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How to Wash Wheels and Tires: A 101 Guide

Keeping wheels and tires looking nice sounds easy enough…and it isn’t difficult. But you need to know how to properly wash wheels and tires to actually see results.

In this post, I’ll break down a simple wheel and tire wash process that works well (and many pros follow). You do need a few products other than a tire brush, but most don’t cost much.

Equipment you’ll need

Before you begin, here are a few products I recommend for anyone washing wheels

  • A dedicated wheel bucket
  • Wheel degreaser, iron remover, or all-purpose cleaner (more on that later)
  • Wheel soap or snow foam
  • Tire dressing and/or wheel polish (optional)
  • Foam gun or foam cannon
  • One or more detailing brushes
  • Wheel woolie wheel brush
  • Tire brush
  • Old but clean microfiber towels

Step 1: Remove loose debris from your vehicle

Even though you should wash the wheels first, be sure to remove any twigs or leaves on your vehicle first. Give it a good spray down to remove any road salt before you get started.

Check out my post on what order to wash your vehicle if you’re unsure. Long story short…wheels are ideal to wash first.

Step 2: Spray down the wheel wheels

Sometimes it’s appropriate to use a power washer to spray down each wheel and wheel well before you apply products. Sometimes road tar sticks to wheels and wheel wells, so applying water at a safe pressure is the way to go. At a minimum, a quick spray down with the hose will work.

Once everything has been rinsed down, it’s time to apply products. Before you clean your rims, go ahead and apply wheel shampoo and a few gallons of water to your wheel bucket. We’ll use that later.

Step 3: Apply a wheel and tire cleaner

If brake dust isn’t heavy, I like to use a foaming pH-neutral wheel and tire cleaner. You can also use a mild degreaser or all-purpose cleaner to cut through tough grime that dirt alone has trouble removing. It’s up to you, but the milder the solution, the better.

Use a standard wheel brush to work around lug nuts and hard-to-reach areas, followed by a brush called a wheel woolie. A wheel woolie is a bristle-less brush designed to clean flat surfaces of the wheel; these soft wheel brushes are easy to maneuver around calipers and inside the rim.

Use an iron remover for heavy brake dust

If you have a ton of brake dust or industrial fallout (iron deposits), start with a spray-on iron remover for wheels. These products usually turn a purple color when activated and specifically target iron deposits normal tire cleaners may struggle to remove. Since brake dust can attach to rocker panels and areas of the wheel well, most iron removers like the product below by Adam’s will do the trick.

Adam’s Iron Remover

What I like

pH neutral, made in the USA, and affordable

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Quick tip!

Avoid strong acids on wheels. These are harsh, can damage paint, and are best left for cleaning other surfaces…not vehicles! If the solution your wheels look great without any agitation at all…it’s too strong.

Scrub the tires

If you have very dirty tires, now is the time to use your long-handled tire brush. I like to wait a few seconds to let the all-purpose cleaner or foaming wheel cleaner cut through the grime before scrubbing.

If your tires are brown, it’s likely due to trapped dirt or a browning process caused by anti-ozonants. You can learn more about that in my post on why tires turn brown.

If your tires look pretty clean and you have protected them with a nice dressing, you can skip the sprays and just use a shampoo to knock off dirt…totally up to you.

Step 4: Apply a wheel shampoo or foam

Once you rinse off the iron remover and/or wheel cleaner, grab your tire bucket to apply wheel shampoo. To clean super dirty wheels and tires, you really do need to use a spray for the tar and brake dust and a foam or shampoo for everything else.

Quick tip!

Wheel shampoo is designed to attack brake dust and grease more so than standard car shampoo. If you don’t have this product on hand, normal car shampoo is better than nothing.

Use a clean wheel woolie or an old (but clean) wash mitt to apply the shampoo to the entire wheel including inside the rim and hard-to-reach areas; grab another soft-bristled detailing brush for the lug nuts.
While you’re at it, use your old wash mitt to clean the wheel wells.

Rinse everything off, and move to the next tire before dressing. To avoid water spots, you can even wipe the wheel down with an old (but clean) microfiber towel.

Step 5: Apply a tire dressing

To finish up, apply a tire dressing. This helps to condition your tires and prevent them from cracking and drying out prematurely.

Petroleum-based vs water-based tire dressings

Petroleum-based tire dressings will give you a higher shine than water-based dressings, they also hold up a bit longer. The downside is that these products tend to sling up on your paint, and may accelerate the drying out or browning of the tire if used often.

Many of these products like spray forms (like aerosol foamers)

Water-based tire dressings don’t last as long, but still protect the wheel for a couple of weeks after application. They give you a more natural look to the wheel and may come in gel or spray form.

Step 6: Protect your wheels after washing

Once you remove all dirt, wax, and everything else on your wheels and tires, it’s a good idea to apply a level of protection.

For wheels, I recommend a ceramic wheel sealant made by McKee’s.

McKee’s 37 Ceramic Wheel Sealant

What I like

Polishes and protects at high temperatures

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This product helps repel brake dust and goes on just like car wax. Simply apply with the applicator pad, and buff out the haze.

You don’t have to apply a wheel sealant every single time you wash, but it will make a difference. I have heard of people using tire sealant products, but I usually just stick with a water-based dressing. Dressings give you a good level of protection while letting the tire breathe.

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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