Keeping your paintwork looking fresh, clean and with a super depth of shine is great, but I've often come across cars at meets and shows where the paint looks amazing, but the wheels haven't been looked after. People tend to forget that wheels often get way dirtier than paintwork, and they're often not cleaned as well, as it's time-consuming getting around every spoke, into the wheel nut holes, and making sure any design indentation are thoroughly clean.
The problem is that wheels are constantly attacked by not just road grime, but something far worse: brake dust. The tiny metal particles settle onto the wheels and then embed themselves into the lacquer, leading to permanently ingrained black dust and tiny bits of rust. If left, can eat away at the finish and start to lift/bubble paint or ruin a polished/chrome finished. You can fix this by having your wheels refurbished or replacing them altogether, is not a cheap job at all, especially if they're especially nice ones, to begin with.
So, what are the right products and tools to use for wheel cleaning?
You have to be very careful with which products you use on certain wheels. If you have polished, chrome or split-rim wheels, acidic wheel cleaners will easily damage them, often permanently.
So, for split-rim, chrome, and polished wheels, you need to use a safe acid and Alkaline-free cleaner. Plenty are available, and you may be lucky and find one in your local motoring store, but usually, it's best to have a look online for specialist sellers. As well as wheel cleaners, you can now buy color-changing cleaners that ingeniously remove iron fallout (which is present heavily in brake dust) and show what it's removing at the same time by changing colors. These products react with the iron particles and pull them out from the lacquer and paintwork. The drawback is that most of these products stink to high heaven (a sulfur-like smell), although some do mask it with added scents. After using a wheel cleaner, I recommend cleaning the wheels with wax-friendly car shampoo to ensure all traces of the cleaner are gone. If you have chrome or polished wheels, I'd recommend using either a soft wheel brush (some bristles are stiffer than others) or a microfiber wash mitt for cleaning, as using a heavy-duty wheel brush will likely leave fine scratches behind.
When to clean your wheels
Like the ones above, some wheels require a little more regular care and cleaning than others, so if you're using the car regularly - and especially for motorway journeys - this is even more so the case. However, even with other types of alloy wheels, don't just leave cleaning them until you see a thick layer of brake dust appear. It's far easier, quicker, and better for your wheels to clean them as soon as a light layer of brake dust or road grime is seen, and if you can be bothered, clean them every week if you've been driving the car daily. If you clean your wheels fairly regularly and they're in good condition, there's usually no need to use a specific wheel cleaner. Instead, a wax-friendly car shampoo and wash mitt will suffice. Tip: use a separate wash mitt for cleaning car bodywork to your wheels. Much safer.
How to protect your wheels further
Regularly cleaning your vehicle's rims is a good way to maintain the look of them, but you can easily protect them from road grime and brake dust in a much better way by using wheel sealant and car wax. Specialist wheel versions of these are available online - try this website for a good selection. Just like paintwork, your wheels need a layer of protection added to keep them looking great and from becoming as easily contaminated. If you want the ultimate in protection, after cleaning your wheels, apply a layer of sealant, and then add a layer or two of wax on top of that, for an ultra-deep shine and months of protection as well. You should do this even if the car or wheels are brand-new! After this, cleaning your wheels will be a much less difficult job, as the brake dust and grime can't stick to or embed themselves as easily and will come off almost effortlessly the next time you come to clean them.
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