Minimal runoff for maximum cleaning power. Cleans winter salt and grime effectively. Environmentally friendly. Safe on all wheels and tires. Acid-free, nontoxic, and pH balanced. Brightens and whitens whitewalls.
Costly. May require some scrubbing. Gets used up quickly.
Pleasant scent. Inexpensive and easy to use. Foaming non-acidic cleaner makes tires look brand new. Cuts through old brake dust and reveals shine.
May need a strong hose or stream of water pressure to remove product fully. Won't work on polished aluminum, forged alloy, or plastics.
Product goes from green to red as it loosens dust, dirt, and grime. Acid-free and pH balanced. Safe on paint and clear-coated wheels. Penetrates stubborn brake dust. Great on high-end aluminum.
Pungent odor may linger.
Extra-long spray tube reaches corners and tilts as you spray. Simple to use. Cuts through grease in a snap. Strong yet gentle overall.
May need to use a brush if buildup is excessive. May stain concrete. Don't use in full sun, as it could turn blotchy on wheels or tires.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
In a curious way, wheels are like the teeth of your car. A brighter smile can make you seem younger, healthier, and friendlier. Having shiny, clean wheels on your car has the same effect. Your vehicle looks more impressive and cared for. A real head-turner. The right wheel cleaner can do all that and more. Plus, it's much more affordable than a whitening session with your dentist!
However, you don't want to use the wrong cleaner and risk ruining the finish or damaging the wheels. And if you're environmentally conscious, you don't want to use a caustic product that isn’t eco-friendly. How to choose?
BestReviews can help. The following shopping guide explains why you want clean wheels, provides an in-depth look at wheel cleaners, and addresses your concerns. It even includes some tips on how to get your wheels showroom clean and keep them that way.
You might be thinking, "They're just wheels. What happens if they’re dirty?" Quite a bit, actually. Here are four arguments for keeping your wheels clean.
Clean wheels enhance your vehicle's appearance. Modern rims are designed to enhance the aesthetic appeal of your vehicle. If you let brake dust, grease, and street grime build up, you’re negating that effect. Keeping your car's wheels clean is one of the most impactful tasks you can do to keep your vehicle looking like new.
Clean wheels help prevent damage. Brake dust is the result of using your brakes – the grayish-black particles that collect on your wheels. Left there long enough, it will begin to corrode the clear coat that protects your rims. Eventually, it will eat into the aluminum alloy surface of your wheels. Additionally, corrosion around the bead of a tire can cause it to develop a slow leak.
Clean wheels can increase your vehicle's performance. Believe it or not, one episode of MythBusters dealt with the relationship between fuel efficiency and dirty cars. The guys determined that randomly distributed dirt particles created drag and could potentially cut your fuel economy by as much as 10%.
Dirty wheels have a negative psychological effect. The “broken window” theory proposes that something left in a state of disrepair, like a broken window (or filthy wheels) increases the likelihood of the problem escalating. It's the same thinking that makes that first scratch or dent so much more traumatic than all the other minor incidents that follow. In other words, the dirty wheels make it easier to tolerate and ignore greater and greater problems with your vehicle.
Rather than steel wheels covered with a hub cap, aluminum alloy wheels come standard on most cars. An alloy simply means additional metals were added to the aluminum to increase its strength and durability. Aluminum alloy wheels are lighter than steel wheels and can be cast into any design imaginable. Although alloy wheels don’t rust, they will pit and corrode if neglected.
There are five types of alloy wheel finishes: chrome, polished, machine-finished, powder-coated, and painted. Knowing the type of finish dictates which products you can use to clean your wheels.
Chrome: These alloy wheels are plated in several layers of metals – topped by chrome – to give the wheels a mirrored appearance.
Cleaning concerns: A mild soap/water wash followed by some chrome polish is the best way to care for these wheels. Alternatively, use a wheel cleaner formulated to be safe on chrome wheels. Anything abrasive, such as a hard bristle brush or steel wool, could cause scratching. Do not let brake dust accumulate. If de-icer gets on the chrome, wash your wheels at the first chance you get to avoid corrosion.
Polished: Rather than plating, polished wheels are sanded smooth and then polished with a compound to give the wheels a distinctive luster. The polish can be protected by applying a high-gloss clear finish.
Cleaning concerns: Brake dust will damage these wheels, so clean them regularly with a quality wheel wash to keep polished wheels from pitting and corroding. Follow up with a polishing compound.
Machine-finished: This finish is achieved by removing a thin metal layer from the face of the wheel, which creates a look not unlike that of a CD. A clear sealant is applied to protect the wheels from corrosion. A clear-coat finish could be applied for added protection.
Cleaning concerns: A mild/soap mixture or a quality water-based wheel cleaner works best for this type of wheel. Clean regularly to remove damaging brake dust. Do not use acidic wheel cleaner or metal polish on machine-finished wheels.
Powder-coated: This type of finish uses paint that is baked onto the wheel to create a durable finish impervious to rust, chips, and scratches.
Cleaning concerns: Do not use acidic wheel cleaners, tarnish- or rust-removal products, or bleach on these wheels. Use mild soap and water or a quality water-based wheel cleaner.
Painted: This is the traditional method of coating the wheel in wet paint and applying a clear topcoat for protection.
Read up on any cleaner you’re considering to be sure it offers exactly what you want and need.
The wrong cleaner can permanently damage the finish on your wheels. Always check the label to see if the product is safe on your type of wheels.
Spray on, hose off
As a selling point, many wheel cleaners claim you can simply spray the product on, agitate it a little with a wheel brush, then hose it off. This might be true with a quick maintenance clean, but most of the time – especially if there is grimy buildup – you will need to put a little elbow grease into the procedure.
Liquid or gel
The benefit of using a gel is it tends to cling to vertical surfaces longer, offering more cleaning power.
Some wheel cleaners come only as a premixed spray. Others are available in a concentrate that you must dilute before using. Do not mistake one for the other because applying undiluted product – such as an acid-based cleaner – could permanently damage your wheels. Also consider the fact that while a concentrate might seem expensive, it will often last much longer.
Sometimes purchasing larger quantities is the better deal. Figure out something comparable, like the cost per ounce, to see if going large offers greater value.
Some companies offer a refill that is slightly less expensive than buying a new spray bottle every time you run out of cleaner.
Unfortunately, you won’t know until you use the product how much cleaner it takes to get the grime off your wheels. Purchasing a less-expensive cleaner is only cost effective if it doesn't take an entire bottle to clean a single wheel.
This can be a big concern for many users because some wheel cleaners have a pungent sulfur smell that lasts for a day or two after cleaning. If smells bother you or trigger any sort of undesirable respiratory response, avoid cleaners with strong odors.
Gentle on skin
Some cleaners are extremely caustic. Others are formulated to be much gentler on your skin and eyes. If you have sensitive skin, or you just like to stay as safe as possible, opt for the gentler cleaner.
Some companies offer a 100% money-back guarantee if you’re not satisfied.
If it’s important to you to use an EPA-approved, eco-friendly cleaner, that is definitely an option. And unlike other environmentally friendly products, wheel cleaners are not as costly as you might think.
The price of wheel cleaners ranges from about $4 to $17 per bottle or from $0.25 to $1 per ounce.
Most consumers and reviewers agree that the higher-end products tend to offer better results. Additionally, these products tend to be more universal (safe for all types of wheels).
Always read the label to be sure the cleaner you’re considering meets all of your criteria before purchasing.
Q. What is an acid-based wheel cleaner?
A. The kind of acid that is used in most wheel cleaners reacts to brake dust, which is what makes it so effective. What you have to be very careful about is the fact that the product will also react to any bare metal. An acid-based cleaner will damage uncoated wheels. An acid-based cleaner has warnings on the label advising you of this. Always read the product details to see if the cleaner is safe to use on your wheel finish.
Q. What is Plasti Dip?
A. Plasti Dip is a rubberized coating originally applied to tool handles. You can use it to coat and protect your wheels, along with many other parts of your car. It is durable, but it can easily be peeled off. In general, clean a Plasti Dip wheel as you would a painted wheel, using mild soap and water followed by a quality wheel cleaner.
Q. What does "pH balanced" mean?
A. Alkalinity is measured on a scale of 0 to 14. The middle (7) is considered neutral. When a product is pH balanced, it contains ingredients to maintain a level of alkalinity that is acceptable for the product's intended use. On a wheel cleaner, this is what lets you know that the spray is safe for all finishes. However, always read the fine print to be sure!
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