Nobody wants to drive a car that’s covered in dirt or paint streaks, and it might be time to detail yours. Detailing is tough, but an occasional detailing job can protect your car from permanent stains and streaks, increase windshield and headlight visibility, and maintain your car’s trade-in value.
You could pay a professional $100-$200 to detail your car (it’s worth the money), but technically speaking, this is work that you can do on your own for peanuts. So let’s get right into it. We’re going to go over the cleaning products and tools that you’ll need to detail each part of your car, and we’re going to give some suggestions on how to use these products effectively.
Update, 12/11/21: Verified content and links are good.
Before we get into the dirty details, let’s start with a few car cleaning kits. Some people refuse to take these kits seriously, but they’re a great budget option for people who don’t own any car cleaning products (after all, this article is a bit of a grocery list).
Anyway, here are some of our favorite car cleaning kits. Some of these are all-purpose cleaning kits, while others are focused on tools or specialized cleaning products:
- Turtle Wax Ultimate Kit: A bargain cleaning kit for your car’s interior and exterior. The only thing that this kit is missing is a foaming cleaner for your carpet and upholstery.
- Armor All Premier Kit: Another affordable cleaning kit for your car’s interior and exterior. Like the Turtle Wax kit, this kit has everything but a foaming cleaner for your carpet and upholstery.
- Chemical Guys Car Wash Bucket Kit: A great kit full of cleaning products and wax for your car’s exterior. This kit doesn’t come with any products for the interior of your vehicle.
- Mofeez 9-Piece Cleaning Tool Kit: This kit doesn’t come with any cleaning products. Instead, it’s loaded with cleaning tools like microfiber cloths, brushes, handled sponges, and squeegees.
- Headlight Cleaning Kit: A cheap headlight cleaning kit can take the foggy film off of your headlights.
Now it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. We’ll start with the hard interior surfaces of your car and then move on to upholstery, the car’s body, and the windows.
Start by cleaning your car’s hard interior surfaces—the cup holders, the dashboard, etc. You want to do this before cleaning your car’s carpet or upholstery, as you’ll probably dislodge some unsavory crumbs and dust while wiping around the interior of the vehicle.
This part’s easy, it’s just like wiping down your kitchen or bathroom. Here are some of the cleaning products you’ll need to detail those hard surfaces:
- All-Purpose Cleaner: Don’t clean your car’s interior with bleach, specialty cleaner, or vinegar. Instead, use a gentle all-purpose cleaner from CarGuys or Chemical Guys. Household brands will work fine (so long as they don’t contain bleach).
- UV Protectant Spray: The plastic, rubber, and vinyl inside of your car can discolor due to UV exposure. It’s not necessary, but a UV protectant spray will keep your interior from discoloring over time (it’ll also give your interior a showroom finish). Some protectants double as all-purpose cleaners.
But you can’t just spray a bunch of all-purpose around your car and call it a day. You have to get into the cracks, wipe things down, and make sure that nothing is sticky. For that, you’ll need a few cleaning tools:
- Compressed Air: Use compressed air to push dirt out of crevasses and buttons. Canless air will work too.
- Toothbrushes or Detailing Brushes: Toothbrushes and detailing brushes are great for getting dirt and grime out of vents, buttons, and crevasses. You can even dab them with some all-purpose cleaner for tough stains.
- Cloths or Sponges: Use microfiber cloths or sponges to clean the surfaces inside of your car. If you plan on using a UV protectant spray, then you’ll want to work it in with a microfiber cloth.
Again, cleaning the surfaces inside of your car is just like wiping down a kitchen or a bathroom. It’s not difficult at all (although it requires some acrobatics). Now that those surfaces are clean, it’s time to take care of those nasty seat stains.
Car upholstery and carpeting can get pretty nasty, but they’re actually pretty easy to clean. You just need some special products (specifically for cloth or leather) and a bit of elbow grease. Just be sure to take the floormats out of your car so you can get things as clean as possible.
Here are some of the cleaning products for your car’s upholstery and carpeting:
- Foaming Fabric Cleaner: Use a foaming cleaner to get the stains out of your upholstery and carpeting. Automotive brands like Chemical Guys or Turtle Wax are great, but common brands like Woolite will work too.
- Leather Cleaner and Conditioner: Clean your leather seats with an all-purpose cleaner, then hit ’em with some leather conditioner so that they stay soft and crack-free.
And of course, you’ll need some tools to work those chemicals into your seats and carpeting:
- A Vacuum: You’ll need to vacuum some of the dirt, dust, and crumbs out of your car. You could use your vacuum’s hand attachment, a cordless vacuum, a Shop-Vac, or the vacuum at your local car wash. If you live in an apartment, check if the complex has a car vacuum for tenants.
- Scrub Brushes: You’ll need to scrub your cloth upholstery and carpeting with a brush (or a brush drill attachment). Leather upholstery should be cleaned and buffed with a soft leather brush.
- Cloths or Sponges: You can use a cloth or sponge to spot-clean upholstery. You can also use them to wash the upholstery (with water) once you’ve got the stains out.
- Towels: Once you’re done cleaning your upholstery and carpeting, dry it off and let it air out. Otherwise, you might end up with mildew.
Now that you’re done cleaning your upholstery and carpeting let’s clean the car’s exterior and wheels. After that, we’ll take care of the car’s windows. (You can clean the windows before the body if you want, but the windows will look cleaner if you do them last.)
Alright, it’s time to clean your car’s body and wheels. It’s easy—you start by washing the wheels, and then you clean the car’s exterior from the top down. After everything’s cleaned and dried, you apply a polish or wax.
Here are the cleaning products you’ll need, including some optional products for tough jobs:
- Wash Soap: Don’t use dish soap on your car—it’s just too abrasive. Instead, stick with wash soap from an automotive brand like Meguiar’s, Chemical Guys, or Armor All.
- Bug and Tar Remover: Hit trouble spots with some bug and tar remover. (Or use the all-purpose cleaner that you bought earlier.)
- Polish and Wax: Once your car is cleaned, you’ll want to dry it off and hit it with some wax. This will protect your car’s paint job and prevent water spots. Use a popular brand like Meguiar’s, Turtle Wax, or Shine Armor.
- Detailing Clay: A little detailing clay can take off pollutant stains and unwanted paint without scratching your car’s body.
- Tire Cleaner: There are a ton of different tire cleaning products on the market. Cheap foaming detergents will get the job done just fine, but some specialized wheel cleaning products will also make your wheels shiny.
- Black Trim Restorer: If the rubber or plastic trim on your car is looking a bit discolored, then hit it with some trim restorer.
- A Headlight Cleaning Kit: A cheap headlight cleaning kit can take the foggy film off of your headlights.
And here are the cleaning tools you’ll need to detail your car’s exterior. The most important things to have are a hose, buckets, and a wash mitt (but you can be flexible if you want to save some money):
- A Hose: Yeah, you need a hose or pressure washer to clean a car. If that’s not an option, then try using the hose at a self-service car wash, at a friend’s house, or at an apartment complex (preferably one that you live in).
- Buckets: Use two buckets to wash your car. One bucket is for soapy water; the other is for clean water.
- A Wheel Brush: Hit your wheels with some wheel cleaner and a long wheel brush. You could also use a typical hand brush or a drill attachment. Deal with the wheels before you start cleaning your car’s body (or you’ll end up with tire grime all over your freshly cleaned car).
- Wash Mitt: Wash mitts are soft, easy to use, and they make exterior cleaning a breeze. Dunk it in your soapy water and start cleaning your car from the top down.
- Microfiber Cloths and Sponges: Use a cloth or a sponge to work out the grime that’s too tough for your wash mitt. You’ll also need a microfiber cloth to apply wax or polish (you could also use a motorized waxer).
- Drying Towels: Dry off your car with some microfiber towels. Then, use microfiber cloths to apply wax or polish.
You’re just about done with all this detailing work. Now it’s time to tidy up your windshield and windows.
It can be tempting to clean your glass early on in the detailing process, but it’s best to save the glass for last. Otherwise, you can ruin all that glass cleaning work while hosing down your car’s exterior or spraying chemicals on your dashboard. Anyway, this should be the easiest part of the detailing process. It’s all downhill from here!
Here are some of the cleaning products that you’ll need to clean your windows:
- Glass Cleaner: You can clean your car’s glass with an all-purpose cleaner, specialty glass cleaner, Windex, or soap and water.
- Detailing Clay: Are your windows coated with an impossible layer of fog or film? It could be pollutants or paint stains. Some detailing clay will pull that crud off without hurting your windows. Detailing clay should also help with smoker stains.
- Rain-X: This isn’t an absolute necessity, but Rain-X is a cheap, reliable product that increases visibility in the rain.
And of course, the tools you’ll need to get the job done:
- Microfiber Cloths and Sponges: Microfiber cloths are great for cleaning glass. They’re durable, and they don’t leave streaks. But tough stains might require a little help from Mr. Sponge.
- Interior Reaching Tool: The interior corners of your car’s windshield can make a cleaning job impossible. If you hate dealing with that dang windshield, then use one of these reaching tools.
- A Squeegee: You can dry your windows with a cloth, but you’ll be thankful for a squeegee should you decide to hose down or power wash your car.
If anything, we suggest buying an interior reaching tool, but you could just clean your interior windows with a cloth.
There you have it. We’ve covered every product that you need to detail your car, including a few products that, while not necessary, can make the process easier and protect your car from future stains and damage. Again, this is a big grocery list, so we suggest sticking with the budget cleaning kits if you’re trying to save money.