Inflicting light scratches and swirl marks on paintwork is all-too-common when it comes to cleaning cars. The good news is that it’s easy to eradicate the problem using the correct products and procedures.

swirl marks car cleaning

What are swirl marks & what causes them?

By far the most common of paint defects, swirl marks are masses of fine scratches on the surface of the top layer of your paintwork. Due to the way light bounces off them, they often appear as a messy spider web pattern and they can be particularly noticeable on darker coloured cars.

Swirl marks are mainly caused by tiny pieces of dirt and grit getting caught in your sponge or mitt & then being dragged across your paintwork as you wash the car. All it takes is the tiniest piece of grit to inflict swirls.

To help combat the problem, we asked the detailing experts at Auto Finesse to find out the best ways to avoid damage when you wash your pride and joy. Here are their top tips!

1. Always pre-wash

Correctly washing your car can be broken down into two stages – pre- washing and contact washing. Contact washing is where you use your sponge or wash mitt with a shampoo to physically remove dirt and grime from your paintwork.

But since this is the stage where swirl marks can happen, it’s crucial to remove as much dirt from your paintwork as possible before you touch it. This is called pre-washing & this is actually one of the most important stages in detailing, even though it’s the step that’s most commonly missed.

The idea is to avoid dragging any loose, heavy soiling across your paintwork when you use your wash mitt and car shampoo later. Removing grit and dirt before making any contact with your vehicle will massively cut down on the risk of inflicting swirl marks.

Rinse away as much dirt and grime as possible with your pressure washer (physical contaminant removal) before utilising a suitable pre-wash cleaner like Citrus Power Bug and Grime Remover to break down and lift stuck on debris and dirt (chemical contaminant removal).

Our pre-wash cleaners are designed to dissolve and suspend harmful particles in their respective solutions allowing them to be rinsed away without touching the paintwork.

Simply spray on to the most contaminated areas, leave to dwell for a few minutes while it gets to work, and then rinse away the worst of the grime with your pressure washer.

2. Utilise a snow foam

One of the greatest tools in the modern detailer’s arsenal is snow foam. Again, our Avalanche Snow Foam is a product used in the pre-wash stage.

Avalanche Snow Foam is citrus infused and works in a similar way to our pre-wash cleaners but because it provides a thick, rich foam it lingers for the maximum possible dwell time, enabling it to further dissolve, loosen and lubricate the most stuck on soiling to then be rinsed away without you making contact with the vehicle.

Avalanche Snow Foam is also useful because it works its way into panel gaps, cleaning away the dirt and dust you may not be able to see. It’s even specially formulated to be friendly to previously applied waxes and sealants!

Snow foam is best applied with a dedicated foam lance attached to your pressure washer. This whips up the liquid, effectively activating the cleaning power and giving the foam-like consistency.

Spray onto your vehicle from the top down, leave for a few minutes to dwell, and then rinse away. Yes, it really is that simple.

3. Two buckets are better than one

When it comes to the contact wash, the method you use is just as important as choosing the right product.

Always use two buckets when you wash any vehicle, as this is another crucial way to cut down on the risk of inflicting swirl marks.

One bucket should be used for your shampoo solution, and the other is what we call a ‘rinse bucket’ which is simply filled with plain, clean water.

As you contact wash, load up your wash mitt with fresh shampoo solution from the first bucket & then apply to the vehicle one panel at a time. After each panel, thoroughly rinse out your mitt in the rinse bucket before going back to your shampoo. This will avoid picking up any dirt or grit that is now in the bucket having already been cleaned off the car.

We would also always recommend a wash mitt over a sponge. A mitt is specially designed to lift and lock away grime deep within its fibres until it’s rinsed out, reducing the risk of contaminants being dragged across the surface. A traditional sponge can’t do that and instead simply pushes grime around.

Making the right shampoo choice is also essential. We recommend our Lather Car Shampoo. This has been formulated as a powerful cleaner to break down and lift remaining grime, but it also contains concentrated lubricants that are engineered to form a slippery barrier between the contaminants and your paintwork so they slips across and off surfaces without inflicting swirl marks along the way.

4. Take the right course

To avoid dragging dirt to cleaner areas of the car it’s important to wash the least contaminated areas first.

Start on your roof, followed by the windscreen, bonnet, upper sides, front bumper, rear end, and lower sides. Keeping to this order will hugely decrease the risk to your paintwork.

As you wash, always move your mitt in straight lines and avoid circular motions. This will also help cut down on those dreaded swirl marks.


Check out the full range of Auto Finesse detailing products available at Halfords.com.