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A vehicle is shown from the rear while going through an automatic car wash.

Beyond the Pail: Building Your Car Cleaning Kit

A clean, well-kept vehicle is more than just a point of pride for drivers; it can also go a long way in helping it retain its value. Buyers can spot the difference between a vehicle that’s been lovingly cared for over the course of its life versus those that only met a sponge for the first time on the day before the sale, so it’s important to make vehicle upkeep a regular habit if you hope to recoup your investment. Even if you plan on driving a vehicle into the ground, regular cleanings can have a drastic effect on your ride’s longevity by preventing corrosion and other structural damage that could see your car head to the scrap heap well before its time. Looking to build up your own car cleaning kit at home? Read on for our list of the basic car cleaning supplies that every driver should keep in stock, as well as some recommendations for specific brands and products.


This one might seem too obvious to warrant a mention on the list, but hear us out. If a good bucket is an essential tool in any car cleaning kit, then two buckets are even better. Find two buckets in the five-gallon range and fill them both with water. Then add soap or your cleaning solution of choice to the first bucket and leave the second one unadulterated for rinsing purposes. This will allow you to take a first pass with the soapy water and then give you a bucket of clean water in which you can rinse the dirt and grime off your cleaning sponge or mitt before dipping back into the first one. It’s a valuable time-saver and one that ensures you won’t end up scratching the vehicle’s surface due to stuck-on dirt and other particulates.

Our Recommendation: We’re not going to recommend a specific bucket here as it’s largely unimportant and a matter of personal taste, but you don’t need to go too crazy. While there’s undoubtedly some huckster out there trying to overcharge for a “high-performance, carbon fiber hydration receptacle with multi-pivot ergonomic interface,” virtually anything that holds four to five gallons of water should do the trick.

A person is shown washing the side of a car with a yellow sponge.

Sponge/Washing Mitt

If you’re more comfortable with the old sponge method of car cleaning, be our guest, but just know there have been some exciting advancements in the world of automotive cleaning technology since the days when you helped dad scrub down the old Pontiac. Washing mitts have emerged as a more popular option in recent years thanks to the fact that they tend to be a little easier on a vehicle’s paint job. This comes down to their design which, unlike classic sponges, allows them to better absorb dirt and grime into their plush fabric.

When a regular sponge passes over your vehicle, dirt particles––which you can essentially think of as small rocks––are dragged across the surface as you scrub. This can result in lots of little scratches, which over time, will take a real toll on your paint job. Washing mitts are made of lambswool, microfibre, or synthetic wool and have an almost shaggy dog-like appearance with much more surface area. This design gives the dirt more recessed spaces to glom onto and ensures fewer scratches during your weekly wash. Old school sponges have tried to keep up, with manufacturers introducing advanced designs that better prevent scratching, so if you’re a die-hard sponge fan, there are still some paint-preserving options out there for you.

Our Recommendation: As far as washing mitts are concerned, we’d recommend something like Adam’s Polishes ADM-10 Professional Car Wash Pad. Available for less than $15 online, this synthetic wool pad is a favorite thanks to its soft, plush design and the fact that it’s up to 20 percent more absorbent than some other car cleaning pads. Sponge fans looking to ditch their old yellow standby might want to explore something like the Hagakure Wash Sponge, which updates the classic design with some paint-saving properties that you’re sure to appreciate.

Car Wash

You’ve got your bucket and mitt; now for the suds. There are plenty of options out there when it comes time to soap up your vehicle, and it largely comes down to a matter of taste and budget. It might be tempting to turn to common household alternatives like dish soap to get the job done, but such products aren’t designed for automotive use and can cause problems down the road.

No matter which concoction you choose, try to find one with as neutral a pH rating as possible. This will ensure your vehicle doesn’t develop those annoying hard water spots due to the high mineral content in your water and saves you from having to do a second rinse once the car is already dry. A nice, sudsy soap is the way to go as the more a car wash bubbles up, the better it will lift dirt and grime off the surface. Just remember to read the instructions when it comes time to portion out your soap, as overdoing it can result in an overly-soapy vehicle that takes a long time to rinse clean.

Our Recommendation: Again, this is largely a matter of taste and budget, but there are some clear frontrunners. Chemical Guys Mr. Pink Foaming Car Wash Soap is a popular choice among online shoppers. Safe for any type of vehicle, it costs roughly $23 per gallon and comes with a sweet candy scent that matches its bright pink hue. Drivers concerned about their environmental impact have plenty of earth-friendly car washes to choose from, such as Eco Touch Car Wash Shampoo, which is biodegradable, non-toxic, and phosphate-free. Those looking to save a little money and time can always opt for a two-in-one car wash and wax, though these rarely deliver the same performance as standalone polish and wax products.

A gloved hand is shown waxing the hood of a black vehicle.


When it comes to cleaning your vehicle, a car wash is only half the battle. In order to keep that just-cleaned shine for as long as possible, it’s important to make a thorough wax job part of your car cleaning regimen. Wax protects your vehicle from the elements between washes, providing an important barrier between your paint job and the dust, pollen, road salt, and bird droppings that seek to destroy it. Wax also gives the vehicle a nice shine, taking years off a vehicle’s appearance and returning it to showroom condition.

A good wax job can take some time, but luckily it doesn’t need to be performed every time you wash your vehicle. Experts generally recommend giving a vehicle a fresh coat of wax every three months or, at the very minimum, twice a year. It’s not actually possible to over-wax a vehicle; it’s just a waste of money since only one layer of wax can effectively bond to the paint at any time.

Our Recommendation: We’ll give you two recommendations here: one standalone wax and another that doubles as a car wash. Meguiar’s Ultimate Liquid Wax is our pick when it comes to vehicle wax, using hydrophobic polymer technology to increase surface tension and deliver unparalleled shine and protection. The one-step formula can be quickly applied and is both safe and effective on all glossy paints and clear coats. Sure, it’s not the cheapest option on the market at $39.99 for a 16 oz bottle, but it’s worth the price for those looking to protect their vehicular investment.

On the combination wax and cleaner front, we’d go with Zymöl Cleaner Wax, which comes in a 20 oz. bottle for a modest $31. Based on a 120-year-old German formula, this combination wax and cleaner is a well-reviewed option that uses micro-polishing agents, naturally derived solvents, and beeswax to deliver that new-car shine while simultaneously cleaning the surface.

Wheel and Rim Brush

A standard sponge or washing mitt simply doesn’t cut it when it comes to cleaning components like tires and rims. These hard-working parts are constantly exposed to brake dust, and their proximity to the road surface can lead to caked-on dirt and grime that’s tough to remove. Think of it this way: there’s a reason you use a brush with hard bristles instead of a sponge on a stick when it comes time to brush your teeth, and your vehicle’s tire and rims are much the same. A wheel and rim brush follow the same principle, using stiff bristles to scrub built-up grime off your hard-working wheels and rims.

Our Recommendation: Not all wheel and rim brushes are made equally, and the Brush Hero puts most other entries to shame. This product is unique for the fact that it attaches to the end of a garden hose and uses hydraulic pressure to spin the head of the brush. This allows drivers to scrub and rinse in one easy step with minimal work on their part, and best of all, it’s a relative bargain valued at about $26. The Brush Hero comes with two interchangeable attachments: one softer black brush that can be used on some of the car’s more sensitive surfaces like the windows and body panels and a white brush designed for the more heavy-duty applications like cleaning wheels and rims.

A person is shown pressure washing the tire of a black vehicle.

High-Pressure Nozzle

While most drivers opt to use a garden hose to rinse their vehicle at the end of a good scrubbing, there’s a better way. High-pressure nozzles can add a lot more power to your rinsing routine, speeding up the process and giving you a deeper clean to boot. These attachments are relatively affordable and can transform a garden-variety hose into a powerful sprayer that’ll have your kids begging to play fireman. Just make sure you are careful with where you use it, the pressure level, and how close you get to the vehicle, as using any high-pressure water system can lead to you removing the paint and leaving your vehicle open to rust.

Our Recommendation: The Gilmour High-Pressure PRO Fireman’s Spray Nozzle is our choice when it comes to high-pressure nozzles. Made from heavy-duty die-cast zinc, the attachment can deliver up to 250 PSI, blasting away dirt, soap, and grime with little effort. A large lever gives users the ability to moderate the nozzle’s pressure, and the spray head can also be switched between a high-pressure jet mode and a lighter-duty rinse mode. The Gilmour spray nozzle is a solid choice for those looking to up their hose game.

A Clean Start to a Fresh Car

This list should give you a solid start when it comes to building out your car cleaning kit, but it’s really just a jumping-off point. Experiment with different washes, waxes, and supplies until you land on a combination that works for you, and you’ll have your vehicle looking showroom-fresh for years to come. Most importantly, try to establish a regular cleaning routine and give the vehicle special attention after long road trips or foul weather.

While we’ve mainly focused on the exterior of the vehicle, the inside deserves just as much TLC when it comes to cleaning and can have a similarly dramatic effect. From leather upholstery wipes and glass cleaners to wet/dry vacs and air fresheners, there are plenty of products out there that can breathe new life into even the most disheveled interior. Start your cleaning journey with these supplies on the exterior and see where it leads you.