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How to Clean Your Tires (Stop Using These Chemicals!)

When it comes to cleaning your tires and wheels, there seems to be no shortage of new cleaners constantly pouring onto the market. From a wheel perspective, it makes absolute sense. With so many wheel finishes and coatings, you have to be especially cautious to avoid using the wrong chemical as doing so might be a costly mistake. Tires, on the other hand, are often more forgiving. Though a low-profile tire provides little sidewall to take care of, for truck and SUV owners with more rubber on the wheel, it’s a much different story.

We will be the first to admit, we’re not tire-shine enthusiasts. It usually slings all over the car and reminds us too much of that greasy haired car salesmen that tries too hard. However, we do in fact prefer our sidewalls to look as clean as possible. This can be difficult given routine off-road exploration more often than not leaves our tires stained and scuffed. Over the years, we’ve tried plenty of tire cleaners with varying degrees of success. As many of you have likely done, we’ve also experimented with more common universal cleaners to see how effective they are.

These household cleaners, such as Simple Green and Dawn dish soap, often have people praising them over often more expensive tire-specific cleaners. This got us thinking about how we could compare this with a real-world test. Using a very well-worn and mud-stained 37x12.50R17 Nitto Trail Grappler, we sectioned off seven sections of the sidewall to test how an assortment of different cleaners would work on the same tire. With plenty of sidewall real estate to work with, we were able to test a variety of household cleaners, along with one of the newest tire and wheel specific cleaners on the market. The results were rather interesting.

nitto trail grappler tire cleaning

The Test

We always enjoyed the show MythBusters, so we tried to create our own backyard experiment that would put each cleaner on an even playing field. This Trail Grappler is a few years old and was recently removed from a Jeep and replaced with a larger set of treads. We picked the more stained and dirtier of the two sides and marked off test sections throughout the tire. Each of these sections had a few inches between the other to eliminate cross contamination.

Our process was simple. We would apply the given cleaner to the tire either by spraying it on directly or applying with a soft-bristled wheel brush. We then cleaned each with a wheel/tire brush and rinsed. Once the tire was completely dry, we documented the results. We were looking at two main aspects. The first would be how well the cleaner worked to remove the mud stains. The second was how it worked to bring the black back to life in the sidewall.

how to clean your tire

Meguiar’s Car Wash

Since we typically use Meguiar’s Ultimate Wash & Wax to clean our vehicles, we opted to give it a go on the tire first. What we found is that it did little to remove the mud stains. In terms of getting the tire back to black, it was only a very slight improvement as you can see from the outlying sections that were untreated. While we do like this stuff for keeping our cars looking fresh, this is one area that it doesn’t work so well.

meguiars car wash tire cleaner

Simple Green

If there is one go-to cleaner that we like to use, it’s Simple Green. While it worked better than the Meguiar’s to remove mud stains, they were still pretty visible. It did do a better job at brining back the tire to black, so it was a step in the right direction. At the end of the day however, this isn’t the best use of this cleaner. It’s also worth mentioning that we did not dilute the fluid.

simple green for tire cleaning

Purple Power

If we have something especially greasy around the shop, Purple Power is one of our favorites. A little goes a long way with this stuff. As you can see in the photo, it did an excellent job removing the mud stain and brought back a bolder black appearance. While not perfect, it's far better than Simple Green. The one thing we would be cautious about here is that this cleaner can be too abrasive for some wheel finishes. This makes us especially reluctant to recommend it. Yes, it does work well. But, you’ll need to do your research to make sure it’s safe for your wheel finish.

Purple Power Tire Cleaner

Kaboom

One trick that we’ve heard car detailers use for years is Kaboom bathroom cleaner. It sounded odd to us, but we figured it was worth a try. To our surprise, it did a great job. It removed the mud stains extremely well and brought the tire back to black. Just like Purple Power, we would be cautious about getting it on your wheels. But, it was a top performer in our test.

Using Kaboom for cleaning tires

Bleach

We will come right out and say that we do not recommend using straight bleach on your tires unless you are trying to clean a white wall. Even then, there are specific cleaners made just for that. However, we wanted to make sure we tested this as it was another one of the “sworn by” methods of old. For the most part, we found it worked just OK. It did cut down on the mud stains and brought back a little black. Just not enough that we would recommend using it over other chemicals tested here. We think the bleach folklore likely came from days where whitewall tires were commonplace. Ultimately, we recommend keeping these bottles in the laundry room and away from your car.

Using Bleach for cleaning tires

Wheel & Tire Cleaner

To get a baseline of sorts for which to judge the other cleaners off of we picked up a bottle of Turtle Wax Wheel & Tire cleaner. Why did we pick this specific brand? It was the least expensive one they had on the shelves. We had not used this brand before, but found it did an excellent job at brining the tire back to black and cutting through the sidewall stains. While it didn’t get the sidewall lugs as cleaned as we hoped, the bulk of the sidewall was way better. It’s also worth noting that there is a disclaimer on the bottle stating to avoid using this cleaner on certain aftermarket wheel finishes. So, read the details before you purchase.

Turtle wax wheel and tire cleaner review

Dawn

There’s probably no cleaner more common in this test that Dawn dish soap. We grabbed a bottle from under our sink and put it to work. It worked well to bring the black back to the tire. Though, it was marginal at removing the mud stains. For our money, we’d keep using it for the dishes.

dawn soap for cleaning tires how it works

The Verdict?

We didn’t plan on declaring a victor here, but we will say of the batch we tested the Kaboom and Turtle Wax Wheel & Tire cleaner both worked extremely well. At the end of the day, there is a reason there are so many tire and wheel cleaners on the market. While we haven’t tested all of them, what we can say is that it’s a safer bet using a cleaner that’s designed for tires and wheels, versus something that is targeted more at cleaning toilets.

Have scratches you need to remove? Check out this DIY cleaner kit that actually works.

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