Trying to keep your car clean can seem like a futile mission, especially when the weather in the UK is so changeable. But there are few things more satisfying than standing back to admire a clean car, gleaming with brilliance, after a bit of elbow grease and with the best car cleaning products to hand.
With the pandemic and a clampdown on rogue traders forcing the closure of many illegal hand car washes nationwide, automatic car washes are becoming more popular again. Though technology has improved enough so that they don’t cause the same kind of damage they used to, automatic car washes aren’t really that cheap if you want your car cleaned regularly. Depending on where you are in the country, automatic car washes can be priced anything between £2.50 and £15. Between the time spent in queues and shelling out as much as £60 a month, it’s arguably more cost-effective to stick on your favourite podcast and dedicate an hour each Saturday morning to washing the body, wheels and glass.
Regular car washing helps stop road dirt and grease from building up, and better yet, a well-maintained car tends to keep its value for longer and has greater appeal when you do come to sell it.
Best car cleaning products: At a glance
How to choose the best car cleaning product for you
Why can’t I just use normal dish detergent to wash the car?
Dish-washing detergent has to be brutal enough to get last night’s baked-on casserole off your crockery. Specialist car washes are formulated to remove contaminants but gentle enough to ensure they don’t strip any previous polish or wax finishes you’ve applied. In terms of cost, a little often goes a long way. At face value, car shampoos can seem expensive. But if you’ve spent thousands on your car – or your monthly payment takes a sizeable chunk of your salary – spending a little more for a specialised product is a no-brainer; an investment in residual value, if you will.
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What’s the best thing to use to clean the car exterior?
The answer depends on how much time you have to commit to your weekly car wash. A perfect detailing routine has about 12 steps just for the exterior. Such scheduling is only for the most diehard of car cleaning fans. For those with lives outside of work, a more realistic car cleaning routine is:
Step 1. Apply the wheel cleaner
Step 2. Jet-wash or hand-wash the whole car using a shampoo (repeat if required)
Step 3. Clean the paintwork with clay
Step 4. Rinse and dry
Step 5. Apply the polish, let it cure then buff to shine (following instructions)
Step 6. Apply the wax, let it cure then buff
Step 7. Apply a wheel treatment such as tyre shine
Step 8. Step into the cabin, take out the rubbish, vacuum and anti-bac all the touch points
Step 9. Clean the glass inside and out
At the absolute minimum, you need to be doing the wheels, the wash, the rinse and dry weekly. Those four steps will help you avoid getting dirt and dust on your clothes when exiting the vehicle in parking bays.
You could short-cut exterior glass cleaning by investing in a Duxback treatment. It lasts about six months and is especially effective over winter (your local Halfords can do the treatment for you, too).
Technically, waxing and polishing are done monthly. If you pick the right car shampoo, you’ll get the benefits of your extra graft each and every week.
What’s the easiest car wax to use?
Wax adds a protective layer on top of the clear coat that protects your coloured paintwork. Though spray-on waxes are the easiest to apply, they aren’t especially effective unless you have a brand-new motor. Some people would argue that some wax is better than no wax. However, if you’re going to take the time to apply wax, choose a carnauba-based product.
How do I make my car smell new?
The fusty smell of damp dog, old fast food or smoke in a car isn’t very nice. Though some people find a new car smell nauseating, the family workhorse deserves a deodorise from time to time. Though Magic Trees and other dangling air fresheners are a cheap and cheerful solution, they tend to mask a smell, rather than neutralise it. An air bomb makes a longer-lasting difference.
Read on for our picks of the best cleaning products you can buy for your car.
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The best car cleaning products you can buy in 2022
1. Bilt Hamber Auto Wheel: The best cleaner for gleaming, grit-free wheels
Price: £16 | Buy now from Amazon
Wheels are one of the hardest working components on a car. With lacquered finishes they look amazing, but take a lot of flak from hot brake dust particles generated during journeys. Because of this dust and the fancy aerodynamic cutouts, wheels are not only the filthiest area but also the most awkward to clean. That said, tackle the hard stuff first.
Bilt Hamber’s Auto Wheel makes it easy, getting rid of the dust while protecting the lacquer finish. Access hard-to-reach corners and agitate stubborn grime with a wheel brush. Or get both as a combo pack. Whether you hand-wash or jet-wash at the next step, you’ll be sure your wheels will gleam after using Auto Wheel.
Key specs – Size: 1 litre; Notable features: pH balanced; Suitable for: Steel or lacquered alloys
2. Autoglym Bodywork Shampoo Conditioner: The best shampoo for the time-poor
Price: £17 | Buy now from Amazon
Autoglym Bodywork Shampoo Conditioner is a low foaming detergent that’s tough enough to get the greasy muck off but gentle enough not to strip any polish. The additional conditioner leaves a water-repellent finish and helps the surface dry faster.
Since you only need to add a capful to your bucket to get a great result, the Autoglym Bodywork Shampoo Conditioner is long-lasting. Ideally, you’ll have prepped any bird muck, squashed bugs or particularly tough grime with Poorboys Dropping Remover, or you’ll be taking the worst off as you go along with Autoglym’s Droppings Wipes.
Key specs – Size: 2.5 litres; Notable features: pH neutral, water-repellent finish; Suitable for: A longer valet, or a speedy wash-off and go
3. Bilt Hamber Auto Clay: The best detailer to remove deep grime
Price: £13 | Buy now from Amazon
Clay is one of the most underrated car cleaning products, yet it’s the secret to keeping a showroom-style shine to your paintwork. Tar and other debris sticks to the paintwork and feels bumpy to the touch, but Bilt Hamber’s pristine white Auto Clay pulls the grime off the paintwork gently, leaving the clay looking grubby (rather than your car).
The paintwork then feels smooth to the touch and ready for the wax. You fold the dirty clay together and use a fresh white surface again. You’ll be amazed at how much “invisible” dirt you remove. The wax is also great as you need only use tap water as a lubricant.
Key specs – Size: 200g clay bar; Notable features: Uses water as lubricant; Suitable for: All paintwork
4. Meguiar’s Ultimate Polish: The best polish to restore dull paintwork
Price: £16 | Buy now from Amazon
The top layer of clear lacquer that protects the paint colour quickly loses its gleaming factory finish and can become dull without some TLC. Regularly cleaning off the muck in Karate Kid-style circular motions unintentionally creates swirly patterns in the lacquer coat.
If you’re not au fait with car detailing, all these lotions and potions for an automotive hunk of metal might seem a bit like overkill. Meguiar’s Ultimate Polish, however, reduces lighter scratches and deepens the paint colour. With a bit of patience, polishing by hand or, even faster, with an electric polisher, this car polish is one product that makes a truly remarkable difference. It’s well worth the effort.
Key specs – Size: 450ml; Notable features: One bottle seems to last forever; Suitable for: All paintwork
5. Bilt Hamber Double Speed-wax: The best wax in the business
Price: £17 | Buy now from Amazon
Bilt Hamber appears on this list a few times. It’s no sponsor; it’s because the quality of many of its car cleaning products is second to none. Created in laboratories here in the UK, Bilt Hamber products aren’t always the cheapest on the market, yet they often offer the best value, especially for durability.
Bilt Hamber’s Double Speed-wax is a good case in point. A carnauba polymer base underpins this paste wax, providing a water-repellent film and high gloss finish. Sealing all your hard work with a shiny finish that’s long-lasting (seven weeks in tests), this multi-award-winning wax forces water to bead and run off. The price includes an applicator pad and a buffing cloth, too.
Key specs – Size: 250ml; Notable features: Unsurprising award-winner; Suitable for: Any driver dealing with both light showers and biblical rain
6. Diamondbrite Rinse and Shine: The best shortcut
Price: £5.95 | Buy now from Diamondbrite
If you’re happy to commit to a water wash for your car but can’t quite manage the polish and waxing steps, we’ve got you covered. Diamondbrite’s Rinse and Shine will get the drying, wax and shine wrapped up simultaneously. Great for those in a hurry – and at a superb price – Rinse and Shine leaves a much better finish than an automatic car wash would.
Simply spray it onto your washed vehicle and dry it off with a microfibre towel. A water-repellent film is left behind, which won’t be as durable as a full wax, of course. So you’ll need to use Rinse and Shine on a weekly basis, rather than monthly. Nonetheless, since you’re killing two birds with one stone – three if you count the streak-free shiny finish – Rinse and Shine is the ultimate short-cut car cleaning product.
Key specs – Size: 500ml; Notable features: Affordable price; Suitable for: Busy drivers
7. Turtlewax Waterless Wash and Wax: The best water-free approach
Price: £7.99 | Buy now from Halfords
The Turtlewax brand is long established in the car waxing game, known for bringing good-quality, affordable products to the consumer market. This Hybrid Waterless Wash and Wax is very popular, and for good reason. First, for those without hoses, driveways or regular weekly time to wash their motor, waterless wash is a veritable dream.
Second, the waxing element of Turtlewax Waterless Wash and Wax is so good, you could even use it after a water wash, much like Diamondbrite’s Rinse and Go above. Delivered with one cloth, dirt rubbed off with one side, paintwork polished with the other, Hybrid Waterless Wash and Wax brings a streak-free finish and versatility to the car cleaning table.
Key specs – Size: 750ml; Notable features: Three-in-one, one-stop shop; Suitable for: Those without time
Buy now from Halfords
8. Autoglym Multi-surface Sanitiser: The best interior anti-bac
Price: £6.99 | Buy now from Amazon
Autoglym’s highly popular multi-surface sanitiser is perfect for tackling all the different textures and materials in your cabin. The various key touch points of the interior, namely door handles, gear stick, handbrake, wheel, dash, centre display and seatbelts, all come into contact with the outside world, every day. And since the global pandemic, many of us are even more vigilant about hygiene.
If there are any really stubborn stains on your interior fabrics, you might wish to consider a specialist upholstery cleaner. But for the day-to-day dust and detritus, Autoglym’s multi-surface sanitiser is spot on. Not only will it kill viruses and bacteria, but it will also help eliminate any odours, making your car instantly more welcoming.
Key specs – Size: 500ml; Notable features: Multi-surface; Suitable for: All washable touch points in and out of the cabin
9. Auto Finesse Crystal glass: The best glass polisher
Price: £6.95 | Buy now from Clean Your Car
Getting smear-free windows is easier said than done. But no-one makes cleaning glass easier than Auto Finesse. Its Crystal Glass cleaner is more sophisticated than a bit of apple cider vinegar and water in a pump-action spray bottle. In this case, a little really does go a long way, so spritz sparingly.
Formulated to work on acrylic racing windows and glass sealants such as Duxback, Auto Finesse Crystal has your windows looking amazing both inside and out. Provided they were totally dry when you first sprayed, they’ll be streak-free, too. Suitable for the interior windows as well, the odour is pretty powerful, so keep your car doors open while you work, and work quickly.
Key specs – Size: 250ml; Notable features: Can be used on glass sealants; Suitable for: All kinds of windows
10. Meguiar’s Whole Car Refresher: The best odour neutraliser
Price: £14 | Buy now from Amazon
Given how pricey they can be, using an air bomb might be not a weekly job. However, this Whole Car Refresher is so effective at removing ingrained smells from the cabin permanently, it’s worth doing if you’re about to sell the vehicle, or need an annual detox.
Starting your car to run with the fan blowing on top speed, place the canister in the middle of the cabin. After breaking the seal to initiate the deodoriser, you then have to exit the vehicle and shut the door as quickly as possible. The mist circulates around the cabin for about 15 minutes. Returning to switch the vehicle off, you’re greeted with an inviting smell. There’s a choice of scents too.
Key specs – Size: 59ml; Notable features: various scents to choose from; Suitable for: all cars with a fusty funk