How to Clean Wheels, Tires, Rims

By Tire Agent Staff

March 30, 2022

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In the classic Van Halen tune "Panama," David Lee Roth proclaimed, "Got the feel for the wheel, keep the moving parts clean." As the song suggests, if you're hitting the town, you'll want your ride to look as immaculate as possible. 

What's the point in owning a badass car if you don't take care of her? 

Let's spend a few minutes discussing how to clean wheels, tires, and rims properly, so you can hit the road in style. Your vehicle's foundation is a great place to begin: the wheels, tires, and rims.

Wash Wheels First or Last: Where to Begin?

If you're going to clean your wheels, rims, and tires thoroughly, where should you begin? The best answer is your tires. That way, tire grime won't drip down over clean wheels.

NOTE: If you're looking to wash everything hardcore, you might want to remove each wheel one at a time for complete cleaning. Here's how:

  • Using a heavy-duty jack, raise one wheel at a time.
  • Use a jack stand to support your vehicle's frame, solid differential, or specified jack point.
  • To remove lug nuts, use a star wrench. If preferred, you can also use an impact wrench.
  • Put all the lug nuts in a cup or bowl, so you don't lose them.

Once you're finished cleaning everything, reinstall the wheel.

How to Clean Tires

The only part of your car that makes contact with the road is your tires. Fingers crossed. As a result, they're the dirtiest part of your vehicle. While a bit of dirt won't hurt, what's underneath it could. Think nails, sidewall fissures, and poor or uneven treadwear.

Follow these steps for a simple tire cleaning process:

Step 1: Gather your cleaning supplies. As they say, work smarter, not harder. That begins by having all your cleaning supplies handy, so you don't need to walk away from the job mid-cleaning. This step should be done for everything you want to clean, including the tires, wheels, and rims.

Cleaning supplies list:

  • A bucket for water
  • Microfiber towels
  • A hose with a spray nozzle
  • A brush with soft bristles
  • Toothbrush for hard-to-clean areas
  • Dish soap, warm water, and wheel wax are all non-abrasive cleaning agents 

If you want a deeper clean and have access to a pressure washer, get that ready too.

Before step two, ensure your tires and wheels are cool before washing or applying cleaning products.

Step 2: Using a spray nozzle or pressure washer, remove as much loose dirt as possible. Work the water from various angles to remove as much dirt and grime as possible from the rim's interior. Keep the tire wet while cleaning it, since the liquid lubricates it and protects it from scratching.

Step 3: Using warm water, a mild detergent, and a medium- to soft-bristled brush, scrub the tire's surface. Allow the detergent to soften the dirt on the tire for a few minutes before rinsing. Scrubbing and rinsing should be repeated as needed, but be careful not to let the tire dry during this procedure. Rinse out the brush at the end of each cleaning.

What's the best rubber tire cleaner?

Lots of brands will compete for your dollars, and you will find some very good top-shelf rubber tire cleaners at your local auto supply stores. Do you need them? Meh. It's up to you. Typically, all-purpose cleaners do just fine on new tires and older tires that have been well-maintained. You can use regular car wash soap, automotive shampoo, or a good dish soap that removes grease and doesn't leave a residue.

How to Properly Clean Wheels

Do you know the different types of wheels and rims? Check out our article explaining the different types of wheels to understand better.

Now let's get to cleaning your wheels. Here's how:

First, spray the wheel's surface with water. Then, using a brush, scrub the surface of the wheel with warm, soapy water. Repeat the wash/rinse process as many times as it takes to get them fully clean. For particularly dirty spots, you might also have an old, soft toothbrush on hand. Always keep brushes wet when using, so the soapy water keeps the brushes lubricated and scratch-proof. Using a microfiber cloth, thoroughly dry the tire and the wheel.

Do you need special cleaners for chrome, alloy, and powder-coated wheels?

You can use DIY wheel and tire cleaner composed of household products. Try adding a teaspoon of Dawn concentrated dishwashing liquid to a gallon of hot water. Dish soap and hot water to clean wheels are gentle enough to use on chrome, alloy, and powder-coated OEM wheels. If your wheels are dirtier than that, try adding a half cup of baking soda to the soapy Dawn water. 

You'll find specially made cleaners for wheels, even some that are designated for cleaning alloy wheels, chrome wheels, and powder coated wheels. Some people prefer these types of cleaners because (a) the spray-on bottles are easy to use, (b) the chemicals are without question safe to use, (c) they require no messy mixing. Commercial tire cleaners work fine, but they cost more than homemade concoctions.

  • DIY homemade chrome wheel cleaner: Equal parts white vinegar and water in a spray bottle with a microfiber cloth
  • DIY homemade alloy wheel cleaner: 1 teaspoon concentrated dish soap, 1-gallon water, and up to 1/2 cup baking soda
  • DIY homemade powder-coated wheel cleaner: Avoid harsh chemicals and abrasives. Use soapy hot water and a soft brush or sponge.

To wax or not to wax wheels and rims?

If you apply wheel wax to your wheels every three to four months, your routine cleanings may be reduced to a simple high-pressure rinse-and-dry process. So, wax should make keeping your wheels clean easier. The process is relatively straightforward.

Apply cream or paste wax with a mitt or foam pad to get the job done right. Always follow the instructions included with your wheel wax of choice. Finally, use a clean cloth to remove the wax, and you'll have a shiny finish on your wheels.

How To Get Rid of Brake Dust

Before we finish this guide to clean tires and wheels, let's talk about brake dust.

Every time you press the brake pedal, your brake calipers squeeze the brake pads against either side of the rotor to create friction, bringing your car to a stop.

But every time those pads compress against the rotor, both pad and rotor lose a thin layer of material. That turns to dark metallic brake dust, which, combined with heat caused by braking friction, bakes onto your wheel.

Brake dust on the surface of a wheel looks gross. Even worse, if you leave it there for too long, the small metallic particles will etch into the finish of your wheels. This could cause permanent damage. That's why you need to clean pesky brake dust off regularly.

Most brake dust problems can't be solved with just soap and water. You should use the correct brake dust cleaning product for your wheel type to get the best results.

First, find out if your wheels are made from aluminum, alloy, or steel. Then find a brake dust remover for your wheel type. If you need help, check with a tire professional.

Once you’ve rinsed your wheels and found the correct brake dust cleaner, diligently spray the wheel to ensure that all brake dust loosens from the wheel’s surface. The cleaner should work almost instantly, pulling brake dust loose from the surface. Wait the recommended time after applying the cleaner before removing it.

Now you're ready to take your car for a stylish drive. 

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