The Right Way to Wash, Wax or Seal Your Car for Best Shine and Protection

Ask Don Siegler, a professional car cleaner and detailer, and he will tell you that almost everyone – including you – do not wash, wax, or seal your car, truck, or SUV properly. “You damage the finish, you leave scratches and lots of dirt behind, and you probably use the wrong products, too,” says Don who has been at it for more than 30 years.

The most common misperception, insists Don, is that washing your car, truck, or SUV does anything to protect your finish. While he admits it’s wise to get dirt, debris, and road gunk off your car finish before the harsh sunlight seals it into the coat, Don emphasizes that washing your car alone will do nothing long-term to preserve your paint, shine, or even the structural integrity of the automobile.

“To preserve the enamel and protect it from the worst that outdoor life does to a car, you need either a quality car wax or the right car sealer for your type of paint,” adds Don who has consulted on car care for some very expensive and prized vehicles, including vintage classics from the 1920s and 1930s. “But before you apply either, you do need a very good wash. Don’t spare the elbow grease either. In fact, the only thing you should spare is hard-bristled brushes and materials that contain abrasives that can hurt the paint finish.”

Don makes an excellent point about abrasives, since there are a number of today’s new vehicles have a clear coat finish. Some car wash detergents offer abrasives to help remove dirt, while many car wax products include abrasives as well to remove any oxidation from auto paint to improve the sheen or shine on duller or faded auto exteriors.

Yet abrasives and a clear coat finish are a bad combination. When you use them, you end up with potential scratches on the clear coat finish, something you should avoid. A clear coat finish also does not like products that contain polish. Avoid this, too, if you have such a finish sometimes referred to as a “base coat, clear coat” finish.

If you have a solid color finish, however, your car paint can tolerate some abrasive ingredients so long as you are careful in how you apply them. Your vehicle owner manual probably specifies which type of finish you have on your make and model of car, truck, or SUV.

The expert advises too that when you apply anything like a wax or sealer, you are better off if you apply these yourself, which you usually do by rubbing on, than having a commercial car wash mechanically spray these on for you. The difference, he adds, can be more consistency of application and better overall protection for the paint coat itself.

“If you really like your local car wash, go down there and have them wash your car. But take it home or go out to the side lot of the car wash to apply your wax or sealer yourself. When you have them spray it on instead, you waste money and won’t get the results you want. If you have a long distance to drive home, I’d suggest taking your wax or sealer with you and doing it immediately after you wash the car so you don’t pick up new dirt on the way,” says Don.

Don also recommends the following whenever you wash your car, truck, or SUV:

1. Always dry the vehicle completely before you apply wax or sealer. While drying it, be sure that the washing was thorough enough that no dirt or debris was left behind. If you find unclean areas, you should wash the car again before you apply anything else.
2. Have a plentiful supply of clean, soft cloths. When a cloth becomes saturated with wax or sealer, use a fresh one.
3. Your best job will come through your hands and muscles rather than power tools like motorized buffers.
4. When waxing, avoid hot summer days or strong direct sunlight because this can cause streaking and possible other problems. Wax in the shade if possible or wait until the sun goes down.
5. Apply wax to one area at a time and work it in before you move on to the next area. If you try to apply to a very large area, like the entire hood, trunk, or roof at once, you may get far less even results.
6. Follow product directions carefully.
7. Exercise caution that you do not get either wax or sealer on unwanted areas like vinyl coverings, glass, or black matte moldings. If you do, it may be nearly impossible to remove.

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