Every car lover knows that the wheels are the focal point for your car. That’s why so many drivers spend hours agonizing over wheel choices, whether picking through factory options, or looking at the aftermarket catalogue. And it’s why these days you’ll even find 22-inch chrome wheels on heavy duty work trucks.
All that style and curb appeal has its downsides though. Modern wheels look great, but they’re more prone than ever to brake dust, grime and oil. Throw in road salt and slush from the winter, and your gleaming wheels go from “yeah!” to “bleh” in a big hurry.
Most gas-station car washes do a lousy job of sorting out your wheels. They need special attention from the best wheel cleaning products and the loving touch of a microfibre rag to keep in tip-top shape. Dirty wheels look terrible, but more importantly they are more likely to suffer from to corrosion and degrade. That’s because dirt and grime, even in summer months, can trap moisture against the metal surface. All that brake dust and grit also scores your wheels, and those micro scratches trap more and more dirt, making bigger and bigger scratches.
Knowing what to use to clean your wheels can be daunting. Chrome is notoriously fragile, and even aluminium can react to some chemicals. You might even be worried about chemicals that contaminate your brake systems or degrade the rubber on your tiles. The good news is most automotive cleaners and degreasers are capable of safely cleaning your wheels. But for best results, use a product that has a reputation for being safe, effective, and easy to use. After all, one of the main reasons we let our wheels get dirty is that it’s a pain to clean them.
Read on for our guide to great quality wheel cleaners that make it easy to keep your rolling stock looking sharp.
Meguiar’s Ultimate All Wheel Cleaner is a high-performance, pH-balanced solution for every type of wheel finish no matter how dirty they get.
The active gel formula changes colour as it lifts up brake dust and grime from your rims. It turns brown when acting on grime and dirt, and purple when acting on brake dust. After a few minutes, you can just hose it off for a gleaming shine. Users consistently report excellent performance on all manner of caked-on grease and junk, including bird droppings and grease.
Meguiar’s Ultimate works best on a dry wheel — don’t pre-rinse. Just spray on from the 710 ml (24 oz.) pump bottle, wait, and hose off. The only downside is that you need a generous dose for each wheel. You’ll only get a handful of washes from one bottle.
Those washes will give excellent results though, and who needs half-empty bottles anyway?
Armor All’s 14434 formula rim cleaner offers a satisfying thick white foam that promises “triple action” against road grime, dirt, and brake dust. The 710 ml (24 oz.) bottle is priced well below its competitors, making it a good value proposition.
The foam is best wiped off, not rinsed off, and it isn’t as tough on heavy deposits of brake dust or grime as others you’ll find below. Still, it does a good job of lightweight cleaning duties, and the satisfying foaming qualities will make your kids want to help you wash your rims.
Armor All is a well-known automotive detailing brand with a good reputation for performance and value, and this rim cleaner fits the bill. If you don’t mind employing a bit of elbow grease for the stubborn stuff, or if you mostly want a light-duty wheel cleaner for the quick touch up here and there, you’ll appreciate the price and performance Armor All offers.
Mothers Pro-Strength Chrome Wheel Cleaner is an acidic solution designed to restore chromed aluminium wheels with a quick and deep wash. Its phosphoric acid base is great heavy-duty cleaning on neglected rims that were once shiny. It’s a spray-on, rinse-off solution that should not be scrubbed into the wheel but will also not leave water marks on your spokes when you hose them off.
Unlike the products above, this is not safe on all wheels. Clear-coated, powder-coated, anodized or plasti-dipped rims will be harmed by this cleaning solution.
However, if you have wire-spoked wheels, or any other regular chrome rim, you’ll find a few squirts of Mothers and a hose give a surprisingly good result with little effort. This is one product you should research carefully before buying, but Mothers Pro-Strength will put the bling back in your car’s rollers.
Dr Beasley’s S14D12 is a specially formulated gel-type wheel cleaner for matte finished wheels.
The no-drip solution coats the wheel when you spray it on and gets to work lifting grime. To get the best results, let the gel sit for three minutes for a light cleaning, and five minutes for heavier deposits. Wipe it off with a microfibre towel before rinsing the wheel.
Despite the chemical coating that activates against brake dust and grim on contact, Dr Beasley’s is pH balanced and completely safe for plasti-dipped or powder-coated matte-finish wheels. It is also completely biodegradable. We recommend pairing the Dr Beasley’s cleanser with the company’s Matte Finish Wheel Seal, which adds a long-lasting synthetic coating to your wheels and protects against brake dust build up.
Owners of matte cars and matte wheels know the struggle of keeping streaks and dust marks away, but Dr Beasley’s cleaner and seal offer relief — albeit for a price.
The Chemical Guys brings its car detailing expertise to your wheels with the versatile Sticky Gel Citrus wheel cleaner. This high-power cleanser is formulated with natural citrus products for a power, safe, and great-smelling wheel wash.
Stickiness matters in a cleanser, because the longer the solution can sit on the surface, the more time it has to gently lift and separate contaminants, without being harsh on the wheel itself. Chemical Guys recently revised this formula, adding extra emulsifiers to make it even more clingy.
This cleanser is great for wheels with inset lugs, as it penetrates into the lug well and lifts out the grime that builds up in those cavities over time. It is safe on every type of wheel, and won’t harm paint, rim tape, or any other material on your wheels. It’s great for high-end wheels with multiple surface and surface coatings.
Unlike other gel cleaners above there’s no need to wipe this stuff clean before rinsing. After a few minutes, Chemical Guys Sticky Gel can be hosed off easily for a great finish.
P&S Detailing’s RT40 Brake Buster is a heavy-duty agent that disintegrates brake dust and leaves behind a protective coating to keep your wheels cleaner, longer.
This is a surprisingly powerful cleaner given that it’s a non-acidic formula and works to de-grime tires and wheels alike. It’s safe on all sealed surfaces, but you should note that if your wheel’s coatings are already beginning to fail you might have issues with this seeping in behind and peeling them further.
Where the Brake Buster product really shines is in the long run. The solution leaves behind a protectant coat that not only stays shiny longer but makes it easier to rinse your wheels clean afterwards. If we have a complaint, it’s about coverage. One 500 mL (16 oz) bottle will only just do a full clean for your ride, especially if the wheels are dirty. As we mentioned though, you won’t have to use a cleanser as often thanks to that protectant quality.
This is the ideal product for drivers whose cars and wheels are in a constant battle against brake dust.
This all-purpose cleaner and degreaser from Sun Joe is one non-automotive product that will work just as well as the others on this list. The truth is, a lot of automotive cleaners are merely detergents mixed with a degreaser. As long as it’s pH neutral (which this is) it will be safe to use on most metals. Sun Joe cleaner comes in a one-gallon container that will make up to 10 gallons of cleaning solution and it is viscous enough to perform well in a pressure washer. You could easily use this to wash off your wheels, then turn it on your driveway before rinsing both off with a hose to get sparkling clean results.
It doesn’t come in a funky ergonomic pump bottle like the others, but you can use Sun Joe with a mop or a cloth or pour some into a pump bottle you have lying around.
The one-gallon concentrate bottle of Sun Joe is a similar price to the 24 oz. sprays found above, which makes it a screaming deal.
If you want an effective wheel clean for the best possible price, this is your jam.
Cleaning your wheels can be frustrating. Not only are the nooks and crannies hard to get to, but the gunk that sticks to your rims is often difficult to remove. There are a few tricks that can make the process go more smoothly.
1. Always read the label
If you’re the sort of person who never reads instructions — wheel cleaners can bite. The label will tell you if the product you’ve chosen is acidic or non-acidic, safe on paint or coatings, or only suitable for bare metals.
Some cleansers require a thorough pre-rinse, others ask that you do no rinsing or prior cleaning at all. That’s because many spray-on/rinse-off solutions are wasted on thin levels of light dust and dirt, so you should get rid of those before you begin.
Meanwhile, many gel-type solutions need those layers to help get traction so they can cling to the wheel and work their magic longer.
2. Always let your wheels cool
Your wheels, brakes, and tires all get warm while you’re driving. That temperature can interfere with the effect of the cleaners you spray on. In some cases, temperature can cause the cleaner to stain the rim. Also, hot brakes can burn your hands for a while after you’ve stopped driving, so if you’re wiping rims after a drive you could get hurt.
3. Use a test spot for new cleaners
Always test your cleaner on a safe, inconspicuous spot before you use it on the front surface of your wheel. That way, if there is an issue, it won’t ruin the look of your ride and cost you a set of new rims.
4. Don’t let cleaners dry on your tires
Even cleaners that are for wheels and tires should never be allowed to dry on your tires. Doing so can cause discolouration as well as dry out the rubber, making it prone to cracking.
If you've tried some of these tire cleaners and want to share your experience, leave a comment below!