There’s nothing that makes me cringe more than seeing somebody at a self-serve car wash with the sudsy brush in hand. I’m sure it’s being wielded with the best of intentions, but in the hands of people who don’t know better it can do a lot of damage. Don’t let that be you. Here are a few tips to getting the best out of your wash bay experience:

Before you even start, consider your own wardrobe. Avoid clothes with metal zippers or buttons that could scratch the paint as you’re reaching to get any hard-to-reach places. Similarly, you’ll want to take off your watch and any other jewelry that can scratch your paint.

Start with the vacuum station, pull out the floor mats, and run the vacuum wherever it will reach. Once you’re done, move to the wash bay. If your mats are rubber, you can use the clips on the wash bay wall to hold them while you spray them off.

Before you plug in your money and start working, take a minute to investigate the wash bay system. It seems like every one is a little different, but they all have a “soap” and a “rinse” and those are the functions to focus on. Opinions are divided on how effective “pre-soak” (low pressure with a chemical treatment to loosen road grime) or “spot-free rinse” (filtered or softened water to leave fewer mineral deposits), and “wax” (wax sealant) actually are at most car washes.

But there’s no controversy around the brush. It might seem like a good way to get grime off your car or your wheels but please, for the love of your paint, stop. You have no idea where that brush has been. Chances are you’re about to pick it up off of a muddy floor and that’s not a great start. It is virtually guaranteed to be caked with mud and gritty abrasives that will leave scratches and swirls on your car. Some people say it’s fine to use on the wheels, but even then, I’m cautious.

Once you’ve figured out the controls and fed your machine the required amount of change (or credit card charge) get to work. There is no need to rush and while the clock counting down creates a sense of time pressure, I usually keep my card or a little pile of coins ready in case I want to extend the time.

As a rule of thumb, wash the car from top to bottom. If you want to pre-soak, go ahead and start by spraying the whole car down. But I generally go straight into the high-pressure soap. It’s good to be cautious with the high-pressure spray on more fragile trim pieces, but your car is waterproof and it’s OK to spray the whole thing. (Think about what happens when you’re barreling down the highway in a rainstorm.)

Once you’ve soaped up the car, it’s time for a rinse. Again, start at the top and move all the suds and grime down. The soap should have helped to soften any dried-on spots and those should rinse clean. If something remains stuck on after a couple of swipes with the sprayer, you can always go back before you dry your car and carefully remove it with a clean, wet rag.

After you’ve rinsed off the soap, you may elect to go in with the wax. Because it’s a sealant you’ll want to make sure the car is really clean before you apply it (and then rinse the excess off). I usually skip it and save the wax treatment for when I’m getting a hand wash.

For drying, the highway method is tried and true. But if you want a streak-free finish, air drying won’t cut it. You’ll want to dig into your stash of microfiber towels and plan to use a few. Start with open doors, hood and trunk or hatch so you can wipe around the edges where water tends to get trapped. And then when you move to the paint, remember that towels are made to absorb not to scrub, so be gentle and focus on blotting the water up rather than wiping it away.

And although you can wash your car in the driveway at home (once it’s warmer), a commercial wash bay or car wash is always recommended since it is designed to recycle the wash water instead of washing it into the gutters.