Let’s be honest, no one really enjoys washing their car. You might love the result but scrubbing and polishing to get everything back to showroom quality is hardly going to be the highlight of your weekend.
The worst part is the wheels and tires. Whatever you do, they inevitably end up getting dirty again, but if you leave them too long the problem gets considerably worse. If you’ve ever tried to scrub tires that haven’t seen a good wash in years you’ll know that these dirt magnets can be really stubborn to clean.
Keeping your car looking great isn’t the only reason you should be cleaning your wheels either. Stopping the build-up of residue on your tires helps stop the onset of corrosion and is an important step in maintaining your vehicle.
Thankfully, with regular care and a good wheel cleaner you’ll be able to get them clean in less than 10 minutes. The hard part is picking a wheel cleaner. With such a huge range out there, how do you choose the right one?
Key Things to Look For in Wheel and Tire Cleaners
Once you learn about these key factors, picking a wheel and tire cleaner won’t seem nearly as confusing.
The strength of the cleaner will affect its ability to remove difficult deposits. Most wheel cleaners are strong enough to get rid of things like caked dirt, dust and even grease. But if you have a build-up of something particularly difficult to remove, like brake dust, you’ll either need to use a stronger cleaner or do multiple washes with a lot of scrubbing.
Compatible for your type of wheels
It’s not as simple as just choosing the strongest cleaner either. Use the wrong cleaner on the wrong type of wheels and you’ll see nasty streaks or even suffer permanent damage. It’s all about the reaction between the wheel and the cleaner: materials like unfinished aluminum and anodized metals can be ruined by even a relatively brief wash with the wrong cleaner.
The main thing that determines compatibility is the pH level: acidic cleaners tend to be cheaper and more powerful while non-acidic cleaners are compatible with a much wider range of wheels. You should be careful to not just rely on pH though, as there are also a number of chemicals included in cleaners which help with grease and brake dust that can cause a reaction. Always follow the guidelines set by the cleaner’s manufacturer.
The texture of your wheel cleaner can also make a difference. Many cleaners are loose liquids with a consistency like water. This makes it easy to get them into every part of the wheel but it also means that they’ll run off your wheels if heavily applied. A foam or gel will cling to wheels, so less will run off and it will be able to really get into the dirt. The downside is that it might struggle to get in between spokes or fine details without careful attention and a good brushwork.
Something you’ll want to bear in mind when selecting a product is what’s actually possible and what’s just marketing hype. Cheap and unreliable wheel cleaners have a tendency to promise the world and almost always fail to deliver. There isn’t a single cleaner on the market that will give perfect results with just a spray and a rinse and you should take any that claim to do so with a hefty pinch of salt. To get the best results, you’ll need to invest in a good brush that’s both strong enough to agitate the cleaning fluid and flexible enough to get into all the little details.
Likewise, no car cleaner alone can fully remove deep staining and damage. These are the result of corrosion and discoloration, rather than build-up on the outside of the wheel. They’re beyond the ability of a common cleaner to fix and you’ll need to invest in restorative products or professional treatment for your wheels. If you’re looking for more than just cleaning, we have a list of complete car wash kits here. If you’re just looking for a main cleaning product, read on.
Top 11 Best Wheel and Tire Cleaners 2020
Griots is non-acidic and non-caustic, which makes it compatible with all types of wheels, even sensitive aluminum and anodized finishes.
You might be worried that the trade-off for such incredible compatibility is a reduced ability to clean, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When used according to instructions, Griots is up there with the best in the business when it comes to non-acidic wheel cleaners. It’ll shift most things with a single wash and a good brush, and even difficult deposits will come away with a second application.
It also smells great, which will be a relief to anyone that used the product in the past. Griots used to have a reputation for being an effective but smelly cleaner, so they’ve tweaked their formulation to be much more pleasant. If you’ve ever smelled what a strong wheel cleaner produces when it comes into contact with lots of brake dust build-up, you’ll appreciate that a lot.
In bottles, the Griot is priced at roughly the same as its closest rivals. You can get a gallon refill for an amazing rate, however, so if you don’t mind refilling your own bottle every so often, Griot offers real value.
- Great scent
- Powerful cleaner
- Amazing value
- Compatible with all wheel types
- Really tough stains might need a second wash
2. Adam’s Wheel Cleaner
This wheel cleaner is acid-free and compatible with the majority of wheel types, but the manufacturer does warn against using it on anodized raw aluminum, polished aluminum, and aftermarket bare metallic wheels. They’re happy to provide more specific advice on a case by case basis, and were quick to respond when we reached out to them to ask about a specific set of wheels.
One of the real selling points of this cleaner is its strength. If you’re using a compatible wheel you’ll love its ability to work through grease, build-up and salt with relative ease. It can even help you shift stubborn stains, just don’t expect miracles.
What it really excels at though is removing metal particles. It’s specially formulated to be your secret weapon against built-up brake dust. It will dissolve these hard-to-shift deposits in mere minutes, leaving you with wheels that look as good as the day you rolled out of the shop.
One of the things that really helps it do this is its foaming action. Once the liquid has been sprayed, it quickly turns into a thick foam that clings to wheels and really penetrates tough build-ups. It even changes color when it’s working and when it’s finished.
Adam’s Wheel Cleaner is priced competitively in line with its rivals and is also available in a value saving gallon option.
- The best at removing brake dust
- Competitive pricing
- Foams on contact
- Not suitable for a number of wheel types
3. Meguiar’s D14001 Wheel Brightener
This wheel cleaner is acid-based, so it’s safe to be used on clear-coated, factory-painted and chrome wheels only.
Meguiar’s D14001 Wheel Brightener is an exceptional product with a big catch, its compatibility. If you have polished aluminum, anodized or aftermarket wheels, you’ll need to look elsewhere because the chemicals used in this cleaner will permanently damage your wheels.
If you have wheels that meet the recommended specifications though, you’ll absolutely love this cleaner. It can lift off even the most stubborn build-ups of brake dust with a single wash. It cuts through mud, baked-on dirt and salt with ease. You won’t find a cleaner that’s more effective than this.
The concentrated mixture can also easily be diluted. This is great for saving money but also makes it really versatile. Got a filthy wheel that needs some serious love? Put it on as it is. Just doing your regular clean? Dilute it with four parts water and watch as it still cuts through grease and brake dust without the need for heavy scrubbing.
This cleaner is some of the best value for your money you’re going to get. You get a gallon for a very reasonable rate, and its ability to be diluted allows it to last far longer than almost all the other cleaners on this list.
- Amazing value
- Brilliant results
- Poor compatibility
4. Meguiar’s Aluminum Wheel Cleaner
This cleaner is specifically designed for aluminum, and works on alloy, anodized and powder-coated wheels. It’s acid-free and gentle enough to not damage sensitive materials, making it the perfect choice for difficult wheels like those made of uncoated aluminum.
The thick, foaming formulation is one of the best parts about this cleaner. It’s stored as an ordinary liquid and squirts out as one, but the second it hits your wheels it’ll start to foam. This helps it to stick to the surface and apply its cleaning power, instead of dripping down the wheel and onto the ground.
It offers a good level of cleaning power that will deal with the most common build-ups pretty easily. However, it can struggle a little with big deposits of brake dust as its compatibility comes at the cost of some power. That’s not to say it won’t remove the dust, but you’ll have to make up the difference with some old fashioned elbow grease and some work from your brush.
This cleaner is priced in the same range as its competitors, but offers a larger 24 fl oz bottle, which is excellent value. The foaming formulation also ensures that it almost all ends up on your wheels, instead of dripping down to the ground, which adds even more value. The only downside is that its sensitive chemicals mean that you might need a second coat and clean to shift really stubborn build-ups or stains.
- Works on delicate uncoated aluminum
- Large bottle
- Foaming formulation
- Not as powerful as others
5. Sonax (230200-755) Wheel Cleaner
Sonax 230200-755 is acid-free and suitable for most common types of wheels, including chrome, aluminum, painted, plastic wheel covers, steel, PVD, clear coated and magnesium. The one exception noted by Sonax is anodized wheels, which are notoriously hard to clean and usually require a special product.
One of our favorite features about this wheel cleaner is its color-changing formula. With most cleaners, you just have to guess when they’ve done their job, but the Sonax tells you in the most visual way possible. Simply spray it on, wait for the mixture to turn red, brush and rinse. It’s straightforward, helpful and oddly satisfying to wipe away the foam and see your gleaming wheels underneath.
The cleaning fluid is formulated to clear all the most common build-ups on your wheels. With a helping hand from your brush, it will shift dirt, brake dust, grease, and salt deposits. Keep scrubbing, and you’ll find that most stains are no match for it either, ensuring that your wheels end up looking like they’ve come straight from the showroom floor.
It’s also acid-free and pH neutral. This is what helps make it the perfect choice for a wide range of different wheels as it ensures a safe reaction with whatever material the wheel is made from.
There is a small downside though. Both during its application and for an hour or so after, this wheel cleaner has a very distinct odor. It’s strong and fairly unpleasant. If you’re washing outside, you don’t have too much to worry about, but if you’re in a garage you’ll want to bear this in mind!
On the face of it, this spray doesn’t quite offer the value of its competitors. You pay a little more for its 16.9 fl oz bottle than you do for its rivals 18oz bottles. The price difference really is quite minimal, though, and its excellent cleaning power normally ensures that you need to use less of it to get the same great results.
- Great cleaning power
- Compatible with almost all common wheel types
- Color-changing formula is a great feature
- Strong odor
- Slightly less value for money
6. Carfident Ultimate Wheel Cleaner
Carfidant’s spray is acid-free and formulated to be compatible with any wheel material, so you can use it with confidence on even the most delicate of aluminum rims.
Carfidant continues to deliver when it comes to features. Their formula is powerful enough to remove dirt, caked-on mud, and grease without much help from your trusty brush. Leave it to soak and it will do a great job on brake-pad dust too.
Unlike a number of other competitors, it also has a pleasant scent that will let you clean your wheels without holding your nose. It quickly disappears after rinsing, making it a great fit for anyone that’s concerned about creating a chemical smell in their garage or on a residential street.
A 100% satisfaction guarantee with a refund is also a big plus to have. If you’re hesitant to try a new brand or wondering if this wheel cleaner is really worth the money over a brush and a bucket of warm water, this is your chance to find out for sure. They’re (rightly) confident that their spray will deliver great results consistently enough to make you more than satisfied with your purchase.
This is the one stumbling block for Carfidant’s spray. It’s in the upper end as far as pricing goes, and requires a large amount of liquid for each clean. So every wash is going to end up costing you a bit more than it would with a competitor.
The main reason for this is the lack of real viscosity or foam from the spray. This means that it will tend to run off, requiring you to spray each area several times to really get the effect to take place.
- Strong formula
- Suitable for all wheel types
- 100% satisfaction guarantee
- Poor value
- Runs off easily, requiring reapplication
7. Eagle One E300890900 Cleaner
This cleaner is acid-free but, due to other chemicals used in the formula, it’s only safe for factory coated wheels. Using it on anything else is likely to cause streaking, discoloration and lasting damage.
This cleaner packs a pretty heavy punch, able to knock away grime, baked-on dirt and even brake powder without too much hassle. It’s especially good for those bulky clumps of dirt and grit that can build up on your car in winter, as the foaming formula clings to them much better than a more fluid liquid would.
It’s available in spray cans or in a large bottle. The large bottle is fitted with a hose top sprayer, which we really appreciate. A lot of the bigger wheel cleaner’s containers lack any delivery system, forcing you to dab your brush directly in the liquid or manually fill a spray bottle. Here, a flexible hose helps you get an even, controlled application with no extra fuss.
The price is where this spray really shines. A single can is extremely affordable and you can get a 64oz bottle for the same price that many competitors are charging for an 18oz! If you want to save money without rationing your car cleaner, this is an excellent choice
- Amazing value
- Foaming formula
- Good at removing mud and salt
- Poor compatibility
8. Chemical Guys Diablo Wheel Gel
This cleaner is suitable for painted, powder-coated, chrome and decal wrapped wheels. It shouldn’t be used on uncoated aluminum or anodized wheels as it is acidic and contains chemicals that will react poorly with these types of wheels.
One of the things we love about this cleaner is that it’s a gel rather than a foam or a simple liquid. This makes applying it evenly a simple job, and ensures that you’re never going to miss a spot. Even better than that, it means that it clings to the wheels really efficiently, so you don’t have to worry about it running off.
It comes in a concentrated formula, so you can dilute it based on your needs. Diluted, it works like any other cleaner and can be put into a spray bottle. Left as a gel, it can be used to clean those really caked on deposits of dirt and grit. This flexibility is a big plus, although we would love to see it come with an empty spray bottle to make it as easy as possible to apply a dilute solution.
The only downside is that it can struggle to remove heavy amounts of brake dust, even when it’s not diluted. For regular cleanings, it’s perfect and will do a great job removing build-up, but if you’ve got wheels that are caked in brake dust you’ll probably need multiple washes to get through it all.
This cleaner offers excellent value. You get a gallon for slightly more than the price of competitors, but because the solution is concentrated you’ll actually get a lot more washes out of it if you’re planning to dilute the mixture.
- Very versatile
- Gel holds really well on wheels
- Good value
- Doesn’t come with a spray bottle
- Average compatibility
9. TriNova Wheel Cleaner
This TriNova spray is non-acidic and suitable for all wheel types.
Instead of relying on stronger chemicals to do the work, Trinova use an acid-free mixture that can be used again and again without causing any lasting damage. This is great news for anyone that lives in a challenging environment and has to keep cleaning their wheels to prevent corrosion.
It also packs a considerable amount of cleaning power that makes it ideal for getting rid of those deposits of dirt and salt that you’ve let build up for too long. A good soak with this combined with a bit of elbow grease with the brush, and your wheels will shine again. The only place it struggles is with a large amount of brake dust build-up. If you’re cleaning regularly, this won’t be a problem.
The Trinova cleaner is one of the cheaper options on our list to buy in a spray bottle. It also comes with an extra-long and flexible spray tube, designed to get right into the corners of the bottle so you can get every last drop out.
It’s unfortunately not available in a larger size container, whereas many of its competitors offer the option to pick up a gallon at great value compared to their spray bottles. If you’re planning on frequent wheel washes, you’ll find that this makes quite a difference over time.
- Gentle formula
- Perfect for cleaning caked-on mud and dirt
- Good value for a bottle
- No bulk option
- Not great with brake dust
10. Aero Cosmetics Wet or Waterless
This cleaner is water-based, acid, alcohol and ammonia-free so it works on any type of wheels. You can even wash your car with it!
Wet and Waterless isn’t for everyone or every situation. If you have a heavily soiled wheel that’s covered in caked-on dirt and plenty of brake dust build-up, you’ll want to look elsewhere as you’ll likely need several washes to get it all off.
If your wheels are relatively clean already though, and you’re willing to wash regularly, this is an outstanding choice.
One of its most standout features is that it washes without water. If you’ve got a bad drainage situation or you don’t have ready access to a hose, this is a lifesaver. There’s nothing worse than carrying a bucket of soapy water down from an upper floor apartment block, trying not to spill it everywhere just so you can take good care of your car. It also smells amazing, which will definitely appeal to you if you wash your wheels inside.
Another great feature is that it leaves a layer of wax that will help protect your car from brake dust and salt, minimizing corrosion. Applied regularly, this wax acts as an excellent way to protect your wheels from harmful elements. It also adds a brilliant shine that makes them look great.
This is a pricier choice, especially when it’s the least powerful cleaner on the list. If you want the power of wax protection and a waterless cleaner then the difference in price is well worth it. Those looking for an affordable way to just clean a set of dirty wheels might want to look elsewhere however.
- Great wax protection
- Leaves wheels looking great
- Not suitable for excess grit or brake dust
11. Mothers Foaming Wheel & Tire Cleaner
Mothers’ spray works with painted, clear-coated, color-coated, steel, modular, chrome, or factory-coated wheels
The big appeal of this cleaner is its ability to be used quickly, while still getting a pretty good clean out of it. Spray it on, allow it to soak in for a few minutes and then rinse it away with a good hose. As we mentioned before, no cleaner on the market will remove heavy deposits consistently without some scrubbing from your brush. This comes pretty close though, and is an easy choice if your wheels aren’t especially dirty or caked in brake dust.
A big part of why it’s able to do this is its foaming formula. This helps it cling to every part of your wheel, ensuring that the chemicals get plenty of contact to work their magic on salt, dirt and grease.
It does have a tendency to leave a streaky finish, which is something that can be quite annoying. You’ll need to really rinse every part of the wheel to prevent this happening, and buffing with a microfiber cloth quickly once you’re done is a sure-fire way to give you a good finish.
This cleaner is excellent value. As a single unit, it’s one of the cheaper spray bottles on this list, and there’s an option to buy a gallon or a multipack as well.
- Good value
- Does a decent job without brushing
- Foaming formula
- Streaky finish
- Won’t shift heavy brake dust
The Ultimate Buyers’ Guide to Wheel and Tire Cleaners
Now you’ve heard all about our top picks, it’s time to make a decision. Still undecided? Don’t worry: just ask yourself these 5 defining questions.
What type of wheels do you have?
First things first, you’ll need to find out what your wheels are made out of and how they’re finished. Clear-coated, factory-painted and chrome wheels are all common, and most commercially available products are compatible with them. Polished aluminum, anodized and many kinds of aftermarket wheels are a lot more fussy and normally require a specific type of cleaner.
It’s very important that you use the right type of cleaner for your wheel. Using the wrong type of cleaner is likely to leave permanent streaking across your rims. Not only will this ruin how they look, it can damage the wheel itself and cause or worsen corrosion.
To find out what type of wheels you have on your car, you have a few options. The easiest way is to check the documentation you should have been provided with when you bought the car or wheels. If you don’t have it, don’t worry. Use a wheel directory to identify what type of wheels you’re dealing with and pick an appropriate cleaner.
Where do you live?
It’s important to consider where you’re going to be driving your car. Where you live changes exactly what will need cleaning off your wheels and tires. If you’re going to be driving in a dry, dusty environment, you’ll only need a light wash if you’re consistent with your cleanings. Just remember that heat will bake dirt on and make it harder to remove, so don’t leave it too before you break out the cleaner!
If you’re driving in more extreme conditions, you’ll want to opt for something more heavy-duty. Wintery roads are especially troubling for your wheels. Lots of moisture, dirt and grit can quickly make your wheels filthy and cause corrosion. Not only does this look bad, it can also shorten the life of your wheels. If you want to get multiple seasons out of your winter tires, you’ll need to take good care of them.
To do this, you’ll want to use a powerful cleaner to get all of the build-up off. Salt can be particularly stubborn and even the best cleaners will need a little help from your brush. You’ll also need to remember to clean your wheels regularly: salt will eat into your rims if you leave it on there for too long.
Where are you going to clean?
Where do you clean your car? Do you have a garage, or are you using street parking? It’s a small thing but it should definitely factor into your decision. Without proper drainage, a wet wash of your car is a recipe for disaster as filthy water full of brake dust and dirt is not something you want drying on your garage floor. In that case, you’re much better off for a dry wash product like the Aero Cosmetics. It will let you clean your car without having to worry about clearing away puddles of dirty water.
Likewise, a garage without ventilation can be a really bad idea. Car cleaners aren’t exactly known for smelling like roses, due to the particular chemical reaction they use to clean away brake fluid dust. This isn’t the end of the world if you’re in an outside area, but if you’re cleaning in a garage, you’ll want to use something that won’t make you gag every time you go in there. This is where products like Griots and Carfident start to shine.
What you’re trying to clean
What exactly are you trying to clean off your wheels? The obvious answer most people tend to come up with here is “dirt,” but that doesn’t really tell you much. Is it dust from your brakes? Is it mud? Is it corrosion? Is it a stain? Or is it a build of assorted things from the road? In the end, it makes a pretty big difference. If you’re only cleaning off dirt and dust, any cleaner on this list will do a great job. If you’re looking at serious brake dust build-up, it’s better to opt for something with a serious punch like the Adam’s wheel cleaner.
How often are you planning on cleaning?
Be realistic with yourself, how often will you actually be cleaning your wheels? Once a week, once a month, once a season or once a year? If you’re only planning on doing it irregularly, you’re going to need to use something strong to get rid of all the dirt and build-up, but you probably won’t need a gallon of the stuff.
The opposite is true if you’re planning on making a regular habit of it. If you clean your wheels a lot, you’re also unlikely to have anything really hard to shift, so a strong cleaner isn’t required. You might want to invest in a dilutable or high-value spray like the Meguiar’s Wheel Brightener as you’ll be cleaning more often.
Just be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions with how long to leave it on and how compatible it is with your type of wheels. It doesn’t matter if you’re only washing unfinished aluminum once a lifetime, if you use a strongly acidic cleaner you’re going to do some damage.Our number one pick can be used even on anodized finishes and aluminum.
One last tip
If you take one thing away from this guide, make it this. Clean your wheels a little more than you want to or think you should. It will always pay off in the long term! Also, consider applying some car wax to your wheels to keep the dirt off going forward and give your elbows a much needed rest.
Source: Tools - autoquarterly.com