Automotive Maintenance

How to detail your car’s exterior

Maintaining your car’s exterior helps your vehicle retain its look and value, but this takes more than just a regular wash or a trip to the drive-through car wash.

Much like simple preventative maintenance or getting the right car insurance, detailing your car’s exterior helps protect it and is key to keeping your paint job looking its best.

How much does it cost to get your car professionally detailed?

Depending on the services, it could cost $100-$1,000 to get your car detailed by a professional. Luckily, with some time, effort, and the right products, detailing your car at home can be much more affordable.

What you'll need to detail your car at home

Microfiber towels

Compared to terry cloth, microfiber towels are less likely to leave streaks or lint. Because microfiber towels can be used on many surfaces, it’s best to buy a multipack when detailing your car at home. 

Car wash mitts are ideal for holding a lot of soapy water.

Car wash mitts

Microfiber chenille wash mitts are designed for high water absorption, which makes it easier to apply soap to your car. Car wash mitts are also a good alternative for waxing or polishing your car since terry cloth towels or sponges can trap dirt and debris which may scratch your paint.

AAA TIP: Don’t store or wash your microfiber car mitts or towels with other materials. Shake your used microfiber towels to loosen any dirt or debris, then machine wash them with cold or warm water using a small amount of gentle, unscented laundry detergent or vinegar. Air dry or machine dry them on low heat. Do not use dryer balls or sheets.

Wash buckets

A simple way to reduce swirl marks when detailing your car exterior is to use 2 wash buckets. One should contain car soap and water, and the other just has clean water where you rinse your tools. This helps you avoid reapplying the dirt and grime you've already cleaned from your car by isolating it in a separate bucket. If you only have 1 bucket, you can use a grit guard at the bottom to help filter out dirt and debris.

High-foaming car soap helps loosen more dirt and grime.

Car soap 

It may be tempting to use a household soap that’s readily available when detailing your car at home, but using dish soap or other detergents may strip away your car’s clear coat and wax. Use a high-foaming soap that's specifically designed to protect your car’s exterior and is pH balanced to avoid damaging paint finishes or other surfaces.

Wheel cleaner 

Since your car wheels are exposed to brake dust, dirt, grime, and other road contaminants, wheel cleaners contain stronger chemicals than regular car soap. If you have aluminum or powder-coated rims, choose a wheel cleaner designed for sensitive metals.

Auto detailing clay bar 

An automotive clay bar will help remove paint containments like tree sap, bug splatter, and road grime from your car exterior so they’re not sealed in when you wax your car. A detailing clay bar treatment is especially important if your vehicle is more than a few years old and hasn’t been recently detailed.

Car wax

Ceramic or traditional carnauba wax can help preserve your car’s clear coat, which protects the paint from UV exposure, rain, snow, bird droppings, and other corrosive elements.

Tire protectant spray

Maintaining your tires doesn’t end with making sure they’re in good condition. A good tire protectant can help prevent the rubber from fading, drying, and cracking.

DIY car detailing: step by step

Before you start, make sure your car is parked in a shaded area and is cool to the touch.

Step 1: Pre-rinse

Thoroughly spray your car with water to wash off loose dirt and debris.

Step 2: Clean your wheels one at a time

While most wheel cleaners can be sprayed on and rinsed off, if you have caked-on dirt and brake dust, you may need to use a brush or car mitt to remove the grime. Don't use the same car mitt to clean your wheels and your painted surfaces.

Step 3: Prepare the 2-bucket car wash method

Follow the instructions on your car soap label to fill your first bucket with the correct water-to-soap ratio. Create as many suds as you can. Fill your second bucket with clean water.  

Step 4: Apply soap

Start washing from the top of your car and work your way down. Soak your car mitt in the first bucket and wash the first section of your car. Rinse off your mitt in the second bucket. Repeat for each section.

Step 5: Rinse & dry

Use a hose to spray off all the remaining soap, then use microfiber towels to completely dry the car.

 A clay bar before treatment  A dirty clay bar after treatment

A clay bar before (left) and after a treatment.

Step 6: Clay bar treatment

Once your car is clean and dry, work in one small section at a time and spray a clay lubricant or soapy water on your car. Flatten the clay bar into a disc and lightly rub it over the surface 4 or 5 times, making sure the area always stays wet. Use a clean microfiber towel to dry the area. Fold the clay bar to a clean side, mold it back into a disc, and repeat the process until you’ve gone over all the painted surfaces.

AAA TIP: If you drop your clay bar on the ground, throw it away and continue with a new piece.

Step 7: Wax

Again, working in small sections, apply wax on your car and wipe it off with a clean, dry microfiber towel in a straight motion. Wipe off any excess wax with a separate dry microfiber cloth. Read our detailed guide on how to wax your car.

Spray the tire protectant on the sidewall of your wheels.

Step 8: Tire protectant

Following the instructions on the bottle, evenly spray your tire protectant onto the sidewall of your tires. Wipe down each wheel with a terry cloth or microfiber towel. Let the tire protectant dry for 15-30 minutes before driving.

How often should you detail your car?

AAA recommends detailing your car at least 2-3 times a year, but this can vary depending on how you store your car and how often you drive it.

Get 45% off Zymöl car care products

Handcrafted without harsh chemicals or abrasives, Zymöl's car washing and detailing products have been trusted by car enthusiasts worldwide for decades. AAA members save 45% by using the code AAA45 at checkout. 

Save on everything you need to detail your car at home with NAPA Auto Parts

AAA members save 10% off the retail price of thousands of quality auto parts and accessories when shopping online and at participating NAPA Auto Parts stores.

Automotive offers & deals

AAA tow truck driver Jeff
AAA automotive services

See how we can help with Roadside Assistance, car buying, auto repair, driver education, and more.


Learn more


AAA Approved Auto Repair

Search approximately 7,000 AAA-approved facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Learn more

AAA mobile battery service

AAA Mobile Battery Service

AAA provides a convenient testing and replacement service that comes to you.

Learn more

NAPA store exterior

Automotive discounts

Use your AAA membership to unlock do-it-yourself car care discounts.

Learn more

AAA driving school

Teen driving resources

AAA wants to help your teen develop safe driving habits.

Learn more

back to top icon