Find shade and work in sections

If you work in sections, you can sometimes get away with working in some direct sunlight. However, when using spray-on waxes, or other protectants, you’ll want to apply these on a  relatively cool surface to avoid evaporation.

Water spots are also a big reason why washing in direct sunlight is a problem. Not only can the soap stick to your car, but water beads can as well.

If you have hard water coming from the spigot like I do, those dried water spots will be a huge pain to remove. One solution to this problem is using a water de-ionizer for washing cars.

Since the drying process can take a while in direct sunlight, these devices can really help you achieve the best results possible.


Learning proper techniques is one way to see better results when you wash your car, but eliminating mistakes (you may not even know you’re making) I think is almost more important.

If you’re looking for ways to step up your detailing game, be sure to subscribe to my email list for free detailing tips and tricks to see better results as a beginner.

To learn how to wash your car faster (while doing it the right way), check out these 10 car wash hacks I recently outlined.

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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