Everything You Need to Wash Your Car: Complete Checklist

The world of car care can be confusing, and new hobbyist detailers are often unsure of what equipment and chemicals are needed to wash a car safely and properly. In this article, I’ll take you through a basic starter car wash kit, as well as some useful extras that you can purchase to take your car cleaning routine to the next level.

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What You Need to Wash a Car

  • Hose with a nozzle attachment or pressure washer
  • 3 buckets
  • 2 or more microfiber wash mitts
  • Car shampoo
  • Microfiber drying towel

Other useful products include:

  • Grit traps for the buckets
  • Detailing brushes
  • Pre-wash chemical (sprayable or snow foam)
  • All-purpose cleaner (APC)
  • Wheel cleaner

Check out my YouTube video below to see which products I chose for my car washing essentials kit.

Now I’ll go through exactly what to look for with each product and give you the approximate costs and a running total throughout.

High Pressure Water

If you’re washing your car in the traditional sense, you’ll need some form of water supply. Here are your options:

  • Hose with nozzle attachment (cheapest)
  • Pressure washer (recommended)

Using a hose with an attachment to improve the pressure, is sufficient to wash a car, but for the best results, think about purchasing a pressure washer. No only do these help you save time and effort cleaning the car, but they also make the wash process safer and help prevent you inflicting scratches.

Pressure washers are more capable of blasting away loose dirt and debris from the car before washing it using a mitt. You want as much of this dirt to be removed as possible before touching the paintwork, because dirt acts as an abrasive which can cause loads of tiny scratches in the car’s clear coat causing it to look duller over time.

Personally, I use a Karcher K4, which is an affordable pressure washer which you can find here on Amazon. If you’re looking for something very inexpensive, then have a look at this Karcher K2 on Amazon.

If you don’t want to purchase a pressure washer just yet, then make sure you get a good quality hose attachment to improve the pressure. Here is a very inexpensive Hose Nozzle on Amazon.

Most people reading this probably have a garden hose already, but if you don’t then take a look at this 50 ft Garden Hose on Amazon which is surprisingly very cheap.

Total Cost of the Water Supply: $10+ or £8+

If you don’t have access to water, check out my article on Optimum No Rinse which is a rinse-less wash product.


To properly wash a car, you’ll need at least two buckets. There are a few different methods of washing a vehicle, however one of the most popular is the 3-bucket method:

  • Bucket 1: for the wheels
  • Bucket 2: for the shampoo (used on the paint)
  • Bucket 3: rinse

You should use separate buckets for the wheels and paintwork because the wheels are always much dirtier. Using separate buckets avoids cross-contamination and reduces the risk of dirt from the wheels ending up on the paintwork and scratching it.

A separate rinse bucket is the best practice for on the paintwork, as it allows you to rinse your mitt before dipping it back into the shampoo. Again, this results in less grit and dirt on the mitt that can cause scratches and swirl marks.

The best bucket size is between 4-5 gallons (15-20 litres). This may seem very large, however it is actually quite necessary. The larger the bucket, the less chance you have of getting dirt on the mitt because the grit will falls to the bottom of the bucket instead.

Branded car care buckets are pretty expensive, although they are good quality and look cool. Check out this popular Meguiar’s Bucket on Amazon. There are cheaper options available though, like this Chemical Guys Heavy Duty Detailing Bucket.

Total Cost for Three Buckets: $35 or £25

Running Total = $45 or £33

Wash Mitts

Microfiber wash mitts are the safest products to use to wash a car’s paint. They are much safer than sponges and brushes which will cause scratches and swirl marks as they drag grit across the paintwork. Sponges and brushes are also much harsher than microfiber so can inflict damage on their own, even if there is no dirt on the paint to begin with.

How Many Mitts?

I recommend purchasing 4 wash mitts to start with. One for the wheels, one for the top of the car, and two for each side. Although you are rinsing the mitt frequently in the rinse bucket, you will not be able to remove all the dirt and grit. This means you run the risk of dragging it back across the paint and causing scratches. Using more mitts on the car helps to minimise this risk.

At a minimum, you should use a separate mitt for the paintwork and the wheels. You should never use any products on the paintwork that have already been used on the wheels as this is very likely to cause scratches.

Which Mitts?

I recommend noodle (chenille) microfiber wash mitts. They are very affordable so it doesn’t break the bank to get a few of them, and they are durable as well. They should last a couple of years if you look after them and clean them after use.

Check out this 4-pack of microfiber mitts on Amazon, I really like these because they’re colour coded so you don’t forget which area of the car you’ve used them for!

Total Wash Mitt Cost: $12 or £10

Running Total = $57 or £43

Car Shampoo

Using a dedicated car shampoo is always recommended when cleaning a car. They are the safest option on the paintwork and will not cause damage like household products such as dish soap. There are absolutely tonnes of options available, so it can be hard to choose which one to go for.

There are a few kinds of shampoos available however I’ve found that the most effective ones are pH neutral, pure shampoos. This will help to preserve any waxes and sealants you might have on the car. Using gloss-enhancing or wax-containing shampoos are likely to clog the wax up which is why I don’t use them personally.

A popular option for US readers is Adam’s Car Shampoo which you can find here on Amazon.

My top pick for UK readers is Garage Therapy /One: Car Shampoo which is highly concentrated, very slick and sudsy and good value for money. You can check out Garage Therapy /One: Car Shampoo here.

If you don’t have access to water, check out my article on Optimum No Rinse which is a rinse-less wash product.

Car Shampoo Cost (approx. 40 washes): $15 or £10

Running Total: $72 or £53

Microfiber Towel

You’ll also need to dry the car once you’ve finished washing it to avoid getting any water marks. One of the most effective ways to do this, is by using a microfiber drying towel. These are very absorbent and designed to be gentle on the paint to avoid causing scratches.

Do not use a water blade (squeegee) to dry the car as this will very likely cause scratches. Chamois leather and bath towels should also be avoided as they fibres are too harsh and will inflict swirl marks.

The Rag Company make excellent quality microfiber towels such as The Gauntlet which you can find here on Amazon. My personal favourite is the Pluffle which is very absorbent, but smaller so easier for me to manage. Here is a link to The Rag Company Pluffle on Amazon.

The Rag Company Pluffle

Drying Towel Cost: $20 or £15

Running Total: $92 or £68

More Useful Car Washing Supplies

So now we’ve been through the basics, I wanted to also list some more useful car cleaning products to consider. You don’t have to purchase them all at once, but personally, I’d really struggle if I didn’t have these products and I use them on every single wash.

Grit Traps

Grit Guards or grit traps are designed to go at the bottom of your bucket and make sure that any dirt that sinks to the bottom doesn’t rise up again in the water. This helps to keep the wash mitt cleaner and reduces the risk of inflicting scratches and swirl marks on the paintwork. Loads of brands make grit shields and traps to suit different bucket sizes. Check out these affordable Grit Traps on Amazon.

Grit trap (image links to Amazon)


When I’m talking about brushes, I don’t mean brooms used to wash the paintwork (these will definitely cause scratches!). I’m talking about different styles to help clean other areas of the car.

Stiff tire brush

Hog’s hair detailing brush
Wheel barrel brushes
Soft detailing brush

Here are some links to some popular and affordable options on Amazon.

Prewash Chemical

One of the best car washing techniques to reduce the amount of scratches and swirl marks inflicted when washing, is to “pre-wash” the vehicle. This involves using a chemical which is applied to the car, left to dwell (usually for 5-10 minutes) and then rinsed away. This process is completed before the wash process.

There are a couple of options here:

  • Snow foam
  • Sprayable prewash chemicals

Snow foam is a popular and effective option, however it will require you to purchase a snow foam cannon, and have a pressure washer. Snow foam cannons normally cost around $40-50 and snow foam costs around $1 per application. Sprayable prewash chemicals can be applied using a pump sprayer, or normal trigger spray, making the starting cost very low.

Check out my recommended wash products page for my current favourite prewash options.

All Purpose Cleaner

I pretty much always use an all-purpose cleaner when washing any car. I like to use them for the tires, exterior plastic, and sometimes to remove stubborn contaminants like bird mess and insects. My favourite one is Bilt Hamber Surfex HD which can be diluted up to 0.5%, making it very cost effective. It is a little difficult to get hold of in the US, but you can check it out here if you’re in the UK.

Wheel Cleaner

You can use your regular car shampoo, or an all-purpose-cleaner to clean the alloys, however using a dedicated wheel cleaner is more optimal. Personally, I like to use a wheel shampoo (Garage Therapy /ONE: Wheel Shampoo) on well-maintained wheels, and a stronger sprayable wheel cleaner such as Squid Ink Blue Lagoon on dirtier wheels. Whichever option you go for, it’ll probably set you back around £10 or $15, which is well worth the investment to me!

Garage Therapy Wheel Shampoo

What You Shouldn’t Use

So now we’ve been through the best products and tools to wash a car, which are the ones that should be avoided at all costs?

Products that SHOULD NOT be used to wash a car:

  • Sponges: these are abrasive, and also trap dirt which gets dragged along the paint causing scratches.
  • Brooms: brushes should not be used on any painted areas as they are too harsh and cause scratches.
  • Bath towels: these are made from cotton which is too harsh to be used on the paintwork.
  • Squeegees (water blades): these drag dust along the car and inflict swirl marks.
  • Chamois leather: these are too harsh and aggressive and are likely to scratch and mar the paint.
  • Dish soap: this dries out the paintwork and can promote corrosion and rusting, as well as damages any waxes and sealants.
  • Bleach or other household cleaners: these are way too harsh for the car and will cause staining.

How to Wash Your Car

I’ve written a complete guide to washing a car safely without causing scratches and swirl marks to take you through how to use all this equipment in a step-by-step method to get great results, so make sure you check it out before rushing off to your car!

Want to learn more about car care? Check out my YouTube channel Auto Care HQ!

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Heather is a professional car detailer & valeter based in Cheshire and the owner of Auto Care HQ. A familiar face in the car detailing community, she has written over 200 car detailing guides on autocarehq.com and has produced over 165 videos on the Auto Care HQ YouTube channel.

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