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Explained: What Order Should You Wash Your Car?

To see great results washing your car, you need to know how exactly to go from panel to panel. It might sound trivial, but the order you wash your vehicle matters to an extent if you want a clean vehicle.

In this post, I’ll break down some proven steps to follow that many detailers use…and I follow to this day.

Why wash your car in a certain order?

It’s best to wash your car in a certain order so you don’t transfer dirt and grime from the dirtiest part of your vehicle to the cleanest part. Never wash from bottom top, as tar, bugs, and dirt tend to collect in these areas.

Should you wash your car’s interior before the exterior?

Yes and no. While this is a controversial topic, it’s a good idea to wash the vehicle exterior first including your vehicle’s mats (as long as they are rubber). If you start on the inside first, pollen or dirt from the outside can sometimes track inside. 

Step 1: Clear any loose debris on the vehicle

If you’re cleaning a very dirty vehicle, walk around the vehicle and remove any twigs, pine straw, or debris caught in the grill, under the wiper blades, and inside the engine bay. 

If your engine bay is dirty, it’s a good idea to pop the hood and give it a quick rinse (masking off the electrical components). You can follow the rinse with a quick all-purpose cleaner safe for plastic engine covers (if your car has them).

Step 2: Rinse the car and undercarriage

Once you remove heavy debris by hand, rinse the entire vehicle top to bottom, including the undercarriage. The idea is to knock off bugs and heavy dirt as you can before using soap.

Especially if you’re washing in winter and have road salt left over, you want to remove as much as possible to start.

A powerwasher can help in this case, but it’s up to you.

Step 3: Clean wheels and rubber mats

Using a dedicated tire bucket, the next step is to begin washing tires and rims.

I like to get the wheels out of the way while I am still fresh…washing your wheels properly when tired is a lot more difficult than running your wash mitt over a panel. Just a personal preference.

Should you wash wheels first or last?

First. Because wheels get dirtier than body panels, if you wash them last you can splash dirty wheel water on recently-washed body panels. Again, a matter of preference.

I don’t recommend washing wheels, then the driver’s side, then another wheel..and so on. You save time by batching similar tasks together instead of making your way around the car, washing one wheel, then paint.

If you wash wheels as you make your way around the vehicle, you risk contaminating your wash mitt with brake dust and grime, since you’ll be switching tasks all the time.

Step 4: Start with the roof, work down to the windows

Next, apply foam to your vehicle, starting at the top and working your way down to the windows. 

If you have trouble reaching the roof of your car, I highly recommend a non-slip platform like this one by Giantex on Amazon.

It’s lightweight, and perfect for washing and detailing hard-to-reach areas.

Quick tip!

For consistency, wash your vehicle in the same order every time. For example, you might start clockwise on the driver’s side of the roof (just above the side mirror) and work your way around cleaning the roof, windows, and windshield only. Do what works for you, but I like to pick the lines/panels to start and stop at…and engrain the process into memory!

Step 5: Clean the top half of the vehicle and hood

Once you apply and remove soap from the roof, then windows, then hood, rinse your mitt out and begin washing the top half of your body panels.

I usually wash from the bottom of the windows to the bottom of the door as I work my way around the vehicle.

Step 6: Clean the lower sides, then the bumpers

Last, be sure to wring out and rinse your mitt and apply soap to the lower body panels. Since the front bumper and rear bumpers are typically pretty dirty, I like to do them last. 

For me, the front bumper generally has bugs that need removing, and the rear bumper sometimes has carbon buildup from the exhaust. The front usually takes a bit longer to clean properly with a bug and tar remover, so I save that for last.

Shout out to Larry at AMMONYC for some great advice relating to this topic.

Check out my post 5 Reasons Your Car May Still Look Dirty After Washing if you aren’t seeing the results you’re looking for. I also have a post on bug and tar removal and prevention that may help too. Hope it helps!

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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