Mastering DIY Car Cleaning: Expert Valet Tips About Natural Products and Pristine Finishes

updated: 07/06/2024


A person washing the back of a car with a sponge

For most of us, our car is an extension of ourselves. So why not learn how to keep your car in pristine condition? Cleaning your car and keeping it clean is all in the details. Ever wonder why getting your car clean is called ‘detailing’? That’s because it’s more than just cleaning, it’s all about paying attention to the finer details.

The best place to start cleaning is inside the vehicle. Washing this area first prevents dust from spreading to the clean exterior. Find a nice shaded area to work in.

A close-up shot of a soaped side mirror of a black car

What Do You Need

You will need:

  • Sponges
  • Hose [use one with an adjustable nozzle if possible]
  • Two buckets of water
  • Rags
  • Car shampoo or detergent
  • Wax
  • Vacuum
  • Brush and scoop
  • Small brush for hard-to-reach places (an old toothbrush will do)
  • Can of compressed air

Cleaning the Interior

  • Remove all floor mats and other objects from inside the car. This includes the glove compartment
  • Wash the mats
  • Sweep out the interior of the vehicle with the brush. Use the scoop to collect the dirt and debris
  • Next, use the small brush to dust areas you cannot reach with the vacuum or broom.
  • Use the vacuum to get to everything else, especially carpets
  • A can of compressed air is handy to blow dust from crevices
  • Vacuum under the seats is an area often overlooked when cleaning your car.
  • Clean hard surfaces with a damp, clean cloth
  • Next, tackle the trunk, remove garbage and dispose of it.
  • Vacuum thoroughly
  • Replace items that are needed
A young man cleaning the interior of a sports car

Now that you have finished your car’s interior, it’s time to clean the exterior.

Cleaning the Exterior

  • Turn on the pipe and let loose with the spray nozzle; rinsing the car will loosen dirt. Rinse from top to bottom.
  • Now, get one bucket and mix a solution of soap and water. The other bucket should contain clean water. The second bucket with the clean water is to be used to rinse out the dirty sponge as you wash the car.
  • Start washing from the top of the vehicle. After thoroughly cleaning one area, rinse the sponge in clean water. You may need to change the water when it gets too dirty.
  • Rinse the vehicle with the hose before moving to the wheels.
  • Wash the wheels last.
  • Dry off your car with clean rags.
  • Dry your windshield and other glass areas with a rag, and finish with newspaper. This will ensure no residue is left behind.
  • Your car is now ready to be waxed and polished. Apply wax and polish the vehicle’s body.

You should always wash your car in the shade. This is because direct sunlight can dry the soap you use to clean the car too quickly, leaving smears and streaks behind. No matter what colour your car is, these streaks will show.

First of all, use the hose to get rid of any significant and obvious bits of mud. This is especially true in the case of a 4×4 that gets used off-road. Pay particular attention to the mud flaps, the wheels and anything behind these that mud flicks up onto. Incidentally, did you know that up to a ton of mud can get onto the bottom of a logging truck?

Once you have hosed off the excess, use the soft bristle brush and the soapy water, working systematically from top to bottom, doing one side at a time. It may be best to do the windows first (splash on soapy water, scrub off any splattered insects, then use the blade to remove the water and prevent streaking), as the water will get dirty. You may need to change the water depending on how big and grubby your car is.

Once you have soaped and scrubbed the car, thoroughly hose all the soap off. You can leave the job here—your car is presentable—but to protect your paint and give it a glossy finish, it’s best to wax it.

You will need to dry your car before waxing it. A chamois leather or towel can be used, but it’s much easier to take your car for a quick spin down to the shops to do a few errands (who says that guys can’t multi-task?) and let it air-dry.

When you get back, apply the polish to all paintwork. Once you have used it, buff it up. You can buy tinted polishes that enhance the colour of your paintwork, or you can stick to clear/colourless. Some proprietary car washes combine wash and polish/wax all in one.

A man polishing the front end of his car

How To Keep Your Car Smelling Nice?

Some people think that the smell of a new car is one of the nicest smells around. Some don’t. Suppose you are trying to reduce the number of toxins that you are exposed to. In that case, it probably doesn’t pay to think too hard about exactly what that “new car” smell is – it’s probably a mixture of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from the glues and vinyl around the car, plus a bit of artificial scent and dry-cleaning fluid if the vehicle is a second-hand one. It’s not quite so lovely if you stop to think about it.

However, a clean car is much nicer to drive than one that stinks. Some second-hand cars that haven’t got the new car smell aren’t too bad – all they smell of is dogs. Worse ones smell of cigarette smoke, vomit and alcohol. (Mind you, if a car stinks of all of these three, don’t buy it – do you want to buy a car thrashed by the sort of person who drinks so much that they throw up while driving? Exceptions can be made for ex-taxis – they may have higher mileage, but they will have been well maintained).

Whether buying a new or second-hand car or sticking with your trusty set of wheels, stopping your car ponging if you’ll spend time in it is essential. If you’re not desperate to escape the reek, you’ll be a more relaxed driver, suitable for everybody’s safety. So, how do you get the car to smell nice?

General Tips To Prevent Bad Smells In The Car

First of all, give up smoking. Some people choose the car as being an OK place to smoke as it doesn’t put the fumes and poisons all through the house where your children and non-smoking family members can breathe it in. Stopping smoking is tough, but it will be the best thing you can ever do for your health. It will also get rid of a lot of the pong.

Secondly, clean out your car regularly. Old chip packets can turn quite nasty. Keep a plastic bag in your car for wrappers and peels (OK, orange peels scattered through your car will help it smell nice at first, but they turn mouldy and nasty if left too long) and change it regularly. Also, vacuum your car out – a must if you have a dog that rides in the car. Sometimes car washes have vacuuming facilities, but resist the temptation to add in the car fragrancing that’s often on offer – this is pretty awful toxin-laden artificial stuff.

If you have a dog that rides in the car regularly, consider spreading out a rug for the dog to sit on. When it starts looking a bit hairy (the rug, not the dog – the dog always looks hairy unless you have one of those Mexican Hairless dogs), take it out and give it a good wash.

Also, be sure to get rid of any vomit promptly. If you have someone in your family who frequently gets travel sick, always carry a spare ice cream container or similar in case of emergencies when you can’t stop them from getting sick. Scrap any spilt sick with a towel, then scrub like the blazes with soapy water. Sprinkle baking soda to absorb the pong, then vacuum this up. Never vacuum up vomit unless you want to smell it every time you use the vacuum.

When choosing a child’s seat, ensure the cover is washable. Sometimes, you can’t stop so a child can pee, and leaks in nappies happen.

Open the windows frequently and let fresh air in, especially when driving through rural areas. Fresh air is the best deodorant.

Limit the amount of eating you do in the car. You may have picked up food from the drive-through, but you can often wait until you get home before eating it.

Make your car fragrance by mixing water, vinegar, or alcohol with 10–20 drops of essential oil. Shake the mixture together and spray it around your car whenever you like. Citrus scents help you stay alert, which is a must when driving.

How To Clean Your Car Cover

With space becoming a premium commodity, especially in big cities like London, having a garage to protect your car is becoming increasingly difficult. The only option to protect this valuable investment is to use a car cover. However, even the car cover will need cleaning every once in a while, or the accumulated dirt and grime could form a hard film that will scratch the paint on your car each time the cover is put on or removed.

Luckily, car covers are designed to be easily cleaned and are not something you need to add to your house cleaning contract. Most are machine washable, but sadly, not on domestic washing machines. You will have to take your car cover to a laundromat with commercial washing machines and no centre agitator, which could cause the cover to lose shape. Follow the cleaning instructions that came with the cover, or if they are missing, select a cold wash cycle, put in the cover and use about a quarter cup of detergent. Once the washing is completed, run an additional rinse cycle because if even a little bit of soap remains on the cover, it can affect water resistance. Do not use a dryer unless the washing instructions specifically say you may. Air drying is the best; one way to do this is to place the cover on the car and let it dry.

If you can’t get to a Laundromat, you can clean the car cover yourself while it is in the car:

  • Pull the cover tightly over the car and smooth out wrinkles as much as possible.
  • Use a hose to wash off any loose mud and debris.
  • Fill a bucket with water and mix any mild detergent in the recommended proportion.
  • Use a sponge to wash the cover with the water and detergent solution, scrubbing on any stained areas.
  • Rinse thoroughly, making sure that no detergent residue is left on the cover.
  • Allow it to drip dry for about ten minutes, remove the cover from the car, turn it inside out and place it back on the car.
  • Repeat the complete cleaning process.
  • Allow the now external surface to air dry completely; once that happens, remove the cover, invert it, and let the other surface dry.
  • Remove the cover, check for soap stains that may have seeped through minute tears or cracks, and wipe them off the car.

Handy Recipes To Clean Your Car With Organic Materials

One of the most popular gifts for guys is car grooming products. The only snag with these is that they’re not that natural, except for chamois leather cleaning cloths. With the amount of time that modern people spend inside their cars, especially if they have a decent work commute, it makes sense to limit the amount of toxins they are exposed to in their vehicles and their homes.

But you can make your car grooming natural cleaning products. You can make them for yourself or make a batch or three to give as gifts for the car-happy blokes (and women) in your circle of friends and relations.

Several of these recipes call for soap gel. Making soap gel is easy. Save soap scraps, grate or chop up a bar of soap. Put the scraps into a bucket or non-reactive saucepan and pour boiling water over the soap. The soap will melt and form a slippery gel once it cools. The consistency of the gel will depend on the proportion of soap and water you use. Still, the ideal consistency is slightly less runny than shampoo but runnier than honey (the best description for soap gel is to think of the sort of mucus produced by a heavy cold in the nose – revolting but true).

Basic Car Wash

Mix 4 litres of water with ½ cup soap gel (preferably from castile soap) in a bucket. Add ten drops of essential oil of your choice (one of the citrus family is ideal, but lavender also smells good). Use a soft brush to wash your car all over the exterior. Finish by rinsing off with a hose or bucket before the soap dries. If making this up to give as a gift, mix the soap gel and the essential oil, and add instructions on how to use it.

Double the amount of soap gel used to make a heavy-duty car wash suitable for 4x4s.

Tyre Wash

Mix 2 cups baking soda with ½ cup soap gel and 1 cup water. Use this to wash down the tyres. Rinse it off with a mixture of vinegar and water.

Car polish

Melt 12 tablespoons of beeswax in 2 cups of linseed oil and 10 drops of essential oil of your choice in a double boiler. While it’s still liquid, seal it into an airtight container. Leave it a few days to harden. Apply directly to the car with a soft cloth dampened with vinegar. Buff to a high shine with a dry cloth.

Interior Scent

Blend about 1 cup of vinegar or vodka in 1 pint of water. Add about 12 drops of essential oil or a blend of essential oils (citrus or lemongrass help promote alertness, while lavender is soothing – may eliminate a bit of road rage!). Put these into a spray bottle and shake together. Put it away in a dark cupboard to mellow a little, then spray it inside the car when you want to freshen it up. This mixture can also double as a cleaning product for chrome or windows – a real bonus.

About the author 

Nick Vassilev

Nick blogs about cleaning. He is a cleaning expert with more than 25 years of experience. He is also an NCCA-certified carpet cleaner. Founder and CEO of Anyclean.