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"Unfortunately, typical car wash soaps and household cleaners are not strong enough to break the bond between brake dust... and the wheel."

History didn't record his name.  He may have been a warrior designing a battle chariot.  Perhaps he was a stone mason struggling to complete a building, or a mourner providing a smoother ride for a departed loved one.  But on that special day, sometime in the fourth millennium BC, in the delta between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, this unknown Sumerian changed the history of the world and all mankind.  He invented the wheel.

Your car's wheels can dramatically enhance the appearance and performance of your automobile.  Modern wheels can also present a substantial cleaning challenge as heated dust particles from brake pads bombard the wheel and bake into the finish.  If left on the wheel, a phenomenon known as galvanic corrosion sets in, which will eventually destroy your wheel's appearance.

The Kinesis wheels on this Porsche Boxster have polished aluminum rims that require frequent maintenance. 

Most modern wheels, in particular aluminum wheels (or "Mags" as they were once called), are painted with the same paint and clear-coat used on the body of your car.  While durable, the wheel's clear-coat finish is subject to damage from acid compounds (including acid rain, hydrocarbons, and acidic cleaners).  Likewise, polished and anodized aluminum wheels (not protected by a clear-coat) will react (dull or corrode) to both alkaline and acidic conditions.

This BMW wheel is excessively dirty.  The brake dust was allowed to sit and bake on the wheel for several weeks without washing.  Regular washing will not clean this wheel completely.  It will require a strong wash solution and 30-45 minutes of restoration work.

Unfortunately, typical car wash soaps and household cleaners are not strong enough to break the bond between brake dust, road tar, road grime and the wheel.  To properly clean wheels, the car care industry has developed three groups of wheel cleaners:

  1. Acid-based Cleaners -- These are widely used by detailers, car dealers and car washes who need to clean wheels in the shortest possible time or with the least amount of effort. Acid-based cleaners are typically 2% solutions of oxalic, phosphoric, and hydrochloric acid.  Eagle One All Finish Wheel Cleaner is an example of an acid-based cleaner. While acid-based cleaners pack the greatest cleaning punch, they can easily etch the surface of your wheel if allowed to dry. Care must be taken not to use acid-based cleaners on wheels with pitted or chipped surfaces. The acid will migrate into any fissures and accentuate flaking and peeling of surface coatings.
  2. Acid-free Solvents -- These are mild solutions of alkaline solvent, usually ethylene glycol or butyl ether, with a wetting agent. These solutions creep under the dirt and brake dust, loosening and lifting surface grime. Non-acidic cleaners usually require some surface agitation (wheel brush or sponge) but will not etch the wheel's finish like and acid.  The problem with these solutions is that they pose a serious health risk (skin irritation and respiratory distress).  I warn everyone to review the contents of their wheel cleaner.
  3. Detergents -- Generally speaking, detergents are safe wheel cleaners, but can be a little tough on tires and other rubber.  Of all the active wheel cleaner ingredients, detergents are by far the safest for both car and owner.  Detergents also require the most agitation (brushing) to completely clean your wheels.  The benefit of a detergent wheel cleaner is that it will not harm delicate wheels and it does not pose a health risk. 

Like the wheels, your tires have several formidable enemies, including water, formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, ultraviolet (UV) light and ozone.  Water washes away the natural oils and waxes in rubber that keep it elastic.  Formaldehyde and petroleum distillates act as solvents, eating rubber on contact.  When ozone is combined with UV light, a reaction occurs that attacks the tire and its polymers.

It's easy to keep tires looking great and in good condition by treating them with a quality dressing at least once a month. 

The products I like include: 303 Aerospace Protectant and Sonus Total Eclipse.  Both of these products are water based, will not sling off, and leave a nice, dark  matte finish. 

To protect against ozone and UV damage, a stabilizer molecule called a competitive absorber is blended with the tire polymer.  Competitive absorbers work by capturing and absorbing UV radiation and converting it to heat, which is dissipated harmlessly.  All tire manufacturers use the same competitive absorber, called carbon black.  This is why most tires are black.  These absorbers are sacrificial; they expend themselves in performing their function of converting UV light to heat.  However, as carbon black loses its ability to perform, it turns gray.  This is one reason tires tend to discolor with age.

To protect tires from further ozone damage, tire manufacturers add a wax compound to their formulas.  Tires flex when they are in motion, causing the wax molecules to migrate to the surface.  This forms a protective barrier between the air (ozone and oxygen) and the tire polymer.  In the tire trade this is called blooming.  When tires are parked for extended periods, blooming does not occur, and ozone quickly attacks the tire polymer.  With UV light and ozone working in concert, the degradation is accelerated, resulting in drying, discoloration and cracking.

To combat the negative effects of water, solvents and UV light on tires, the car care industry makes tire dressings.  Tire dressings fall into two groups: oil-based and water-based silicones.

Oil-based silicone dressings are nonpenetrating coatings that seal rubber and vinyl.  They are very good at providing a protective surface barrier.  Oil-based silicone dressings create a glossy film that never really dries.  I'm not a fan of these products, as most contain petroleum distillates as a cleaning agent.  Petroleum distillates are harmful to rubber and vinyl, and will cause cracking. 

Water-based dressings do not contain oils or petroleum distillates that can harm and dull the surface of rubber and vinyl over time.  Most water-based dressings offer a nongreasy, more natural looking satin finish; however, they are not as durable as the oil-based products.

To properly clean your tires and wheels, you will need a 3-5 gallon bucket, a soft tire and wheel scrub brush, a sponge or wash cloth, a water hose and nozzle, car shampoo, and a spray wheel cleaner.

This BMW wheel has collected about 300 miles of brake dust and was washed a week before the picture was taken.  As the brake dust has not had a chance to set, it will not be difficult to clean with soap, water and a good brush.

Warning: Do not clean your wheels if they are still hot from driving.  Let them cool, or thoroughly hose them down.  If your brakes are hot, spraying them with cold water may cause severe damage.

I have a variety of brushes and sponges I use to clean tires, wheels and wheel wells.  I really like the  Feather-Tip Wash Brush and Tire & Wheel Brush from OXO.  They are by far the finest quality wash brushes available under $20.  If you use a tire gel, or if your tires get heavily soiled, you may want use the OXO Tire Brush, which has stiff bristles. 

Here are some step-by-step tips to make cleaning easier:

  1. Clean one wheel at a time.
  2. Clean your tires and wheels first before washing the rest of the car.  This prevents the splattering of cleaners, dirt and brake dust on already cleaned panels.  Your car is also less likely to get water spots from drying while you wash your wheels.
  3. Mix a bucket of soapy water with your favorite car shampoo, using double the recommended strength.
  4. Thoroughly rinse the tire and wheel with water using a hose and spray nozzle.  If it is exposed, rinse the brake caliper to flush away loose brake dust.  Finally, rinse up into the wheel well to wash away road grunge, road kill, mud and other debris. 
  5. If your tires and wheels have a heavy coating of brake dust or road grime, spray them down with your wheel cleaner.  Allow the cleaner to soak for 30 seconds (minimum) to 3 minutes (maximum).  For fine wheels, I recommend Sonus, P21S and Autoglym.  All of these formulas are non-acid, detergent based cleaners. 
  6. Use a tire and wheel scrub brush and your soapy water to agitate the tire and wheel surface.  Use plenty of soapy water.  The soap acts as a lubricant to gently lift dirt and grit away from your wheels.  Follow up with your sponge or washcloth to wash the remaining dirt from the tire and wheel.  If your wheels have large open areas, use the sponge to get behind these areas.  Make sure the tires are scrubbed.  Many people put layer upon layer of dressings on their tires, but never clean them.  The result is a brown or yellow discoloration.
  7. Use your wheel brush and soapy water to scrub the accessible areas of the wheel wells, too.  This small detail keeps your car looking fresh and new.  If your wheel has a lot of small nooks and crannies, use a parts cleaning brush.
  8. Thoroughly rinse the tire, wheel and wheel well.  Use plenty of water.  You need to ensure that all traces of the wheel cleaner (and your neighbor's cat) are gone.

After washing your car, remember to dry your tires and wheels using a detailing towel.

I do not recommend using tire cleaners containing bleach.  Bleach is used in many tire cleaners to brighten whitewall tires, but they can turn tires a dull gray.  Bleach will stain your alloy wheels permanently.  Read the product contents on the label before you buy.

If you have intricate wheels, a round brush, such as this 1 Inch Round Natural Detail Brush is a must.

This OXO Spoke Brush can be adjusted to most spoke wheels.  The brush head has stiff bristles that get into the difficult nooks and crannies.

After you clean your tires and wheels, you need to protect them. Tire dressings accent the appearance of your tires and protect against cracking and fading.  Likewise, waxing your wheels protects their finish from brake dust, and makes them easier to keep clean.

Your wheels should be waxed, at a minimum, each time you wax your car.  You can significantly reduce your wheel cleaning and waxing efforts by coating your wheels with a high quality acrylic.  I like Klasse All-In-One for this purpose, as it is heat resistant and will not yellow.  Klasse All-In-One also has the added benefit of being both a cleaner and a protectant.  Another excellent wheel protection product is Plexus.  Plexus works well on wheels with many small openings, as these wheels are difficult to wax.  

To apply tire dressing:

  1. Use a small foam sponge, foam wax applicator, or "tire swipes" to apply tire dressing (foam provides even distribution and wastes far less product than a cloth).  To avoid getting tire dressing on your car, apply the dressing to the foam applicator, not directly to the tire.  If your car spends a lot of time in the sun, I highly recommend 303 Aerospace Protectant and Sonus Total Eclipse.  These products are both water-based dressings containing strong UV inhibitors.  If you like a really glossy tires, use a tire gel. 
  2. Allow dressings to penetrate into the tire before wiping off the excess dressing.  Five to ten minutes is okay, but 30 minutes is even better.
  3. If your wheel wells have a black plastic liner, wipe the wheel well liner with dressing, too.  This simple detailing step makes a big difference.
  4. If you like your tires to be shiny, do a final wipe down with your foam applicator.  If you prefer a satin finish, buff the tires down with a terry cloth detailing towel.

Keeping your tires and wheels clean and detailed makes a big difference in the appearance of your car.  If you have invested in upgraded factory or aftermarket tires and wheels, spending a little extra time detailing them helps maintain your investment.