One of my high school jobs growing up was working at a car detailing shop – it was the toughest job I ever had, but it was awesome to see just how much of a difference the right products & 5-8 hours of your time can make on even the most neglected cars. Ever since my job detailing cars, I’ve been more and more of a “neat freak” when it came to cleaning my own car, but recently I’ve stepped up my detailing game to the next level by purchasing a number of high-end detailing products to use on my car.
Fast forward 20+ years and I’ve picked up a lot of tips on how to detail including the best products to use. I’m fortunate as a result of this blog that many companies will send me products to demo, and I’ve also taken my cars to Elite Finish San Diego to see what the best in the business do.
Here are the products I’ve been using, and highly recommend so far. I’ve updated this post in September 2022 since originally writing this over 11 years ago (wow!) in July 2011 as I’ve both tested new products and the industry itself has improved a lot.
Waterless Wash / Quick Detailer
By far, hands down, the best Waterless Wash / Quick Detailer I’ve used is WashMist by Elite Finish. It doesn’t streak nearly as much as other products I’ve tested (and I’ve probably tested well over a dozen at this point) and it does a great job at both cleaning and adding shine. It also has some ceramic coating properties to it so it will help maintain an existing ceramic coating or provide some additional protection if you don’t have it already. The key to using this product well is having the right kind of towels, and swapping out fresh towels whenever it gets dirty – when washing a car I typically go through about 4-5 towels depending on how dirty it is and how big the car is (e.g. R8 requires less towels than an SUV). I love these “Crazy Pile” towels as they are super thick and the long length of the fibers (known as the pile) allows dirt to get trapped deep down without risk of scratching the paint. Regardless, don’t use Costco towels – the quality of your microfiber makes a HUGE difference when using waterless wash / quick detailer. The WashMist also works well as a drying agent after a “bucket and soap” wash where you spray some on while drying to help lubricate the surface and eliminate any additional water spots. I also love using this as a glass cleaner!
Best used for: in-between deep cleans, while drying your car from a traditional wash, or when washing with water is not feasible/practical
When a quick detailer won’t cut it (see above), then I go straight to the pressure washer. There are a few reasons for this but in a nutshell, why I love using a pressure washer is that:
- It uses less water
- The water pressure knocks off a ton of dirt, reducing the need to scrub (saving both effort and minimizing the chance of swirls)
- The foam cannon creates a nice thick coating of soap that dwells on the paint that you simply cannot replicate otherwise
- Often if the car isn’t that dirty you can skip using a sponge all together, so it is often quicker
- It works WONDERS on wheels, removing stubborn brake dust from cracks, crevices and spokes that you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise
My current setup is an electric pressure washer from Amazon (gas works better, but way more noise & hassle – IMO electric gets you 80% of the results for 20% of the effort). You’ll want something as close to 2 GPM as possible and the higher the PSI the better. I like this one currently on sale. Combine this with a nice foam lance like the Torq Lance by Chemical Guys and any high suds soap like CarPro Reset or Adams Car Shampoo. Make sure to grab a few nice microfiber wash mitts (note: a standard microfiber towel like those above work just fine too) and wheel woolies while you’re in there, and you’re good to go – alternatively, this all in one kit from Chemical Guys is a pretty good value if you need all of the above.
When washing the car, use different towels/brushes depending on the surface to avoid cross contamination – e.g. don’t use the same towel on your wheels as your paint, or you’ll end up getting brake dust in your paint and scratching everything up over time.
For the interior, you’ll want a general interior cleaner and then something specific to your seats. I’ve found a lot of products work really well here, and none are particularly that different or more effective than each other – so feel free to search around on Amazon or Detailed Image. Recently I’ve been testing some Proje Car Cleaner products and their Interior Alpha cleaner works great, but also had really good luck with 303 Aerospace Protectant.
For leather seats – I really like Gyeon Strong Leather cleaner for deep cleans, Leatherique Rejuvinator Oil for moisturizing / restoring old leather, and then just about an interior “quick detailer” works fine for the rest of the surfaces like the dashboard or regular cleaning of the seats. It’s also worth noting that you don’t need to use a cleaner every time – often after drying the car I’ll use a damp microfiber to wipe down the dash and use nothing but water…this is the safest way to clean, and doesn’t leave any residue. Avoid anything that leaves a greasy or shiny finish as those tend to eat away at the finish of the buttons over time – so if a damp towel is enough to do the trick, then follow the “do no harm” principle and keep it simple.
For wheels, I typically use the pressure washer method above. It’s best to do the wheels first, then the rest of the car. Start with a thorough rinsing to kick off all of the brake dust, then use a Wheel Cleaner to help remove any iron deposits. I like Sonax Wheel Cleaner or Iron-X – they are really cool as they change color as the chemicals work. Let the chemicals sit on the wheel long enough to do their thing and change color, but do not let them dry on the wheel and do not apply to hot wheels as it can etch the paint. I also like to spray generously on the brake calipers and inside wheel barrels where I can to get more dirt & debris and make the wheel really clean. The wheel brushes are great for getting deeper into the wheel barrels as well as around the lug nuts. After the wheel cleaner has done its magic, pressure wash it off with water, then proceed to giving the entire car (including the wheels again) a foam bath and/or sponge cleaning. Lastly when drying if you use a ceramic or silicon coating (like WashMist above) it helps remove any remaining debris as well as adds a little protection.
Finally, if you get the chance to deep clean – the do the above but remove the wheels from the vehicle. Once fully dry and all debris removed, apply a ceramic coating to protect the wheels and have brake dust literally roll off – see below for more on ceramic coatings.
For tire shine, I really like Proje’s Tire Fusion the best of anything I’ve tried – and if you want to go for an all-in-one kit this is a great setup. Overall I’ve found all of Proje’s products to be great, but the tire shine is quite remarkable. It doesn’t sling, it has the right amount of shine, it lasts a while, and it’s easy to apply. Finally, someone figured out how to do this!
Ceramic coatings are an absolute GAME CHANGER as I’ve written before. The water beads off to the point where you barely need to dry the car, and it also repels dirt, mud, and anything else that typically sticks to the paint. You can apply this almost anywhere including glass, plastic trim, wheels, and of course the paint.
I like CarPro DLUX wheel coating for wheels, brake calipers, and other high traffic/heat areas, combined with CarPro UK Edition for the rest of the car. Before applying a ceramic coating it’s important to make sure the wheels and/or paint is as perfect as you can get it, as a ceramic coating will last 3-5 years and basically locks in anything underneath – think of it like a screen protector for your phone, where there is an extra layer of glass protecting what’s underneath – so any imperfections are stuck in place (and if the wheel or paint looks perfect, that will stay the case too!).
I’ve also tested GTechniq and Avalon King and they were great too – ceramic coating is really easy to DIY (it’s all of the prep work and polishing that is hard) and most reputable products will do well at this point. Avoid any no-name brands that are significantly cheaper, and you’ll be fine.
If you really want to go big, invest in a good dual action orbital polisher like a Rupes Big Foot. You’ll also need a ton of pads, polishing solutions, and more – so frankly you’re better off outsourcing this to a professional unless you either (1) really like doing this yourself or (2) plan to do this often enough to have this be a good value. You can easily spend $500-1000 in supplies, and the learning curve to truly get good at polishing can be dozens of cars (and during that learning curve, you may make mistakes that damages or burns through the paint). IMO most people are best off finding a good detailer, having them polish the paint, and then apply a ceramic coating afterwards to lock it in. That should last the lifetime of the vehicle in most cases, and you can maintain the coating with CarPro Reload or similar sprays every 6-12 months. If you do DIY this, I recommend investing in a clay bar mitt as that saves a ton of time, then I like to use the Meguiars Ultra-Cut to remove deep swirls and scratches, then Meguiars Ultra-Finish for the second pass to remove any smaller swirls and holograms.
When considering DIY versus professional detailing, be sure to factor in the value of your time – polishing your car correctly can take 8 hours (easily) and give you a pretty sore back, so if the cost is about the same to buy all of the supplies versus hire a professional – then the professional is not only cost effective but saves you a ton of time, body aches, and you’ll get a better result.
There is a ton more you could write, and recommend, as detailing is really an art form. I have amassed an entire cabinet of detailing supplies, and each tool has a different use for specific situations or needs.
A few products that I’ll lean on more often include:
- Vinegar – great for removing water spots, especially on glass
- Bissell Little Green – great for deep cleaning of carpets, seats, and removing stains
- Leaf Blower – especially if your car is ceramic coating, using a leaf blower to help dry the car and blow out water from hard to reach places like the grille or wheel spokes is great
- Degreaser – great for engine bays, really stubborn spots, door jams, or other places that have been neglected or been covered with oil & grime.
- Steam Cleaners – great for headliners (be careful with heat) or stubborn spots on the interior.
- Glass Cleaner – I prefer to use WashMist noted above, but Stoners or any other car-specific glass cleaner can be helpful to make the glass really pop.
Hope this helps, and I’ll continue to update this post as I try new things!