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7 Car Wash Best Practices to Avoid Scratching!

Looking to wash your vehicle safely and more importantly do it without scratching the paint? That can be easier said than done depending on your wash process.

Vehicle scratches are not only an eyesore, they also can make vehicles difficult to sell to buyers. The problem is that many of these small scratches you may actually be leaving on your vehicle during the wash process without even knowing it. I’ve been there, and it can be a big problem if you’re not familiar with proper wash techniques.

In this post, I’ll break down 7 simple best practices for washing your car to avoid leaving scratches behind.

1. Start by using enough soap or lubrication

One of the biggest culprits to scratching the surface of any vehicle is when washing with little to no soap or lubrication. If using a bucket, always be sure your are creating enough suds to provide the layer of protection you need when contacting the surface of your vehicle.

When using waterless spray-on type of products, the same concept applies. Due to the nature of these types of products, scratching is usually more likely to occur based on my experience, due to the fact that they are not ideal for removing heavy mud or dirt.

While these products are convenient, water is a natural lubricant and when combined with soap, offers much more protection against scratching. On the last section of your car, it’s best to clean your bucket out and add more soap, than to continue using dirty water with very few suds.

2. Use a grit guard to avoid contamination with dirty water

One of the best ways to wash your vehicle safely is to always use a grit guard in your wash bucket. This mainly helps to keep the wash mitt clean by keeping it off of the bottom of the bucket, where dirt collects.

Working clean is one of the best ways to prevent accidentally scratching your vehicle, so it’s worth picking up one of these. You can pick one up here on Amazon for less than $10, and they really help you to not only avoid picking up debris, but washing your vehicle with cleaner water.

I’ve used dirty water in the past without knowing it, and you can’t really notice a difference until after the water dries and a film appears.

Practices like rinsing your wash mitt off from time to time, using a grit guard, and making sure your bucket doesn’t get too dirty is a great best practices to embrace to eliminate swiril marks, which are the most common scratch type for vehicles.

3. Use separate buckets for cleaning wheels vs cleaning paint

In addition to a grit guard, one strategy to avoid getting brake dust and other particles on your vehicle paint is to use separate buckets for your wheels. Whenever dealing with wheels, you’re bound to encounter tar and other substances that cause scratches.

Use this bucket to keep your wheel brushes or sponges inside, so you never have to worry about contaminating your main wash bucket with grease and grime.

I like to start with washing wheels first, since it gives you an opportunity to walk around the vehicle and see if any tar or other substances that may be stuck on your wheel rim, is also stuck to your paint.

Tar is one of the easiest ways to scratch your vehicle, so take the time when washing wheels to make sure you don’t have any attached to the rocker panel or paint.

4. Work top to bottom, and start with the wheels

In general, it’s a good idea to wash your car the same way every time. Working top to bottom is a good idea, simply because the dirtiest part of your vehicle is typically the bottom near the rocker panels.

Many professional detailers like Larry at Ammo NYC like to begin with cleaning out garbage from underneath the hood, followed by cleaning the wheels, before starting on the paint.

One trick for washing top to bottom is to work on one side at the time, starting with the top section, followed by the windows. You’ll want to leave the bottom section near the end, since it typically is the dirtiest.

Another tip is to wash the back of the vehicle until the very end. Part of the rationale here is because exhaust can usually leave a film (especially at the bottom) and in my experience it really is the dirtiest part.

5. Never use circles with a mitt

Since the goal of soap is to basically carry dirt and particles away, you really shouldn’t be applying any pressure at all. Since most people use circles, and actually bare down on car paint when they wash, this can easily cause scratches (called swirl marks) without you even knowing it.

Simply slide your mitt across the soapy surface in straight lines, using very little pressure. This is a much safer method, since your mitt should literally almost ‘slide’ off of the surface of the vehicle.

Simply guiding your wash mitt across the surface can help to remove dirt (as opposed to using only a foam cannon for example), but the weight of the wash mitt is what should be doing all of the work to prevent scratching from occurring, not external pressure applied by your hand.

6. Use no contact methods for applying soap

If you really want to limit scratching, one method that is quite effective is using foam gun to apply soap. While some level for contact can help to remove dirt easier, the risks of scratching paint when there is a thick foam layer below a wash mitt is quite low.

Foam cannons also eliminate the need the even use a bucket (thus avoiding potential contamination), which is why I recommend to use these (or a foam gun) to apply the soap, and then use your mitt to lightly graze the surface.

7. Avoid using sponges on car paint

While you may be using one already, sponges can make it difficult to lift small particles of dirt from the surface of your vehicle. While microfiber towels and mitts have pile (designed to lift), sponges provide a flat surface, which doesn’t allow rocks and other particles to escape.

Using air to dry your vehicle is a much better choice, and while there are dedicated devices like the Metrovac, a clean leaf blower can also be effective.


All in all, simply working clean and avoiding touching the dry surface of your vehicle’s clear coat is the best way to prevent most scratches. Also just use common sense when parking!

Adding wax is another best practice outside of washing your vehicle to help protect it from fingernails or keys that may occasionally graze the surface. As always, working clean is the best practice to achieving better results as a detailer or auto detialing enthusiast.

To learn more about the products that professionals use to achieve superior results than the average joe, check out these 25 Essential Detialing Products for Beginners.

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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