Eco-Friendly Exterior Car Detailing: Everything You Should Know

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Exterior car detailing

On the surface, detailing a car may seem like a time-consuming, boring, and rather frustrating process. However, once you know how to do it properly, you’ll learn to love detailing your car each and every time that you do it. Plus, showing off that clean and glistening exterior will make all that time and effort worthwhile.

Detailing the exterior of a car has many benefits. Sure it preserves the paint and improves the car’s appearance, but people often forget that exterior car detailing also maintains the vehicle’s resale value by removing years’ worth of scratches, damage, and general wear and tear from the exterior.

So, let me ask you a question. Do you know how to perfectly detail the exterior of your car? If the answer is “No”, don’t worry. In this article, we will tell you everything you should know about exterior car detailing. Additionally, we will take it one step further by teaching you how to do it in an eco-friendly manner with zero-water runoff.

Everything You Need to Detail Your Car’s Exterior

Eco-friendly exterior car detailing: everything you should know 1
Source: chemicalguys. Com

Before starting the exterior detailing process, you need to make sure that you have all of the necessary equipment for it. Here is a list of some things you will need:

If you are going with the waterless method, you will also need a nice steam cleaner. If not, you will need a simple car wash kit and chamois

What Areas Should You Detail?

What areas to detail

Detailing the exterior of a car is a multi-stepped process. The main steps include the following:

  1. Steaming and preparing the car
  2. Paint treatment 
  3. Cleaning the wheels, tires, and door jambs
  4. Detailing the exterior plastics
  5. Window cleaning
  6. Removing adhesives, tar, or sap

Completing all these steps properly will give the exterior of your vehicle a glistening finish similar to the day it left the showroom. Now let’s hop into how to perform each step!

Step 1 – Prepping and Steaming the Car

You should start off the exterior detailing process by preparing the vehicle and then steam cleaning it. This removes any loose dirt debris stuck to the vehicle and gives you a good base to start off on.

Prepping the Vehicle

Prepping the vehicle is essentially the “dirty work”. It is focused on cleaning the hard-to-reach areas that typically build up a lot of gunk. When prepping a vehicle for exterior detailing, the areas where you should pay the most attention are:

  • Wheel wells
  • Rims & tires
  • Door jambs
  • Trunk jambs
  • The area around the gas cap

These areas can be hard to reach and contain many nooks and crannies, so apply degreaser generously. 

Once the degreaser has sat for a bit, you’ll begin to steam the mixture in an outward motion. Doing so prevents moisture from entering the inside of the vehicle. If any steam or degreaser gets inside the car, simply wipe it off using a microfiber cloth. 

Once you are done with steaming, your next course of action should be to check for any moss or pollen buildup on the vehicle. Pay close attention to the window seals, as it is an area prone to moss buildup. To remove any minor moss/pollen buildup, spray the area with a degreaser and steam it off before wiping it with a microfiber cloth. The same method can be used to remove bug splatter as well.

Steam Cleaning the Exterior

Car exterior steam cleaning

After the prepping is done, you can start the exterior steam cleaning process. Not only does steam cleaning the exterior preserve water, but the heat produced by the steam also pulls out more microscopic contaminants from the paint than a regular wash would.

You’ll start from the roof and work your way down. Spray a waterless car washing product of your choice (we prefer ONR) onto a roughly 2ftx2ft section of the body panel you are working on and let it sit for about 30 seconds. 

Then, spray steam onto that area and wipe it off with a clean microfiber cloth, applying moderate pressure. Repeat the process where necessary, and spray some degreaser onto any tough-to-remove stains on the car in order to make the cleaning process easier. Once you are done, do a walkaround and check whether all areas have been cleaned properly.

Step 2 – Paint Treatment

Now that the vehicle is prepped and cleaned, it is time to give the paint a spa day! The paint has a huge impact on the car’s overall appearance, so it is important to deep clean it and protects it properly. 

Clay Barring 

Cleaning the car with clay bar

Clay barring is one of the most efficient methods of removing tiny contaminants from your paint, such as:

  • Tree sap
  • Bird droppings
  • Tar
  • Brake dust
  • Railroad dust
  • Paint overspray
  • Other microscopic contaminants that are invisible to the naked eye

Clay bars are soft and malleable, and due to these qualities, they can pick up the aforementioned pollutants without damaging the exterior of the vehicle.

To properly perform a clay bar treatment, you will start by spraying a clay bar lubricant onto a 2ftx2ft section of the paint. Then, take a small piece of your clay bar and gently rub it back and forth on that area in one direction to prevent scratches. Keeping the area well lubricated is essential to prevent paint scratching or marring the paint. Repeat the process across all exterior paint surfaces, wiping away the excess car cleaner as you go. 

Waxing the Car

Car waxing

Once you have clay barred the entire exterior, it is time to apply wax on top of the paint to preserve it. Traditional detailers like to use their favorite brand’s easy-off paste wax, while some of the more modern detailers prefer using a ceramic spray wax. Both products are great! Which one you go with mostly depends on preference. 

If you choose to go with an easy off-paste wax, the application process is as follows: 

  1. Apply a thin layer of wax onto a body panel using an applicator pad
  2. Let it cure for 5 minutes
  3. Wiping away using a waffle weave microfiber towel
  4. Repeat this process until you have covered all body panels

On the other hand, if you decide to use a ceramic spray wax, the application process remains roughly the same:

  1. Spray the ceramic spray wax onto the body panels
  2. Rub it into the paint using the applicator pad
  3. Leave it to cure for a couple of minutes
  4. Wipe away the excess with a microfiber towel

Step 3 – Cleaning The Wheels, Tires, and Door Jambs

After the paint treatment process, you are going to revisit the wheels, tires, and door jambs that you worked on earlier during the prep process. This is in order to put the finishing touches on them and make sure that there is no leftover dirt, smudges, or streaks. 

Cleaning the Door Jambs

Clean door jambs

Door jambs are where the doors of the car connect to the rest of the body and house important components like the door hinges and door guides. This is an often forgotten area when cleaning a car, as it is hard to access. However, cleaning the door jambs is essential if you want to give your car that “showroom” look.

Since you already prepped this area, it is pretty quick to get them perfectly clean. Simply spray degreaser onto the door jambs and then wipe them down with a microfiber cloth. Be sure to wipe them until they are completely dry in order to avoid leaving any streaks. 

Tire Dressing

Tire dressing

Then, move on to dressing tires. Spray the tire dressing of your choice onto the entire sidewall of the tire. Then spray some more onto a tire dressing applicator pad, and get into all of the nooks and crannies of the tire. You can even go into the first row of the tire tread if you’d like, but make sure not to go much deeper than that, as it can cause traction problems while driving. After cleaning, wipe any excess tire dressing off of the rims. 

Wheel Cleaning

Wheel cleaning
Source: Griot’s Garage Store (Amazon)

You should use a degreaser to clean the area around the gas cap as well as the rims. Spray these areas with the degreaser, and then use work towels to clean them thoroughly. In the same way, you can use a wheel detailing brush to scrub the wheels as well. 

If your wheels are extra dirty and the method above isn’t working, go for a heavy-duty wheel cleaner instead of the degreaser. Additionally, you might want to consider changing the wheel detailing brush for a new one or even using a bit more of an abrasive cleaning brush. Be gentle when using these brushes, as applying too much force can scratch your rims.

There are several types of wheel-cleaning brushes out on the market, with the most popular ones being:

  • Wheel cleaning kit – kits like this one provide a balanced mix of wool brushes and small brushes for tight areas.
  • Wheel & lug nut combination brush – a unique brush like this has a combination of a long wool brush for cleaning the wheels as well as a lug nut cleaning tool attached to the back of it.
  • Short-handled bristle brush – this is a shorter bristle brush for cleaning the rocker panels and wheel faces.
  • Small detailing brush kit – these are the best type of brushes to clean hard-to-reach crevices like the lug nut cavities.
  • Heavy-duty abrasive cleaning brush – these brushes are best for cleaning hard-to-remove stains on the rims, running boards, and wheel wells.

Step 4 – Detailing The Exterior Plastics

When detailing the exterior of a car, it is important to pay some attention to the exterior plastics as well. Having well-hydrated and full-looking exterior plastic trim is really what makes your car’s exterior pop! You’ll start by spraying some Revive Car Plastic Restorer onto an applicator pad and rub it on all exterior plastics. Let it sit for a few minutes, and after that, use a clean microfiber cloth to wipe the plastics. It’s that easy! Once you’re done, your plastic trim will look restored and brand new.

Step 5 – Window Cleaning

Car window cleaning
Source: Invisible Glass Store (Amazon)

Cleaning the windows is another important part of the car exterior detailing process. You’ll have to take care of both the interior and exterior windows if you want to give your car that squeaky-clean look. 

Here are some simple steps you can take to detail your windows into immaculate condition.

  • Start the process off by removing water spots from the windows using paper towels soaked in a solution of water and vinegar (50:50 ratio).
  • Next, clean the window ridges with a dampened microfiber cloth
  • After that, spray the window cleaner of your choice onto the exterior windows and clean thoroughly using microfiber towels
  • Then, use the same method to clean the interiors of the windows as well
  • Lastly, wax and buff the windows to give them some additional shine and protection

You can check out our complete guide on how to clean car windows, as well as the best automotive window cleaning products to use, here.

Step 6 – Removing Adhesives, Tar, or Sap

Remove adhesive tar sap

If there are any adhesives on the paint that you weren’t able to remove by steaming, try using an adhesive/sap remover of your choice to get rid of it. Apply some adhesive remover to a microfiber towel and gently rub it into the area. If that doesn’t work, spray the product directly on the adhesive, and let it sit for about 30 seconds, then wipe it off using a microfiber towel.

Similar to adhesives, tree sap and tar from the road can ruin the paint of your car. When these materials harden, they become a pain to remove. So, the best course of action is to clean the sap or tar off your car as soon as possible. The steps for removing either of them are essentially the same as adhesive removal; however, if you need a more in-depth guide, you can find it here.

10 Tips To Make The Exterior Detailing Last Longer

Usually, an exterior detailing will last for around 4 to 6 months. However, this lifespan completely depends on how well you take care of your car once it has been detailed. If you take care of it properly, the car will stay looking fresh for months on end, but if you neglect it, it will be back to its old and tired self in no time.

10 tips to make the exterior detailing last longer

If you are serious about keeping your car looking its best for as long as possible, here are 10 tips you should follow:

  1. Avoid touching your vehicle with greasy fingers. When left for long enough, the greasy fingerprints can soften the paint and leave it susceptible to damage.
  2. Refrain from parking your car under trees much as possible, as both tree sap and bird droppings can fall onto the car.
  3. Wash and clean the car regularly. This is one of the simplest tricks in the book but one of the most effective as well. Ideally, you should wash your car at least once every few weeks.
  4. Park the car in a garage or in the shade whenever possible. This will greatly reduce paint damage caused by the sun’s UV rays.
  5. Be intentional about where you park your car. Parking too close to other cars increases the risk of getting dents and scratches on the paint, so always look for less crowded places to park your car.
  6. Keep away from automatic car washes. Although it might save you some time, the damage these automated car washes do to the paint cannot be ignored (most commonly, swirl marks). If you are too busy to allocate some time to wash your car, you can always call a professional car detailing service like Big’s.
  7. Always dry your car properly after cleaning. Leaving your vehicle out in the sun to air dry causes the evaporating water particles to leave water spots behind. So, always dry your vehicle with a clean microfiber towel or chamois after cleaning.
  8. Treat paint chips immediately. Not only are they unsightly, but leaving the undercoat exposed to the exterior elements for too long can lead to rust and other forms of corrosion.
  9. Lubricate the door hinges and latches. It is true that these areas are hard to spot and reach. But keeping them clean and lubricated is essential to prevent them from seizing up. Additionally, it will make cleaning these areas much easier the next time you decide to detail your car.
  10. Clean the windows often. In addition to looking good, clean windows improve driving visibility as well. Head over here to learn more about cleaning your car windows, as well as the top products you can use for it.

Final Thoughts

Car exterior detailing is a process that requires a lot of time, patience, and effort to do properly. It involves several steps, starting with prepping and steam cleaning the car to get it ready for detailing. Then comes paint treatment, which includes clay barring and waxing the exterior body panels. After that, you should pay some attention to the wheels, tires, and door jambs, as these areas are often ignored in normal cleaning. Lastly, the final few steps of exterior car detailing include cleaning the windows, taking care of the exterior plastics, and removing any adhesives from the body.

If detailing your vehicle’s exterior still feels like a daunting task, you can always give us a call! Here at Big’s Mobile Detailing, we will happily take care of the exterior of your car, as well as any other car detailing needs. We are one of the top-rated auto detailing companies on the west coast, so you can rest easy knowing that your car is being taken care of by well-trained professionals that are using the finest materials around.

You can always give us a call at 425-243-9155 or simply schedule online. Until then, happy detailing!


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These blogs are meant purely for education and demonstration purposes. It contains only general information and may not account for specific issues related to your particular vehicle or situation. All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. Read full disclaimer.

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