If you have spent hundreds of dollars or even a few thousand bucks on a vehicle color wrap job (and unless you have a very compact car and/or you opted for very inexpensive vinyl wrap… and you got a great deal, it’s probably at least a thousand), then you probably don’t intend to let your car’s exterior become caked with dirt and grime and generally end up looking dirty and soiled.
Vinyl wrap for cars makes them look amazing whether you used a high shine chrome wrap, a polychromatic color shift wrap, a patterned film, a matte finish, and so much more. But keeping your vinyl wrapped car clean and looking its best does require a bit of effort on your part. You can’t wash a vinyl wrapped car in the same way as you would clean a vehicle with traditional auto paint. While car wrap can last for many years (with five years being the minimum you should expect from good vehicle wrap that was installed properly, while many vinyl wraps last ten years or more), preserving its looks and integrity requires some dedications. That quick drive through car wash with the whirling brushes is out, as is the cheap place on the corner where they’re using kitchen sponges and dish soap.
So… how do you wash a vinyl wrapped car? You follow these steps, that’s how. (And don’t worry, it’s not hard or even all that time consuming once you get the hang of it!)
Cleaning a Car with Vinyl Wrap Step 1 – Water
As with any car washing, cleaning a vehicle with color wrap starts and ends with water. Lots of water. In fact, if you rinse off your wrapped car using just water often enough, you might only have to attend to the occasional spot treatment (see below) to keep the vehicle clean.
When rinsing off vinyl wrap, it’s best to use a sprayer that creates a fan-shaped pattern of water, though a regular garden hose with a nozzle allowing shower-style spray is fine, too, as is your thumb if need be. (Just don’t use a jet spray pattern, as that can lift up the edges of the wrap or exacerbate any tears or punctures.)
You can also simply dump buckets of water over the car. Warm water works best in any case, but don’t pour hot liquids over the surface of a vehicle. Frequent rinsing of the car can remove everything from brake dust to bird droppings to good old dirt and mud and can prevent the need for a more involved (and potentially damaging) washing; the critical factors are hosing off the car as soon as you notice a build up of dirt and grit, and to then dry off the vehicle afterward so you avoid water spotting. We’ll get to that part later — see the section on drying, e.g. and move right to that if water alone proved enough to remove the mud and bugs and whatnot thanks to your timely washing.
Washing a Vehicle with Color Wrap Step 2 – Soap
When you’re in high school and you’re washing the minivan for your mom or cleaning your own commuter car you leave at the train station before heading into work each day, using a cheap car washing soap of even dish detergent or laundry soap mixed with water is probably just fine. When you’re cleaning your beautifully wrapped sports car or luxury SUV, not so much.
There are a number of non-abrasive cleaning products that are suitable for use on vinyl wrapped cars, and spending the money on these approved detergents is the best way to preserve the appearance and integrity (and the value) of your color wrap exterior. Try Deep Crystal Car Wash, 3M Car Wash Soap 39000, or another vehicle soap specifically approved for use on vinyl wrapping.
The best way to wash a car with vinyl wrap is to use a dedicated soap sprayer. These can be attached to most regular hoses and they create the right blend of soap and water for you. Just apply the soap all over and then move to the next part of this step — if you’re not using a sprayer, whip up a thick lather of soap and water and then apply the mixture liberally using a large, clean sponge.
Once you have the color wrapped car covered in a generous layer of soapy suds, use that clean sponge or a clean, soft cloth to gently rub down the exterior. Move your hand in long, slow, steady sweeps along the hood, doors, roof, and all other large areas, and in tight, precise wipes across door handles, mirrors, and other smaller areas; avoid those classic circular patterns when you can, as they needlessly pass the sponge or rag over the same spots multiple times, increasing the risk of abrasive damage.
And once you’re done soaping and gently rubbing down each part of the exterior, dry it off! Which we’ll get to now.
Cleaning Color Wrapped Cars Step 3 – Drying
What is the best way to dry off a car wrapped with vinyl after you wash it? Hey, see those wheel things on the ground and that engine thingie under the hood? Let’s use ’em. Hit the road! The best way to dry off a wrapped car and avoid water spots and streaks is to drive that car nice and fast for a good long while. But first…
After you have rinsed all soap and other cleaning products off your wrapped car (don’t worry, I didn’t forget a section, we’ll get to spot cleaning and specialty cleaning below) use a squeeze with a soft rubber or silicone blade to remove excess water. Be gentle, especially along edges and over protrusions like a rear wing or over door handles. You can also use a microfiber cloth to remove water from the surface of the vehicle (ideally after using a squeegee). With enough cloths, you can completely dry the car. But…
The best way to dry off a car covered with vinyl wrap, whether after a washing or after rainfall, is to use a squeegee to remove excess water, then wipe it down quickly with a microfiber cloth, then drive that lovely car around until all the water is gone and the exterior is spot- and streak-free.
Washing a Car with Vinyl Wrap Step 4 – Spot Cleaning
If your wrapped car just has a few dirty spots such as can be caused by bird droppings, bug impacts, or the spatter of tar, oil, or some other fouling agent, a spot cleaning might be all that’s needed. If the car is pretty dirty overall, you might need to start with spot cleaning, then go back to the start with Step 1 and wash the whole vehicle.
What you need to keep in mind either way is that for certain tougher, stubborn dirty spots, just a gentle water and soap washing won’t clean your wrapped car well enough, and the longer dirty spots stay untouched, the more risk they have of permanently damaging the vinyl wrap.
For fuel, oil, paint, or chemical spills on vinyl wrap cars, time is of the essence. Start by rinsing the stains with plenty of warm water, then try using an approved soap applied with gentle rubbing. If that fails to break up and lift the stain, move to a dedicated spot cleaning product like 3M Citrus Base Cleaner or Meguiar’s Gold Class Bug and Tar Remover. In a pinch, you can try rubbing alcohol mixed with water; use twice as much of the isopropyl alcohol as you use water (2 to 1, that is), and apply any cleaning solution with a clean, soft cloth or sponge.
For bug spatter, road grime, or bird messes, again first apply warm water then apply soap. Letting warm, soapy water sit for a moment might be tempting, but it’s not a good idea; instead opt for a repeated treatment with warm water and soap. Move on to a more intense cleaner after a second soapy spot treatment fails to lift the issue, and don’t let those other cleaning products (rubbing alcohol, e.g.) sit on the vinyl for long either.
And for the record, you might want to first try out any product you’re going to use on a color wrapped car in the least conspicuous area possible just to make sure it agrees with your vinyl wrap, e.g. won’t damage the stuff and leave your car looking lackluster.
Things to Note When Washing a Car with Paint Wrap
Car’s with matte or carbon fiber vinyl wrap exteriors require even more care than other types of vehicle wrap, as these unique finishes can lose their looks more easily. Be extra careful with the pressure and angle of the water you use to rinse the car wrapped with matte or carbon fiber vinyl: keep the water pressure well below 200 PSI and try to aim at the car at a right angle. Consider using the purpose-designed Meticulous Matte Auto Wash.
And if you are wondering can you wax a vinyl wrapped car? The answer is sure, you can wax anything you want. But you sure shouldn’t! Color wrapped cars should never be waxed: it can ruin the wrap and will add nothing in the way of aesthetic enhancement or protection. Wax is for auto paint and that’s that.