Car wheels are some of the trickiest components to clean, due to the extreme conditions and elements they are subject to. The huge range of products on the market serves to complicate matters further as knowing which product to use isn’t clear-cut.
In this article we narrow down the options for you by analysing some of the best wheel cleaning products on the market. We also include some useful tools and tips that make the task of wheel cleaning an easier and more enjoyable part of your car care routine.
Top Pick: Bowden’s Own Wheely Clean
Australian company Bowden’s Own has released its 6th iteration of Wheely Clean, an acid-free, ph-neutral formulation. It’s made to be even more effective at removing brake dust, the biggest claim is its almost scrub-free use. Just spray on, wait a minute or so as you watch the cleaner turn purple, and wash off.
Wheely Clean can be used on any wheel type; steel or alloy, painted or polished, plastic-dipped or clear coated. Its non-corrosive chemical nature means there’s virtually no risk when leaving it on as it works. It is available in a 500mL spray bottle, or 5L and 20L drums.
Runner Up: Autoglym Custom Wheel Cleaner
Autoglym’s Custom Wheel Cleaner is acid-free, making it safe to use on all wheels, and the only suggestion asked in terms of preparation is ensuring the wheels are cool before spraying the cleaner on them.
One point of difference from many wheel cleaners is the recommendation to agitate the Autoglym product with a brush or sponge to promote complete coverage (in fairness this is good practice for wheel cleaning in general). Let the cleaner work for up to a minute before rinsing the wheel and moving to the next one.
Fastest Cleaner: Mothers Foaming Wheel & Tire Cleaner
This foaming, non-acidic cleaner from Mothers is as easy to use as any other. You simply spray on the wheels, wait 30 seconds for the cleaner to penetrate, and hose off. Mothers claim that no hand-drying is necessary which is nice as it leaves the wheel with a spot-free finish, great if you are pressed for time and have wheels that are tricky to clean and dry.
It isn’t suitable for all wheels, though; Mothers advise to avoid polished or roughcast aluminium, billet, or anodised wheels. This will make it unsuitable for some car owners.
Odourless Option: Meguiar’s Ultimate All Wheel Cleaner
We’ve grown used to Meguiar’s and their quality range of products. The Ultimate Wheel Cleaner is no different, being suitable to use on all types of wheels and finishes given its acid-free and ph-balanced formula. It might not seem like a big deal, but many wheel cleaners give off a very strong and nasty odour; not so this one, which will make the user experience much more pleasant.
Spray the wheel cleaner on one wheel at a time and, after it has reacted with the brake dust and dirt (easily seen as it changes to purple and brown) spray it off with a hose or pressure washer.
Best Concentrate: Angelwax Bilberry Wheel Cleaner
Angelwax is a Scottish firm that’s been in the car-detailing game since 2008. The Bilberry Wheel Cleaner comes in a ready-to-use 500mL spray bottle or a 1L option that allows the user to better choose the concentration level based on how dirty the wheels are (and to also easily diluted in a bucket of water as you would a car wash shampoo). When it is watered down to their recommended 1:10 ratio for averagely dirty wheels that is 10L of wheel cleaner, making it incredibly good value.
It is a non-acidic cleaner but, like some others, there is a warning to avoid using it on chrome or polished wheels.
Best Waterless Option: Armor All Ultra Shine Wheel Cleaning Wipes
Sometimes circumstances don’t allow for a proper wash and detail with a hose, so these cleaning wipes from Armor All will do just the trick. Brake dust and all but the most baked-on road contaminants can be wiped off with relative ease and, after a quick buff with a microfibre towel, your wheels will be free of grime and looking like new. Be sure to turn the textured wipe over frequently as each part gets soiled picking up contaminants.
It comes with a few caveats; the only lubrication is the moisture in the wipes, so great care should be taken if the wheels are extremely dirty to not scratch the surface. Also, it will be difficult to clean the barrel behind the wheel face or in and around the wheel bolts, and some wheel designs aren’t conducive to such cleaning methods.
There are 16 large wipes in a pack, and one wipe per wheel should be enough. Consider these a part of your car-cleaning arsenal, as opposed to the default option, and you will be well served.
Wheel Cleaner Comparison Table
|Wheel Cleaner||Verdict||Check price||Product type||Volume (mL)||All wheels?||Colour change?|
|Bowden’s Own Wheely Clean||Best overall||eBay, Catch||Spray||500||Yes||Yes|
|Autoglym Custom Wheel Cleaner||Runner up||Amazon, eBay, Kogan||Spray||500||Yes||No|
|Mothers Foaming Wheel and Tyre Cleaner||Fastest option||Amazon, Kogan||Spray||710||No||No|
|Meguiar’s Ultimate All Wheel Cleaner||Odourless option||Amazon, eBay||Spray||710||Yes||Yes|
|Angelwax Bilberry Wheel Cleaner||Best concentrate||Liquid||1000||No||Yes|
|Armor All Ultra Shine Wheel Cleaning Wipes||Waterless option||Amazon, eBay||Wipes||16 wipes||Yes||No|
Wheel Cleaner Buying Guide
Contaminants found on wheels
Wheels are subject to a lot of abuse due to their exposure to the elements, both environmental and from the car itself. The most common contaminants are:
- Dirt and grime
- Brake pad material (various organic compounds like fibreglass and kevlar, steel, copper, and clay, depending on the brake pad)
- Brake disc material (normally grey iron particles, but steel is sometimes used, and to a much lesser degree carbon-ceramic)
Brake dust is the worst contaminant for your wheels. Prolonged exposure to brake dust can result in irreparable damage like surface pitting and etching. This can be reduced by applying a protective ceramic coating or car wax to the wheels every second or third wash. While tar, dirt, and other grime isn’t good, brake dust is the worst and most damaging.
Chemicals in wheel cleaners
When researching wheel cleaners, one of the first things to come up will be the ph; is it alkaline (high ph), acidic (low ph), or ph-neutral/balanced? Below are some of the major chemicals found in wheel cleaners.
Water – This makes up most of the wheel cleaner by volume and is generally added to dilute stronger chemicals to limit the possibility of wheel damage but to also make the product safer to use for the consumer.
Surfactants – These work by reducing the surface tension and the wheel cleaner to “mix” with the contaminants, making it easier to be removed.
Detergents – Dirt and other impurities are more soluble with detergents and therefore easier to remove, but are also much gentler than household detergents which can strip away wax and other protective coatings on paint and wheels.
Acids – Brutally effective at removing the most stubborn contaminants, but must be washed off in their entirety or you risk damaging your wheels, especially if they are unpainted polished rims. While possible to buy, most acid-based cleaners are only available to professionals.
While wheel cleaners are still very aggressive cleaners (they need to be to be able to remove the grime that builds up over hundreds of heat cycles), generally speaking, these days painted or clear coated wheels are the norm and this makes most wheel cleaners safe for most wheels. Special care should always be taken with a new cleaner on a polished, chromed, or billet wheel.
It is important to remember that high acidity (low ph) and high alkalinity (high ph) are both corrosive and can irreparably damage wheels. Bleach is one example of a high-ph chemical and is found in some wheel cleaners. Ph-neutral wheel cleaners are the safest option for most people, and are the most popular products for sale.
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Tools for wheel cleaning
There are myriad tools available to make wheel cleaning an easier and less laborious task, and they do not cost the earth either.
- Dedicated wheel bucket – Wheel contaminants are the worst for your car, so a wheel bucket keeps the rest of your car safe.
- Long brush/wheel woolly – Great for getting behind the face of the wheel and around the brake discs and calipers.
- Detailing brushes – Perfect for cleaning in tight, hard-to-reach places like around wheel bolts and brake calipers. They’re also great for agitating the wheel cleaner and coating the wheel entirely.
Correct wheel-cleaning technique
As has been mentioned in most of our car detailing-related articles, you want to do just enough to achieve a result. That is, just enough force, a cleaning product just strong enough, etc. You can always do more, but if you damage your wheels you can’t reverse it by then doing less.
Most wheel cleaners are so effective you barely need to touch your wheels at all, but that should also highlight just how powerful these cleaners are. Any wheel cleaner should be tested in an inconspicuous spot before further use, in case they do damage the wheel.
As when washing your car, rinse the wheels first to remove any loose contaminants. Working on one wheel at a time that is cool to the touch, spray the wheel cleaner all over the wet wheel from top to bottom, doing your best to cover the entire wheel.
Most wheel cleaners only need 30 to 60 seconds before they begin to take effect and react with the brake dust (evidenced by seeing a colour change for many). Some products suggest agitating the cleaner with a brush, and this is good practice as it will help remove tougher grime and contaminants while being assisting in covering the entire wheel with cleaner.
Make sure you have your wheel bucket already filled with a wheel shampoo (or some of your wheel cleaner) diluted in water. Using your wheel woolly or long-handled brush, clean the inner barrel of the wheel between the spokes (if the wheel design allows).
Use a smaller detailing brush to clean around the wheel bolts and tight places on the wheel. Rinse off the wheel with a hose or pressure washer and, if necessary, clean off any tougher contaminants using a dedicated washing mitt or microfibre towel.
A few rules to remember:
- Use a dedicated wheel bucket and tools.
- Work on one wheel at a time and make sure it is cool to the touch before spraying with wheel cleaner.
- Don’t leave wheel cleaner to dry on your wheels.
- Rinse each wheel thoroughly.
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Wheel Cleaner FAQ
Can I use dishwashing liquid to clean my wheels?
No. The detergents in household cleaners are often far too strong for washing cars and contain ingredients like salts which can damage paint and wheels.
Can I use wax on my wheels?
Absolutely. Regularly applying wax, or a ceramic coating, can protect your wheels from the damage caused by brake dust while making it easier to clean your wheels. It will limit how much brake dust will be baked on the wheel surface.
What is iron fallout remover?
Fallout remover is a product that removes and breaks down iron contaminants from paint and wheels. Seeing as brake dust is composed largely of iron deposits, it can be very effective to also use fallout remover on your wheels.