I’m sure you’ve felt that dreadful feeling before – you spent all Sunday afternoon washing your car and just a day later, it’s already dirty. While it’s always a good idea to get dirt and contaminants off of your vehicle, this scenario can certainly make it seem like a wasted effort. So how do you get your car to stay clean for longer?
Now as you can see in the video below, I’m not exactly afraid to get my 4runner dirty. As a matter of fact, I love it. Off-roading and splashing around in puddles brings me back to the good old days of playing with Tonka trucks in the sandbox.
Outside of those times of childish fun, I’m actually pretty well known for always keeping my vehicles clean and shiny. It’s to a point where people will actually tease or make fun of me. You’d think I wash my car every other day to keep it looking that way but the truth is, I probably don’t do it any more often than you do!
Check out my Instagram post from a while ago showing how clean the 4runner still was a week after washing it:
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I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to get the most out of a car wash – some from my dad or grandpa and some on my own. So if you want to know how an apparent lunatic like myself manages to have his cars always looking good, read on!
1. Protect your paint properly
One of the most effective ways to keep your car clean actually happens at an earlier date. This is one of the reasons why the use of waxes, sealants, and especially ceramic coatings are so important. They decrease the chances of dirt sticking to your car.
Giving your car a thorough cleaning and decontamination is a must if you plan to keep it clean in the future. Whether you just bought it recently or you’re just starting to gain interest in detailing, you need to start with a “spring cleaning” kind of moment.
Give it a really good hand wash, then use a clay bar on it to get the paint silky smooth. A slick surface will keep dirt and dust sliding off your paint rather than sticking to it.
Next up, you need to follow up with a wax or sealant at a minimum. These will need to be reapplied periodically but will help your vehicle to stay clean for longer, once again, helping to create a slick surface.
If you want to take it to the next level, you’ll want to consider a ceramic coating. These are much more expensive to apply but their performance is also much better in this department. Their self-cleaning ability does a fantastic job of shedding dirt and dust.
Putting in some extra effort ahead of time will definitely pay off in the long run. Your car will be much quicker and easier to clean.
If you’d like to learn more about my favorite ceramic coating, check out this article:
Sticking with the topic of protection, here’s another tip: use a good quality tire shine that won’t wear off quickly. One of the elements of a freshly cleaned car that catches our attention is the contrast between the shiny paint and dark black tires. Keeping those tires dark looking as long as possible will maintain part of that “freshly washed” look!
2. Polish your paint to bring out the gloss
This tip is very similar to the first but it’s totally different concept. It’s actually an optical illusion. From 10 feet away, your car will look freshly washed – it’s not until you get up close to it that you’ll see a layer of dirt and dust.
How am I tricking the human eye into thinking my car is clean?
Before you go to the bother of waxing or coating your paint, take the time to polish or correct it first. This time, the reason for doing it is all about your paint’s appearance rather than the actual ability to stay cleaner.
One of my biggest secrets to keeping my vehicles “looking” clean is that in reality, they aren’t always clean at all – they just look like they are. That’s because of all the machine polishing I’ve done to them.
“I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”
-Tony Montana, Scarface
If your paint is glossy and free of scratches, it looks clean even when it’s dirty. Going back to that Instagram post above – it wasn’t actually clean. But from the short distance I was filming from, it looked freshly washed!
Having deep, rich reflections is going to hide the fact that there happens to be a layer of dust on your vehicle. This is especially effective on metallic paint jobs because the metal flake looks a lot like, you guessed it, dust! The dust and dirt are much less noticeable when the flake in the paint is sparkling in the sun.
So take the time (or spend the money on a paint correction) and distract people with the ridiculous shine on your paint.
3. Park your car indoors
This one is pretty obvious but it’s really true. When you park your car outside, you’re at the mercy of whatever the environment happens to throw at it.
A surprise rainstorm, the neighbor cutting the grass right beside it, your kids playing in the sprinkler (even though you told them to do it on the other side of the lawn about a thousand times), etc.
The only threat towards garage-kept vehicles is dust. You have much more control over your car staying clean. I understand that for many, this isn’t an option (myself included).
Back to that surprise rainstorm – will non-acid rain actually make your car dirty?
The rain itself isn’t likely to make your car dirty. The water spots you often find on your car are caused by the minerals contained in tap water. Regular rain won’t have these minerals. The only water spots left behind from rain are from an existing layer of dirt getting wet, then drying.
In most cases, a parked car won’t get overly dirty from a rainfall. Driving it in the rain is what gets it dirty fast. Especially with vehicles like my 4runner, which has beefy tires that just barely stick out past the body (allowing them to spray road grime all over the body).
4. Schedule your car wash based on weather
This tip can actually mean 2 different things: wait to wash your car until the forecast looks clear for the next few days or wash your car when you know you won’t need to drive it after.
It’s a pretty simple concept but if you have any control over your schedule, use it to your advantage. I understand that most people need to drive to work every day and a lot of times, getting caught in the rain or snow is unavoidable.
If you have to drive it in the rain the next day, hold off on washing it until there’s a clear stretch in the forecast. Consider driving another vehicle you might have access to if you’ve just finished washing yours and the weather turned bad.
Putting some thought into when you wash your car can make a real difference in how long it stays clean.
5. Be mindful while you’re driving
You’d be surprised by how much cleaner you can keep your vehicle when you’re trying to keep it clean while driving. Pay attention to the road ahead.
As long as it’s safe to do so, avoid puddles or wet spots. Stick to the main roads after a rainfall – they tend to dry up a lot quicker than the side roads with less traffic. Try to avoid driving or parking on gravel.
Don’t drive directly behind a dump truck or any kind of construction equipment (your windshield will thank you for this one too!). Keep a good amount of distance between you and other vehicles as well.
Basically, avoid situations where your car can get dirty as much as possible.
6. Keep an emergency car cleaning kit handy
It can be helpful to have some kind of cleaner and a few microfiber towels in your car with you at all times. They come in really handy when a bird poops on your freshly cleaned car or someone spills coffee on a leather seat.
This doesn’t have to be an in-depth detailing setup either. It’s one of those cases where making use of versatile products will make all the difference. You don’t need to keep a bunch of bottles of different detailing products with you.
Here’s another secret: I keep 2 or 3 microfiber towels and a single bottle of Optimum No Rinse (at clay lube dilution) in the cupholder of my rear door. That’s it. With this, I can tackle nearly any detailing emergency I find myself in.
This can be safely used on the paint if you’re careful – it’s originally a rinseless wash product after all. But you can also use it on dirty windows, wiping spills off leather seats or vinyl, and even on smudge marks on your navigation screen. It’s truly the Swiss Army Knife of detailing.
Keeping a product like this on hand will allow you to take care of contaminants or spills right away before they get a chance to etch into your paint, or stain your seat. The quicker you can deal with these situations, the better the outcome will be.
7. Follow the interior rules
If you have certain rules for your interior, make sure you stick with them. A very common one is “no eating inside the vehicle”. This is a great way to minimize the number of crumbs (and inevitable french fry under the seat – even if you haven’t eaten french fries in there).
Another thing I always do is take my trash with me when I exit the vehicle. Empty gum packages, candy wrappers, gas receipts, etc. – they’ve all gotta go when I get home or if I’m near a garbage can. Cupholders are for cups, not a buildup of trash over the days or weeks!
Try to organize your belongings in a way that makes use of your vehicle’s storage compartments. Keep things in your glove box and center console as much as you can rather than throwing them on a seat or in a cupholder. The clutter from a vehicle being lived in will make it look neglected even if the interior is actually pretty clean. Store everything away out of sight.
One last tip is to kick your shoes together before you swing your legs up into your car. No, you’re not Dorothy trying to go home in The Wizard Of Oz – you’re just knocking any dirt, mud, sand, road salt, or snow off them before they enter your vehicle. This will make your clean carpet and floor mats last a lot longer.
The moral of the story here if you haven’t noticed, is that the best way to keep your car clean for a long period isn’t to keep cleaning it over and over again. It’s to avoid getting it dirty in the first place.
Try to adopt that mindset as you go throughout your daily life. Ask yourself, “Is this about to make my car dirty?” followed by “is there any other option to avoid it?” This goes for everything from avoiding puddles to making sure your feet are clean before you step inside.
If you follow these tips, I’m confident that you’ll notice your car staying clean for much longer. And remember, a clean car is a happy car.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: