Car Wheel Cleaner
Not all wheel cleaners are created equal

best auto detailing tips tag line

Like so may areas of detailing, choosing a car wheel cleaner will be a confusing task for most people.

It is yet another area of car care and auto detailing that is filled with much hype from not only the industry itself, but from many misinformed people marching around as experts.

In many ways the auto detailing industry is much like a visit to the "Wizard of Oz". Through the use of hyped-up marketing and advertising, the industry is forever trying to elevate itself to Hollywood celebrity status. And unfortunately, the allure and appeal of this hyped-up statuds is very seductive and appealing.

Professional Grade Car Wheel Cleaner
Professional Grade Results

Like everywhere else in life, not all things are created equal and the world of wheel cleaners is no exception.


car wheel cleaner before


car wheel cleaner after

Car wheel cleaners have come along way due to chemical engineering; that is the good news.

The bad news is that the subject itself is filled with much hype and controversy regarding between the many types of auto wheel cleaners that exist in the market.

And like so many area of auto detailing, it is an area that doesn't have to be overly complicated if you ask the right questions and ask the right person.

"Darren, I am tired of all the hype! Many people talk of Ph balanced formulations or factory safe products,  but I just want a car wheel cleaner that works without all the complication."

Professional Car Wheel Cleaner:
Meguiar's Acid Based and Non-acid Based

To begin with, I will show you what I use professionally every day to clean and detail virtually every kind of wheel from daily drivers, to wheels on $300K luxury and exotic automobiles.

Acid Based Car Wheel Cleaner

(Use the link below to get yours now through Amazon)

Meguiar's D14001 Wheel Brightener - 1 Gallon

  • What I literally use in my professional business on every wheel type except bare aluminum wheels which are virtually non-existent in today's world.
  • I dilute mine down 10:1 but can be used as strong as 4:1
  • The car forums will have you believe these are bad for your wheels and not ph balanced. If you just can't get past this, I have included other choices for you.
  • Use on cool to warm wheels.
  • Can be used on wheels that are semi hot; you just need to work fast so as to not allow the cleaner to dry as this will stop the chemical reaction process and you will need to reapply to reactivate the cleaner. Semi hot to me, means I can leave my hand on the wheel for any length of time with having my hand get burned.

Non-Acid Based Car Wheel Cleaner

(Use the link below to get yours now through Amazon)

Meguiars D14301 Non-Acid Wheel And Tire Cleaner

  • Professional grade wheel cleaner.
  • Spray on, agitate, hose off.
  • Both are safe for all clear-coated, O.E., and chrome wheels.
  • Not for use on bare aluminum wheels.
  • You can decide between acid or non-acid wheel cleaner.
  • Just know that the acid within the acid based wheel cleaners literally chemically react to the brake dust and are very effective, so choosing the non-acid version will not work as well on any heavy brake dust or wheels that have excessive brake dust build up on them.
  • I dilute based on the label instructions.

Darren's Professional Tips:

Before I move on to apply greater understanding to car wheel cleaners and detailing, let me just add my professional tips for use with either of these car wheel cleaners from Meguiar's:

  • I dilute to a 10:1 ratio personally/professionally.
  • Can be diluted to a strength of up to 4:1
  • I use it on any clear coated (typically silver in color), chromed, blacked-out wheels (both matte or gloss finished), and any painted wheel.
  • Never use on hot wheels.
  • Do not allow product to dry before rinsing. If it dries, simply reapply the wheel cleaner to reactivate the chemical and you are good to go.
  • Read manufacturers directions of use.
  • So many people go into "freak-out" mode whenever they hear the word acid. The forums are filled with misinformation and ignorant so-called experts who will tell you how damaging acid is for yur wheels. This is just not true. I have been using this on repeat customers' wheels for over 15 years and have never had a problem. And think about it, the actually concentrate is contained within a plastic container. If it was so damaging, I am pretty certain they would not be able to produce it in plastic containers. And just so you know; clear coat is a form of plastic.

Professional Car Wheel Cleaner:
Nanoskin Organic Wheel Cleaner

Nanoskin (NA-SBE128) Speedy Brite Organic Wheel & Tire Acid Cleaner - 1 Gallon

  • Professional grade.
  • Organic acid based formulation; safe for all wheel types.
  • Can also be used on glass/paint to remove water spots.
  • Safe for all wheel types including billet aluminum wheels.

Darren's Professional Tips:

For most of you whether you are a driveway detailer or a beginning professional, I think the Nanoskin car wheel cleaner pictured here will be the winning combination for you.

  • Aggressive enough to be effective.
  • Safe enough to be used for other applications like water-spot removal on paint and glass.
  • Safe for virtually any wheel you could possibly imagine (yes, this includes every stock OE wheel I have ever seen)
  • Safe for all types of wheels including bare aluminum; cast, forged, or billet.

Understanding the Wheels. Understanding Car Wheel Cleaners

For most of you, the organic acid based wheel cleaner from Nanoskin is all that you will ever need in order to clean and maintain your car wheels (regardless of wheel type or finish). But due to all the misinformation and bad information regarding Ph balanced wheel cleaners and factory safe car wheel cleaners, I thought a comprehensive Q. and A. would be appropriate.

automotive wheel cleaner chrome wheel

Q. Do I need a Ph balanced wheel cleaner?

A. Simply put, NO! Of course if it makes you feel "better" or "safer"...then go for it! This is mostly advertising hype. As emotional based creatures we humans are subject to advertising that exploits our psychological triggers. Virtually every industry uses advertising hype to sell us consumers more and more products.

Q. But Darren, doesn't it makes sense to use a Ph balanced car wheel cleaner?

A. Sure. If you like being jerked around my marketing and the so-called experts:

  • Do you know what the proper Ph balance is supposed to be based on manufacturers recommendations?
  • Exactly what is the "proper" Ph balance for clear coated wheels versus chrome wheels? (I guarantee you will never have a manufacturer inform you of the "proper" Ph balance.)
  • Do you even know what the Ph scale is in the first place and how it plays into life in general? (most people don't)

Q. But Darren, many of these car wheel cleaners have an ingredient that is some form of acid?

A. So noted, and you are correct. But what does this mean in the context of car wheel cleaners? (Your stomach contains a form of acid also...should we have our stomach removed in the name of safety?)

Q. If the wheel cleaning product has some form of acid, then would not common sense tell you it must be damaging to your wheels.

A. No. Unfortunately many areas of auto detailing and car care are over-simplified and this is only one of many ways in which manufacturers can exploit your ignorance. The chemicals contained in this and other quality wheel cleaners react to brake dust, not the clear coating on your wheels. Note that the product itself comes in a plastic container and is completely safe.

Q. So Darren, what exactly is the take away from this learning curve regarding wheel cleaners and acid?

A. Let me clarify and help you apply a broader or deeper understanding.

  • Acid is simply a chemical that resides on the Ph scale towards the acid side, which is opposite the Alkaline side.
  • Most things can be reduced down to basic chemistry; if you understand it, you then have the understanding to know what is good, bad, or indifferent.
  • The kind of acid contained in most wheel cleaners is an acid that reacts to brake dust; this is the good news and the reason these modern day wheel cleaners are so effective.
  • The acid contained in these wheel cleaners chemically react to bare metals also; eg. iron, aluminum, etc. For this reason the product labeling warns against using on bare aluminum or un-coated wheels. (except for the Nanoskin version which is safe for even bare aluminum wheels)
  • If it helps you... realize that these car wheel cleaners come in a plastic container for one, and your clear-coated wheels are essentially an alloy wheel coated in a form of plastic.

Q. So if you are telling me that this acid based car wheel cleaner is not only safe but effective, then why such the push from so-called experts to use only Ph balanced wheel cleaners?

A. It's called an agenda. Meaning, they have some self-serving agenda they likely are not informing you of, or are less than transparent about. They either want to sell you some of their "stuff", or they simply want to appear like an "expert".

Manufacturers and so-called experts love to take a product and make it "special". The more special they can make a product, the more you are going to want it and the more it is going to rise above the competition. So marketing/advertising use ambiguous, misleading terms and definitions that keep you chasing your tail. By creating an element of doubt or uniqueness, depending on their marketing strategy, their ultimate goal is to separate you from your money. This is done by getting you to buy more and more stuff by exploiting emotions.

"So Darren, with all that said, how do I decide on whether to use an acid based car wheel cleaner or the non-acid based car wheel cleaner?"

  • I professionally use the acid based wheel cleaner and have done so for decades. (see my video below on both the acid based and nonacid based wheel cleaners.
  • I would recommend that from a professional stand point, most of you will want to go with the Nanoskin organic acid based wheel cleaner.
  • If you just can't get past the thought of using an acid based wheel cleaner, then the obvious answer is the non-acid version from above from Meguiar's.
  • Once again, you will be jerked around by endless opinions and most people like yourself are forever confused with all the chatter found within the detail and car forums.
  • If you have a brand new car and clean your wheels regularly and consistently, it really is an area you don't have to over-think as any one of the above wheel cleaners will provide excellent results.
  • As a professional detailer, I deal with endless cars in endless states of condition. So I need the strength of the acid based wheel cleaner to chemically react to brake dust and make me more effective as a professional. If you have a car that has been neglected and are trying to restore the wheels by cleaning off built up brake dust, then the acid wheel brightener from Meguiar's would be your pick. nd know that you will have to apply repeat applications to remove years for built up brake dust. Also note that eventually brake dust will do permanent damage to wheels which no wheel cleaner can save at that point.

Going Deeper for Clarity...

While it may seem like a contradiction, I am going to go even deeper to shine an even brighter light on this subject of detailing and car care that is notoriously full of misleading hype.

porsche wheel cleaner

Much of advertising and marketing is like magic; the magician gets you to focus over "here", so you don't see what is going on over "there". So it is suggested by slippery marketing tactics that using a Ph balanced wheel cleaner is the logical and smart choice.

But this conclusion is mostly irrelevant.

  • Most people have factory, clear-coated wheels. (Any wheel cleaners on this page are safe for these type of wheels.)
  • Every car will get brake dust in varying degrees. (foreign cars are notorious for throwing more brake dust than domestic cars)
  • The acid-based wheel cleaner is highly effective at removing and breaking down brake dust due to its chemical reactivity to brake dust particles.
  • Both the Meguiar's wheel cleaners above are safe on virtually any wheel except for un-coated, bare aluminum wheels. (which at that point you would simply choose the Nanoskin wheel cleaner.)

Professional Wheel Cleaning Tools

Finding the "right" car wheel cleaner is only part of the equation when it comes to cleaning and detailing your wheels.

Effective wheel cleaning tools will take your wheel cleaning efforts to professional level status.

mercedes benz s63 amg wheel

Use my list of professional tools listed below to take your efforts to the next level of professionalism.

Despite a wheel cleaner that is very effective chemically for cleaning and breaking down brake dust, some form of agitation will always be required based on how much water pressure you have access to when rinsing, and the amount of brake dust you are dealing with, along with the actual type of wheel you are trying to clean.

The Right Tools For The Job

Ask any auto mechanic and they will tell you how the right tool can make or break their success. Auto detailing is no exception and I love when I find the perfect tool for the job.

Twenty-five years of experience has taught me that not all tools are created equal and finding "just the right fit" is a tough find. Often like the product choice itself, the right tool will be based on the obvious as well as the subtleties of any given tool...which is another way of labeling a tool as being both effective and having a great user experience.

Tire and Wheel Brushes

When it comes to cleaning wheels, I have found professionally that more than one type of wheel brush will be necessary in order to fully clean and detail what I refer to as the (3) areas of a wheel:

  1. Wheel face (the easiest and most obvious part)
  2. Lug nut openings (Difficult due to the lug nut interfering)
  3. Wheel barrel (The inside area of any wheel)

Wheel Brushes that Work

Detailing/Cleaning Wheel Barrels

If I had to pick a single wheel brush to clean inside the wheel barrel's I would opt for this one from Speed Master and have been in love with it since I first discovered it years ago!

They are not cheap, but they last a very long time. As a professional, I can get anywhere from 9-12 months out of mine. As a driveway detailer, it could be years of use.

SR1 Performance Wheel Brush Kit + towels

  • Soft, long bristles that are slightly feathered at ends for gentle use on any wheel.
  • Will last years for any driveway detailer ( I have had a single one in use for over 2 years professionally. Other cheaper wheel brushes will break down)
  • Handle and rod are fully covered in rubberized plastic that prevents any scratching of wheel surface.
  • Bendable steel inner rod.
  • Extra long for extra wide performance wheels.
  • Ideal for cleaning wheel barrel for true perfection of details.

Detailing/Cleaning Wheel Face

You could spend more on endless choices in tire and wheel brushes, but the two brushes below are exactly what I use and know that work!

Chemical Guys ACC_G09 Body and Wheel Flagged Tip Short Handle Brush

  • Feather bristles at the tips for gentle cleaning.
  • The extra long bristles are ideal for cleaning deep into wheel lug openings and intricate wheels.
  • Ideal for the cleaning the face of the wheel.
  • Long handled brush is used for tires and/or wheel wells.
  • Feather bristle tips are ideal for both gentle cleaning and also "hold" cleaners if you want to spray cleaners onto brush itself.
  • As safe of a wheel cleaning brush as I have ever seen or used.
  • The exact one I use professionally.
  • See separate wheel lug brush below.
  • Chemical resistant and will literally last most of you a lifetime!

Detailing/Cleaning Car Wheel Lug Nuts

When it comes to cleaning car wheels, there is no limit to the many types of wheels you may come across. From basic in design, to highly complex. For this reason I also recommend this smaller detail brush that is ideal for use within the lug nut recesses of any wheel. You can use the brush from above to force the long bristles into the lug openings, but if time really is money, this separate lug brush is the ticket!

Wheel Woolies Boars Hair Detail Brush: 1 1/4" Dia.

  • Ideal for use within lug nut recesses.
  • Will last most of you a lifetime.
  • Chemical resistant.
  • Super soft and safe.
  • The exact brush I use professionally.

Professional Detail Sprayers

Over the course of my professional detailing career, I have tried endless sprayer heads and the one's below are my all-time favorite and I go to them time and time again.

Darren's Caution: When it comes to spray heads there is never any guarantee as to how many sprays you are going to get. I have tried endless heads and I like these the best. But no head is ever a sure thing as I might get 20 sprays out of them, or 2,000 sprays out of them.

When using them for these wheel cleaners, I have found that if you are willing to clean them after each use by spraying water through them, they will last almost indefinitely.

Chemical Guys ACC_115_GR 320CR Heavy Duty Industrial Trigger Sprayer

  • Fully adjustable.
  • Perfect fit for your hand.
  • I especially love these as they can be adjusted for an incredibly fine mist which is very useful in most applications.
  • Very comfortable for your hand.
  • You will appreciate all these features once you have to spray a chemical 20 and 30 times in a row as quickly as possible!
  • I have tried the two-way sprayers that spray both when you pull and while you release. The added efficiency is nice in many applications based on the chemical you are using and the situation, but for the money, I am not sold so I have stuck with these for the past 15 plus years.

Not All Car Wheels Are Created Equal

As you can see if you have made it this far down the page, car wheel cleaners and car wheels themselves is an area of car care that many would consider basic and fundamental, but just like so many other areas of the business, there is much ground to cover for full understanding.

So with that said, I am going to add this section to help you gain greater understanding and help you know all the proper techniques in using this wheel cleaner when it comes to the many wheels and the many ways in which wheels are constructed.

Darren's Professional Advice:

  • Brake dust is caustic. If allowed to remain on your wheels long enough, it can become virtually impossible to remove brake dust that has become embedded permanently onto your wheels.
  • As any other area of car care; cleaning and maintaining wheels from the beginning will save aggravation in the future.
  • Keeping your wheels clean and perfect for the life of your car can be achieved through the use of any of the above car wheel cleaners and tool choices.
  • If you are coming into the game late and your wheels have never been detailed past the wheel face, it may require additional labor and scrubbing based on the level of accumulated brake dust.
  • Some high-performance and luxury cars have brake assemblies so big that no wheel brush is able to fit between the wheel barrel and the brake calipers/rotors. In this event, rotating the wheels will be required to achieve full detailing of wheel. (Rolls Royce, Range Rover, some Mercedes AMG models are a few examples)

Labeling the Different Wheel Types

Factory Clear-Coated Wheels: Silver Finish

The (2) wheels below are the most common type of factory wheel you will find. The car wheel cleaner form Meguiar's is ideally suited for these type of wheels.

Mercedes CL63 AMG

mercedes wheel cleaning

Porsche Carrera S

porsche wheel cleaning

Chrome Plated Wheels

Once again, the Meguiar's car wheel cleaner and tools mentioned above are ideally suited for these type of wheel finishes.

Bentley GTC

bentley chrome wheel

Custom Momo Wheel

momo chrome wheel

Combination Wheel Types: Black Painted w/ Polished Lip

Colored or blacked out wheels have become very popular in the past 5years or so. As a rule, the black surface will always be a non-issue and completely safe, the polished or chrome outer ring is a different story. This is where you will have to test. As a rule, 90% of the time this polished ring will be clear coated. If it is chrome, it obviously will not be an issue as this wheel cleaner is safe on chrome wheels.

If you are unsure, you need to test. Spray a quarter size amount of car wheel cleaner from Meguiar's on a section of the outer silver area and see if the area begins to foam to a whitish appearance. Wipe with a cloth and see if a dull, satin shadow has been created. If so, you now the out ring is bare aluminum and if you used this wheel cleaner, you would need to follow up with some form of mag wheel polish designed for use on aluminum wheels to restore original shine.

Mustang Cobra GT 500

mustange cobra black and chrome wheel

Range Rover Super-charged

range rover black and chrome wheel

Blacked-Out Wheels: Gloss Finish

Meguiar's car wheel cleaner is once again perfectly safe for these blacked out type of wheels.

Maserati GranTourismo

Camaro ZL1

Blacked-Out Wheels: Matte Finish

Completely safe! Regardless of color or finish, the Meguiar's car wheel cleaner is completely safe. Both wheels below have a slight polished, unpainted contrasting lip that is coated so no chemical reaction takes place.

Mercedes S63 AMG

mercedes s63 amg wheel

Strut Custom-Bentley GTC

strut matte black wheel

Factory Clear-Coated Car Wheels: Silver and Polished

Just when you think you have covered all bases, the industry keeps coming up with variations to wheels. Despite (2) types of colors or finishes, these wheels are completely clear-coated and completely safe.

Mercedes E63 AMG

Range Rover Sport

range rover sport wheel

Anodized Factory Car Wheels

Anodized wheels are rare and most often are mis-labeled as such. The anodizing processes is basically irrelevant as any modern day wheel is going to be coated with a factory clear-coat in virtually 99% of all wheel cases and therefore completely safe.

This wheel from a Cadillac is the closest I have come to as to what many people would call an anodized wheel due to its translucent appearance of the black/grey color.

White Powder Coated Car Wheel

There are not too many all white wheels on the road today. Just like every other area of life, trends come and go. All white wheels are a trend that had its time and now black seems to be he greater trend.

But despite the fact that it is all white, this car wheel cleaner is completely safe of ruse on these wheels that can actually be painted any color and don't have top be truly powder coated.

HRE Custom Wheel

Porsche Cayenne Turbo S

The Exception To The Rule

Yes, for every rule there always exists the exceptions. And below I lay out the exception to the rule which is not so much an exception as it is simply a warning. And not so much a warning as it is the proper understanding of what we are dealing with when it comes to use of this Meguiar's car wheel cleaner that also has certain off-label uses. (uses that do not fall under traditional uses and therefore not listed on the label itself, or actually warned against using the product in such a manner)

Mag Wheel and Bare Aluminum Polishing

Since we have learned that chemistry is relevant in any industry, understanding chemicals and chemical reactions is important when it comes to car wheel cleaners and cleaning wheels.

If you have stayed the course and read this entire page (you are a tenacious soul if you have), then I need to add a section dealing with mag wheels that are made using aluminum and can be either cast, forged, or billet. These types of bare aluminum wheels are very uncommon these days but still exist.

When I am paid to polish aluminum wheels, I will often pre-clean them by etching them with the acid based wheel brightener from Meguiar's to remove all forms of brake dust before I attempt to polish them.

  • The chemical in this car wheel cleaner will react to bare aluminum and etch it completely clean, but will leave it in a satin finish (basically it will turn it from a polished wheel to a clean, satin finished wheel...ready for polishing if you choose.
  • The acid will not hurt the wheel, only etch it and expose superficial flaws that may not have been visible in its polished state.
  • Since not all wheels are produce with the same quality of alloys and machining, not all aluminum mag or billet wheels are created equal. There is a big difference between a cast and billet aluminum wheel.
  • Billet means the wheel has been machined out of a single block of aluminum. This will be a much higher degree of quality and cost. This wheel acid responds best to a high quality wheel like billet aluminum. You can realistically polish a billet wheel by hand back to near chrome like appearance.
  • Cast aluminum wheels are molten aluminum that is then poured into a mold. These are less expensive and will never shine to the degree a true billet wheel is possible of doing. As a general rule I do not recommend using this car wheel cleaner on this type of mag wheel as it will be difficult at best to polish it back to life by hand.

Billet Wheel Before Etching and Polishing

This is a billet wheel from a truck I was hired to polish. I wanted to start with a clean slate so I used the Meguiar's Wheel Brightener wheel cleaner to completely clean and etch the wheel prior to polishing.

Etching Aluminum Wheel

etching aluminum wheel during

This is what the chemical reaction looks like as I have sprayed the Meguiar's Wheel Brightener. You can see the brake dust running down the face of the wheel and the wheel foaming up due to the chemical reaction. After I have sprayed the wheel with wheel acid, I give the wheel a thorough rinsing and either move onto polishing, or give it another acid bath if some brake dust is still remaining.

Metal Polish for your Car Wheels

Flitz BU 03515 Blue Metal, Plastic and Fiberglass Polish Paste - 5.29 oz.

  • Great metal polish; perfect for billet wheels.
  • Can be used any most hard surfaces for polishing.
  • The most versatile metal polish on the market.
  • Ideal for polishing away water spots and oxidation on the chrome bumpers found on the many c-class RV's I detail.
  • Also ideal for polishing the chrome side mirrors on many of the RV's I detail.

A few things to point regarding billet aluminum wheel polishing:

  • I have completely doused the entire wheel with the acid based Meguiar's wheel brightener.
  • The foaming action (as seen in above picture) is the chemical reaction taking place.
  • The center hub is chrome and therefore not chemically reacting. (not foaming up)
  • DO NOT let the wheel cleaner dry during this process.
  • DO NOT use on hot or warm wheels. Will cause cleaner to flash dry.
  • DO NOT let the black brake dust accumulate and remain standing during the cleaning process as you can begin to see it form at the bottom of the apex of the wheel. (as you are spraying the acid and it begins to run down and accumulate at the bottom, use the wheel brush to keep the wheel acid and brake dust moving as you continue to spray until you have fully saturated the wheel and are ready to hose it down)
  • For complete removal of all brake dust, you will still need to agitate the wheel with the brushes (and a tooth brush if needed) from above.
  • You may want to repeat this step to ensure complete removal of brake dust and to create the most consistent satin finish possible before attempting to polish.
  • Once you are satisfied with the results, make sure you rinse thoroughly and then use a leaf blower or compressed air to completely dry the wheel.
  • Use the Flitz metal polish and a micro-fiber cloth to begin polishing to perfection.
  • Simply follow manufacturer's label for directions.

Polished Aluminum Billet Wheel

polishing aluminum wheel

While you will be able to see a difference between the before and after, let me add that in real life, the difference is even more dramatic. And yes, I did this by hand. Professionally, I plan on about 20 minutes per wheel if I am going to undertake this process. And that 20 minutes does not include the cleaning/etching process.

Car Wheel Cleaner and Darren in Action

Using Meguiar's Acid Based Wheel Cleaner

Using Meguiar's Non-Acid Wheel Cleaner

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