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How to Clean and Polish Dirty Exhaust Tips in 5 Easy Steps

Do those filthy exhaust tips need a thorough cleaning? For many trucks and performance cars (like the BMW M series), exhaust tips require a slightly different approach to restore shine.

Since your exhaust system spews carbon dioxide, carbon deposits form and cling to and stain the metal tips over time. What results is a cloudy gray to black color hard to remove with normal car cleaning products.

The good news: you can usually restore shine with a little elbow grease.

How to clean exhaust tips in 5 steps

To start, follow this simple step-by-step guide to clean, polish, and restore your dirty exhaust tips using a few simple products.

Warning: Beware of home remedies and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using metal cleaners and polishes. Avoid household remedies like oven cleaner, as some products not designed for automotive use can cause cosmetic issues. If your tail pipes are beginning to rust through, consider aftermarket exhaust tips (since cleaning may do more damage than good).

What you’ll need

  • Gloves for protection
  • Hose and running water
  • Car soap and a tire bucket
  • Degreaser or all-purpose cleaner
  • Several old microfiber towels
  • Automotive metal polish
  • 0000-grade automotive steel wool (optional)
  • Degreaser or all-purpose cleaner
  • Metal sealant (optional)

Tips for cleaning exhaust tips

  1. Always let your exhaust tips cool down before cleaning

  2. Don’t use heavy-grade steel wool as it can leave scratches

  3. Select the right polish based on the type of metal

Step 1: Wash and rinse with soap and water

Before you start, put on a pair of gloves and grab several old but clean microfiber towels. I generally start with medium-pile microfiber towels which are great at picking up particles; once clear and dry, low-pile microfiber cloths are ideal for spreading polishing.

This entire process can get pretty messy, so be careful not to sling dirty water on your vehicle or clothes and pull off in the grass if you’re worried about driveway stains.

Quick Tip!

Always use a separate bucket to clean heavily soiled areas like wheels and exhaust tips. Your main soap bucket used on paint should never be exposed to brake dust, oil, and carbon buildup. Check out our post on buckets 101 for more information.

As a first step, fill your bucket with soapy water, dip your microfiber towel inside, and remove loose dirt from the outside of the exhaust tip.

Step 2: Spray on a degreaser or all-purpose cleaner

For the next step, use a spray-on degreaser with a soft-bristled brush to remove as much carbon buildup as possible. If you use wheel cleaning brushes, I recommend the soft-bristled ones that won’t leave scratches.

You can also use a spray-on tar remover or iron remover for road grime or black tar deposits.

When finished…rinse again with clean water, dry everything off with a dry and clean microfiber towel, and move on to the next step.

Step 3: Apply an automotive metal polish

Next comes the buffing and polishing process. Since your pipes may still look slightly hazy or cloudy due to oxidation, a chrome polish or metal polish can help restore luster.

For stainless tips or chrome tips, I recommend a product called Borla, a liquid metal cleaner and polish designed for exactly this application. You can also use it on chrome bumpers and other areas you need to brighten up.

Borla Exhaust Polish

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In a circular motion, apply any liquid polish with a soft cloth and buff off when finished.

There are two types of polishes commonly used to clean tail pipes: liquid-based polish and what’s called metal wadding polish. Metal wadding polish is just a piece of dry cotton treated with a polishing compound; this solution is perfect for exhaust tips that are only slightly oxidized and is a less messy all-in-one solution.

To clean black or painted exhaust tips, never use abrasives or metal polish intended for chrome or stainless steel. After using soap and water, be careful not to scratch

How to clean titanium exhaust tips

Titanium exhaust tips may turn a blueish patina over time due to a process called titanium nitriding that occurs at high temperatures. While some find this blue color desirable, never use metal polish not designed for titanium. Some manufacturers recommend WD-40 or wadding polish, so check before cleaning.

Step 4: Consider fine-grade steel wool in some cases

If you have some surface rust or light pitting, you can proceed to automotive-grade (000 or 0000) steel wool. Even though you can use a Brillo pad to clean filthy exhaust tips, they do contain soap and aren’t the best product for this application.

Since steel wool is more abrasive than polish, it can help remove scratches that metal polish alone cannot.

Any time you use something abrasive like steel wool, follow back up with a less abrasive polish. Steel wool in itself can sometimes leave scratches after removing carbon buildup. These microscratches can then be removed with a polish. For best results, always work from most abrasive to less abrasive.

Step 5: Add a layer of protection

You can keep your exhaust tips cleaner for longer by applying a high-temperature ceramic coating or metal sealant. Products like carnauba wax or other paint protectants typically don’t hold up well under high heat unlike products like Blackfire.

Blackfire Metal Polish and Sealant

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Blackfire metal polish and sealant.

This product was designed to withstand high temperatures and can protect exhaust pipes for up to 6 months.

What to do if your exhaust pipes can’t be restored

If your tips are beyond the point of restoration, you can sometimes find aftermarket tips on eBay or Amazon that slide over the last foot or so of the tail pipe. I recently picked up a set of these for my truck; they bolt on easily and usually don’t cost much. Just be sure you measure the diameter of your car’s exhaust tips for a proper fit.

if you’re trying to up your detailing game, check out these 11 sneaky smart tips for washing your car. These are just a few of the tips and tricks offered in our video course, Washing and Detailing for Beginners.

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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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