Washing Your Car: How Often, and How to Do It Right

Stephen Fogel
June 18, 2018

wash your car

It’s important to keep up to date on your car maintenance — oil changes, brake pads and adding new fluids are vital to making your ride sure runs smoothly. But it’s also important to take care of your vehicle’s exterior, too, with regular car washes.

But how often do you need to clean your ride? And is it OK to just run it through the gas station car wash, or do you need to hand-wash it? 

We’ll explain further, but in general, washing your car every couple weeks is ideal, and doing it by hand is the best option. Let’s dig in.

How often to wash your car

Like so many things, the real answer to this question depends on several factors. Overall, washing your car once every other week should be sufficient.

If you don’t drive it often — maybe you don’t have to commute to work or drop the kids off at school every day — and if you keep the car in your garage, you’ll be fine extending to monthly car washes. 

But if you live where it’s hot and dusty, or on the coast with salty ocean air, or where it snows a lot during the winter and the roads get salted, you should probably bump it up to once a week. The same is true if you live in the woods, where tree sap can drip onto your paint.

Summer vs. winter

Does the time of year make a difference in how often you should wash your car? In a word, yes. This is especially true if you deal with snow regularly. As mentioned above, road salt and constant moisture threaten your vehicle with rust, a car killer. 

If this sounds like your hometown, aim to wash your ride as often as you can, at least once a week.

On the other hand, those in hot climates might have to deal with summer dust storms, which can damage car paint. And the heat itself will wear out any wax you have on the vehicle. So find a shady spot and plan on weekly washes, as well.

» LEARN MORE: How to clean your foggy headlights

Why washing your car is important

We all lead busy lives, and washing our cars can easily fall down the list of priorities. But forgetting to wash a vehicle can damage its paint job. Dirt particles can form a thin film of grime over the car’s clear coat, eventually creating micro-scratches in it. As the scratches get bigger, your clear coat is compromised and the paint underneath gets exposed to damage. 

In snowy or salty areas, built up salt and grime can hold moisture and encourage growing patches of rust and corrosion. Rust will severely damage the undercarriage of your car, including the frame and parts of your exhaust system. This will lead to expensive repairs and cut the value of the car when you want to sell it or trade it in.

Even if you don’t have to deal with road salt, there are other scourges threatening your paint job.

Bird poop contains uric acid, a corrosive material that can do serious damage to the clear coat and paint. When you notice bird droppings on your vehicle, it's important to immediately rinse them off or wash the car, ensuring the acid doesn’t have a chance to eat through your paint.

Similarly, the remains of smashed bugs can damage the paint job, as can tree sap, if left long enough.

How to wash your car by hand

Hand-washing is the best option when it comes to cleaning your ride — as long as you do it the right way.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A mild, pH-balanced car-cleaning soap (don’t use dish soap — it’s not meant for car paint)
  • Two big, clean sponges or wash mitts, one for the body and one for the wheels
  • Two buckets, one for rinsing and one for soapy water
  • A soft, clean towel (microfiber is best)

Starting at the top, rinse first the panel with clean water. This will remove loose debris that could scratch the paint once you start scrubbing. Then get to work with a sponge or mitt dipped in soapy water. Use side-to-side motions across the panel, going over the whole section — don’t use swirling motions, which can introduce small scratches. 

Rinse the sponge often, and then re-soap it. For large panels, like the roof or hood, you’ll want to do this a few times while washing it. Make sure to get a good layer of suds on the section. Then rinse the panel before the soap can dry.

If you drop your sponge or mitt on the ground while working, rinse it thoroughly before continuing. If you don’t, grit or rocks from the pavement could stick to the sponge and then get ground into your paint.

Move downward, saving the wheels and tires for last. You’ll want to use a different sponge for this part, as they’ll be the dirtiest. If there’s a lot of stuck-on grease or tar, you may need to get a heavier-duty cleaner made just for wheels. 

Then dry the car using the clean towel. Don’t let the vehicle air dry, which can leave water spots and some contaminants behind. 

wash car 2

Hand-washing tips for summer

You’ll want to avoid washing your car during the hottest time of day, and you’ll want to do it out of the sun. So, in the morning or just around sunset, find a shady spot and get to work.

And don’t wait till the end to dry. Instead, towel off each section as you go so the water doesn’t evaporate quickly in the heat.

Hand-washing tips for winter

Don’t wash your car when the temperature is below freezing — it’s no fun for you and the water can freeze on your car. Instead, try to wait for a warmer day or move the car under cover, if possible, before washing. 

When you do wash, start with warm water for rinsing, as it will help melt off any frozen-on grime. And make sure to blast the salt and gunk out from under the car. After all, that’s the main reason for winter washing.

Waterless car wash solutions

If you don’t have a driveway or safe place to wash your car — or if it’s freezing out — waterless car wash solutions are a good way to go, as long as the vehicle isn’t filthy. Spray the solution on one section at a time, then use a clean part of a towel to wipe it off. Keep in mind these products won’t suffice if you need to remove salt from under the car or if your vehicle is caked in mud.

What about paying for car washes?

Taking your vehicle through the machine at the local gas station sure seems convenient. Unfortunately, it can be bad for your paint job.

The worst option is the car wash with floppy or spinning brushes. These pieces of equipment wash dozens, or maybe hundreds, of cars between cleanings, which means they’re picking up gunk from the vehicles that went before you. That gunk can then leave small scratches in your clear coat or paint when it’s your turn.

Touchless car washes that use pressurized jets of water are somewhat better, but still not a good choice. That high-pressured water can force dirt and grime to scrape along your paint job. Not ideal. Plus, we all know the dryers at the end don’t really do that great a job of drying your vehicle. If you don’t bring a towel and thoroughly wipe down the car after you’re done, water spots and contaminants will remain.

Hand-wash businesses are a better option, but pay attention to the cloths and sponges they’re using to wash and dry. Do they look clean? Or are they dingy and worn out? If they don’t look so great, head elsewhere.

Even better would be the do-it-yourself stalls with pressurized hoses. These can be especially good in the winter, as the nozzles tend to be easier to get under your car. But to be safe, bring your own bucket, soap and towels in case the business doesn’t have good options. 

Wax is your friend — but not a cure-all

To get your car looking its best — and protect it even better for a while — consider applying a coat of wax after your wash. This will help prevent damage from the elements (not to mention those pesky birds) and will make it easier to wash your car next time.

» LEARN MORE: Check out our guide to what kind of wax is best for you

Whichever type of wax you buy, follow the directions on the container when you go to apply it. But don’t expect it to last forever. Consumer Reports found that the benefits of most waxes seriously diminish after a few weeks. So plan to add a new coat every two to three months.


Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

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