Washing your car in direct sun is something that has been frowned upon for decades. Everyone tells us that it can’t be done – from wise family members to the product manufacturers themselves.
Washing your car in direct sun is possible as long as you adjust your process. You’ll need to work quickly, choose the right products, and change your technique. Working in the shade is a more ideal situation but if you have no other choice, washing in the sun can be done.
“Apply on a cool, dry surface” and “Do not use in direct sun” are both common warnings that you’ll see on the bottles of detailing products. The truth is, a lot of these CAN be used in direct sunlight. They share that disclaimer because they know that in most cases, you have to adjust your technique when working in the sun.
Since most people are too lazy to do that, the manufacturers want to avoid having their product take the blame for any poor results. Their solution is to give everyone a blanket statement that their product can only be used in the shade. But there’s a group of people out there that prove that concept wrong on a daily basis.
Those people are professional mobile detailers. These guys and gals bring their detailing services to wherever the customer is. They’ll often find themselves working outside on a driveway, parking lot, and sometimes even the side of the road. If they waited for a cloudy day to do these jobs, they could end up losing 90% of their business, depending on the climate they live in.
A lot of mobile detailers will carry a pop-up tent or awning with them, but you’ll rarely see them use it unless it’s raining or snowing. Why not? There are a couple of reasons. The biggest one is that setting a tent up takes time. Mobile detailers have ways of working very quickly, so a typical wash and wax might only take them 30 minutes.
In the time it would take to set up a tent or awning, they could have the job half done already. They aren’t getting paid to set up a tent. They’re getting paid to work on your car. So if they can figure out a way to work in the sun, that’s their easiest and most profitable option.
We can learn A LOT from the way mobile detailers work. Some of their methods are less than ideal. Some I wouldn’t even recommend. But when it comes to making it happen regardless of the hot sun, they’re the experts. Let’s take a look at how they’re able to do what your Grandfather taught you never to – and get results worth paying for.
Choose Sun-Friendly Products
Product choice is a big deal when working in the sun. I know I said that some products can be used in the sun, but not all of them can. I would MUCH rather do a rinseless wash in the direct sunlight than a traditional wash. So if the vehicle is eligible to do so safely (ie. not too dirty) then that’ll always be my first choice.
The reason I prefer a rinseless wash like Optimum No Rinse is because it’s really easy to use, even in the sun. In the event that the solution completely dries on the panel you’re working on, all you have to do is re-wet it with the towel or wash mitt you’re using or even a spray bottle of the solution. That will reactivate it and allow you to carry on as if nothing happened. This makes washing in the direct sun super quick and easy.
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If you have to do a traditional 2 bucket wash, find yourself a high-quality ph neutral soap. Griot’s Garage Car Wash, Adam’s Shampoo and even Meguiar’s Gold Class (which can be found in many big-box stores) are good options. Ph neutral soaps won’t cause damage if the worst case happens and they dry on your paint. They will leave a residue behind, but nothing that won’t wash off.
A good drying aid or spray wax is another important piece of the puzzle. When washing your car in the sun, you’re bound to end up with water spots and streaks. That’s just a side effect of the situation. Using a drying aid or spray wax like Meguiar’s Xpress Spray Wax will lubricate the surface as you dry it with a towel. You can also use it to come back afterward and wipe off any dried water spots before they have a chance to really stick to the surface.
I have some other awesome uses for a spray wax in this post:
Plan Your Steps Ahead Of Time
Don’t wait until your vehicle is already wet to plan your strategy or get your equipment ready. You need to do every single thing you possibly can BEFORE you touch the hose. Why? Because once the car is wet, the clock starts ticking. So fill your buckets, decide the order you’ll wash each section, and have all of your products within reach.
It’s important to clean your wheels first before the rest of the car. Otherwise, the sun will be drying the water on your paint while you waste time washing your wheels. There’s also a good chance that water, dirt, and brake dust will spray all over your clean fenders.
Wash your wheels first while the rest of the car is still dirty. They’ll continue to be rinsed off as you wash the rest of the car so you don’t need to worry about them drying nearly as much.
Get Your Hustle On
Now is the time to hustle. You don’t have the luxury of taking your time and relaxing when washing your car on a sunny day. Moving quickly is the key to success. Think of this as a sprint. You can hang around and chat with friends when it’s over. But as soon as that car gets wet, you’re racing the sun.
Your strategy has to change when you’re washing your car in the sun. You’ll probably soap the entire car down when you wash it normally, but that’s not going to work here. You have to work in much smaller sections in order to get the soap on and off the car in the least amount of time possible. A good rule of thumb is to work panel by panel, or do half a large panel (like the hood or roof) at a time.
Don’t Let The Water Dry
Don’t for any reason, allow the water to dry on the car. There are a few tricks to help out with this. Depending on how the car is positioned, it might have a shady side. Wash this side first. That way, the sun isn’t beating down on it while you work on the opposite side.
Always go further than where you worked while rinsing. If you’re rinsing the soap off a door, spray the door itself as well as the fender and the door next to it. You can even go as far as rinsing the entire side of the car off every time you soap a single panel. Whatever it takes to keep the car wet.
Drying the car
It’s a good idea to give the entire car one more final rinse immediately before you begin the drying process. How you dry it is entirely up to you. If your car is beading water really well with a paint sealant or ceramic coating, you might want to blow it dry. If not, a soft microfiber towel and a drying aid or spray wax will work fine. My advice would be to go with whatever option can be done the quickest.
Follow up with a spray wax or detail spray after your car is dry to wipe off any water spots that might have dried on. Do this now so they don’t have a chance to etch into your paint.
Water spots can be a real pain to deal with if they’re left alone for a long time. Sometimes they can be removed with dedicated water spot removal products, but often they’ll need to be compounded and polished off. This extra step is a great way to avoid having to deal with that later on down the road.
If you have access to deionized water, this is the perfect time to use it. Combining it with a ph neutral soap will make washing your car in the sun much easier. These systems can be pretty expensive though, which is the reason I haven’t mentioned them until now.
The Temperature Matters
Pay attention to the temperature you’ll be washing your car in. Washing your car on a sunny summer day is about as bad as it gets. On the flip side, the sun is much less powerful during the winter. If the air temperature is cool, so is the surface of your car. You can get away with being a bit more relaxed in that case.
Other Detailing Tasks That Can Be Done In The Sun
Mobile detailers do everything outside, even paint correction. That’s pushing it, in my opinion. There are plenty of things you can do safely in the sun though. Just make sure to use the same logic you use when washing your car.
If the paint is really hot from the sun, you might want to use extra product whether it’s a clay lube or detail spray. Wipe it off the surface before moving on to the next.
Engine bay cleaning
Allow your engine to cool off first if it’s been running. A big benefit here is the fact the hood is open. Position the car so that the hood actually produces shade over the engine bay! Make sure cleaners and degreasers aren’t allowed to dry.
Again, make sure the surface you’re working on isn’t too hot. Most all-purpose cleaners will flash quickly in the sun and leave white streak marks and stains. My solution for this is to use my spray bottle of rinseless wash, or a damp towel that’s been saturated with it. Optimum No Rinse works great on paint in the sun, and it’ll do the same for your interior (although it has less cleaning power).
Wax or sealant
As with the rest of these, applying a wax or sealant in direct sun isn’t ideal. But it can be done as long as you work quickly. Just like when washing a car in the sun, the key is to work in smaller sections at a time. The product will be ready to be buffed off much quicker though, so be prepared to work fast.
Even mild machine polishing can be done in the sun thanks to products like HD Speed. The working time of the polish will likely be shorter and it might be a bit more difficult to wipe off. I’ve used Speed on an SUV in the middle of summertime with no problems.
When doing this indoors, you can get away with polishing the entire vehicle before wiping it off but in the sun I’d recommend working panel by panel. Keep some spray wax handy in case you have any issues with removal.
Quick scratch removal
Spot polishing a specific scratch might be feasible in the sun if you’re working in a small area. Anything that will require more than a few minutes to fix should probably be brought inside much like a full paint correction.
Things You Shouldn’t Do In Direct Sunlight
There are a few things that I personally wouldn’t attempt in the sun. Any type of deep cleaning with stronger chemicals whether it’s removing mud after an off road trip, or scrubbing dirty leather seats, should probably be done in the shade. Heavy duty cleaners don’t play nice when you add the sun’s heat and sometimes they can actually do more harm than good (think staining).
Paint correction in the direct sun is a bad idea for multiple reasons. First and foremost, the compounds and polishes you use will flash much quicker in the sun and can be very difficult to remove. Having to scrub hard to get a product off is highly likely to create new scratches in your paint which completely defeats the purpose.
I’m also a firm believer in having a controlled environment for paint correction. If dirt, dust, and pollution in the air happen to contaminate your buffing pad, you could cause some real damage to the paint.
Relying on the sun alone to display the condition of the paint isn’t feasible either. Even a car covered with swirl marks will look decent on the lower sections because the sun isn’t hitting it there. I prefer a controlled environment with controlled lighting for high-end paint correction work.
Ceramic coatings are probably the most finicky products to use in the detailing industry. If a controlled environment and lighting are important for paint correction, they’re triple as important for coating applications. Any type of contamination that’s introduced to the surface when applying a semi-permanent coating can be catastrophic and require compounding or even wet sanding to fix.
Lighting is also a big deal with coatings and not having the right amount can cause you to leave high spots behind. Once again, that’ll require compounding or wet sanding to fix.
Do as I say, not as I do!
The following video shows me detailing a Toyota Tundra outside in the sun. In the first 10 minutes, you’ll see a lot of things mentioned in this article as I clean and prep the truck for polishing. Then, I break my own rule and perform a cycled one-step paint correction outside… in the direct sun.
Sometimes we have to work with what we’ve got – and figure out a strategy to get it done. In this case, using Meguiar’s D300 (a cutting compound) and cycling it to achieve a nice finish allowed me to get the results I needed in the small amount of time that I had.
I wouldn’t recommend doing this kind of work in these conditions to beginners though. It’s always better to work in a controlled environment.
Professional mobile detailers have really paved the way in terms of what can be done in an outdoor environment. Understanding how to change your strategy will determine whether you end up with good or bad results. Washing your car in the shade is always the preferred option. Doing it in the sunlight should only be a last resort.
Remember to work quickly, take smaller bites out of the job, and know the limitations of the product you’re using. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere on the internet, washing in the sun will not damage your paint. Swirl marks are caused by improper washing techniques, not the sun’s UV rays. So if you have no other choice but to wash your car in the sun, do it like the pros. And don’t forget your sunscreen.
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: