Can Wheel Cleaners Damage My Wheels?

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Arguably more than anything else, your wheels will be the dirtiest thing on your car. Because of the rigors of daily use, wheels end up coated in dust, dirt, grime, and more from braking, accelerating, rolling, and turning all day. You’ll need to clean them, of course, on account of all this abuse. But some cleaners use harsh chemicals to get through all that dust, dirt, and grime. So we’re going to de-mystify all that in one place, and recommend a few top-notch wheel cleaners along the way.

Cleaners tend to use the same mix of acids, ammonia-based chemicals, water, and solvents. What ratios and blends are used sets them apart. But there’s a common thread again: leave a wheel cleaner on for too long, and you’ll likely eat through the wheel’s clear coat, or even damage the metal underneath. Because of that, most brands do leave instructions for how long product can be left on a wheel before things get nasty. Another thing to note: if your wheels are already damaged, the cleaner can really do some damage. In general, it’s best to carefully read the instructions on a bottle before use, or better yet, find one that also changes color as it works, letting you know when it’s time to clean up.

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Of course, the faster acting a cleaner is, the more likely you are to just sit there and wait for it to work. Luckily, one of the best all-around wheel cleaners is extremely fast-acting. Turtle Wax T-18 All Wheel and Tire Cleaner only needs to be left on a wheel for about 30 seconds. We’ve also got some personal experience with this product, and that initial 30 seconds is usually more than enough to remove most dirt and grime, so long as you’re using a brush to agitate the wheel too. If not, a second or even third pass with a brush, rinsing in between, works great to remove almost anything.

Speaking of brushes, being able to agitate the dirt on a wheel is almost important as the stuff you use to clean it. A nice, soft brush will make sure you don’t damage the clear coating on a wheel while providing some cleaning power in addition to that of the cleaner. We like Adam’s Wheel Brush Kit. Don’t worry if you don’t need the whole kit- the brand sells each of these brushes separately online too. But the kit features a bending brush for the backs and crevasses of hard-to-clean wheels, as well as two different hand brushes for cleaning wheel faces. Short of taking a wheel off your car, this is the best way to clean a wheel without damaging it.

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Another strong wheel-cleaning option that’s user-friendly is made by Adam’s polishes. Unlike the Turtle Wax, the Adam’s Polishes Wheel Cleaner changes colors from the blue in the bottle to a deep purple as it works. Just spray on, agitate, and wait for the color change effect. Adam’s is also acid-free and pH neutral, which is significantly safer for you to use than other cleaners. The brand also claims its neutral formula shortens the time the cleaner needs to work, which is nice.

Regardless of the product, the best thing to do is still read the instructions. It’s a short, easy answer to the problem, but Occam’s Razon is in effect here. Keep it simple. However, as a final alternative to this, we recommend splurging and ceramic coating your wheels if you really care about keeping them spotless. A ceramic coating like Gtechniq’s C5 Wheel Armour will keep your wheel surface protected for up to two years, letting you wash away without worrying too much about the wheel’s clear coat and surface.

Chase Bierenkoven
Chase Bierenkoven

Chase is an automotive journalist with years of experience in the industry. He writes for outlets like Edmunds and AutoGuide, among many others. When not writing, Chase is in front of the camera over at The Overrun, his YouTube channel run alongside his friend and co-host Jobe Teehan. If he's not writing reviews of the latest in cars or producing industry coverage, Chase is at home in the driver's seat of his own (usually German) sports cars.

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