Automatic car washes have a pretty bad reputation among car owners. It’s common knowledge that they’ll damage your paint job but do you know how or why they cause scratches? In this article, we’re going to explain what happens when you drive your car through that dreaded tunnel.
Most automatic car washes are bad for your paint. The brushes are violent and full of contaminants which can cause damage. Touch-free car washes are much safer in terms of scratches, but can still wreak havoc on your wax, sealant, or ceramic coating. A traditional hand wash is always safer.
Different types of car washes (and how they can cause damage)
Traditional brush car washes
The traditional automatic car wash uses a post of rotating foam arms that slap your car more than an episode of The Three Stooges. Add soap and water and presto you have an automatic automobile abuse device disguised as a car wash!
The damage these foam appendages alone can do to your vehicle is only compounded by the conditions of an automatic car wash. Your vehicle might be slightly dirty and you just want to quickly clean it up. The truck before you however may have just dumped a metric ton of dirt and gravel into the brushes from his offroad adventure.
Now on top of Moe going to town on your paint, he’s also grinding mother nature’s trail mix into your clear coat. Clearly, this is not the best method of quickly cleaning up your car.
Touchless (soft touch) car washes
What about touchless car washes though? (Notice I said touch-LESS, not touch-free. There’s a difference!) Certainly, this has to be a better, safer alternative, right? I mean the brushes are so much softer, and they’re made from cloth so they’re more pliable as well.
Not so fast.
Sure the cloth is softer than the foam. Theoretically then, it should do less harm. Sound logic but it’s also incorrect. The soft cloth is more likely to hang on to the dirt and grime from the previous cars. This makes those soft cloth bristles more like 240 grit sandpaper, giving you more scratches and swirl marks than you can shake a stick at.
Touch-free car washes
If both of the previous options are the equivalent of filling your wash bucket with sand and gravel, surely the touch-free option is the way to go. Now while I will admit the touch-free car wash is less likely to cause physical damage to your vehicle, it still has its drawbacks.
For instance, to compensate for not being able to physically touch your car two things have to happen. First, the water pressure has to be raised considerably just to knock off any loose debris.
Second, to have a prayer at cleaning the car, harsh chemicals are used in hopes of breaking down the dirt, dust, and road grime. Moreover, the chemicals used aren’t specific to the surface being cleaned – the soap being used to clean the wheels is also being used on the paint, vinyl, rubber, plastic, and glass.
There’s a reason companies develop specific products for the different areas of the vehicle. And there’s always at least one strip of dirt down the side of the car that the car wash couldn’t remove properly.
The air dryer rarely dries the car entirely. You either move through too quickly to avoid the timer running out, or you aren’t quick enough and the back half of the car is still wet (which will inevitably dry and leave water spots all over the car).
Sure, you can bring a towel and drying aid along to quickly wipe down the car but there’s a problem. Since the car wash didn’t get your paint perfectly clean, you’re rubbing this dirt back into the paint causing, you guessed it, scratches and swirl marks.
Have years of car wash usage scratched your paint and given it a dull finish? In most cases, that can be fixed with paint correction. To learn more about paint correction, head over to this article to see if your paint can be saved!
Coin-operated car washes
A coin-operated car wash might be something you consider using. If no one has told you before, allow me – NEVER use that disgusting brush that spits out multi-colored soaps! Everyone knows someone that’s used that brush on their wheels, undercarriage, or exhaust.
If the fact that it’s a harsh bristle brush isn’t enough, the amount of contaminants it holds from previous cars makes it even worse.
The coin-operated car wash can be a decent option though if all you’re missing at home is a pressure washer and cover from the sun. It provides both while allowing you to make sure your car is washed carefully.
The proper etiquette must be followed in these establishments to avoid getting kicked out or annoying other people. Always make sure you go at a time when there are little to no customers – if your 1-hour detail inconveniences too many people, you’ll probably be asked to leave by the owner. Try going late at night or early in the morning.
I recommend using only the high-pressure wash and spot-free rinse options. Bring your own buckets with soap and your choice of wash mitt or microfiber towels to wash the car and dry it before moving out into direct sunlight.
What type of automatic car wash is better?
Now I know I just spent 523 words telling you why you shouldn’t use an automatic car wash. But if you still want the ease and convenience of driving through a wash tunnel and are just wondering which one is better, I’m going to say the touch-free car wash is better every time.
The simple fact is that you’re not grinding who knows what into your paint with every brush rotation. It’s not perfect, but it’s the lesser of three evils.
Will a touch-free car wash strip your paint protection?
I mentioned earlier that touch-free car washes use high-pressure water combined with harsher chemicals and soaps to break down the dirt on your car’s surface. How then, do these chemicals interact with your chosen level of paint protection, and can they actually remove or damage your wax, sealant, or ceramic coating?
Touch-free car washes vs. wax
Let’s look at wax first. Wax has been used on cars since 1944, and up until the last decade or so, was the weekend warrior’s number one go-to product for protection and added shine. It’s easy to use, and just about anyone can get their paint to sparkle a little brighter with a coat of wax. Since it’s so easy to apply it can also be stripped easily, though.
In most cases, all you need to strip your coat of wax is dish soap or a dedicated wax stripper. This is essentially what a touch-free car wash is doing to your coat of wax from last weekend. It might not take all of it off, but it’s definitely removing more than you’d like.
The spray wax at the end of the tunnel isn’t even close to the same thing as a hand-applied carnauba wax, so it’s not an even trade.
Touch-free car washes vs sealant
Synthetic sealants are generally more durable than waxes and hang on more tightly to the paint than waxes do. This was a great development in the detailing industry and has allowed detailers to go longer periods before having to apply another coat of protection.
Since it’s stronger than wax it will hold up better than wax. It will eventually break down the sealant though, leaving your car unprotected from the elements and harsh UV rays. It won’t be removed as quickly or easily as wax, but it will be removed eventually if you continue using automatic car washes.
Touch-free car washes vs ceramic coating
Ceramic coatings are so much more durable than sealants and waxes. A touch-free carwash can still degrade your coating but it’s more likely to cause a build-up of chemicals on the surface of your ceramic coating than it is to remove it.
This is one area in car care where being cheap might actually save you time, money, and headaches down the road. If you must go through an automatic car wash with your ceramic coated vehicle, opt for the cheaper touch-free with none of the extras, aside from an undercarriage spray if you are so inclined.
It’s also a good idea to use a waterless wash that is compatible with your coating afterward, to get that pesky pinstripe of dirt the tunnel wash missed. Then follow that up with a soft drying towel and your favorite drying aid. This still isn’t an ideal situation, but the ceramic coating is the toughest of the three.
Touch-free car washes vs unprotected paint
We have now covered how different types of paint protection hold up against the touch-free car wash. Wax and sealant are slowly removed with each wash and ceramic coatings can degrade over time. What are these machines doing to paint with no protection at all? As you probably guessed, it’s not good.
Remember those harsh chemicals we talked about? Over time these detergents can actually damage your clear coat, along with drying out your rubber and potentially discoloring the plastic trim. In short, touch-free car washes are rough on protected cars and even rougher on unprotected cars.
Take the extra time and use an alternative method of detailing if keeping your car in tip-top shape is important to you.
Automatic car washes and modified vehicles
Every car guy wants to modify their vehicle in some manner. If you’re into 4×4 trucks and SUVs you’re likely to install such modifications as lift kits, mud tires, snorkels, and the like. If you’re more interested in sports cars you’re likely to look toward coil-overs, lightweight wheels, and aftermarket bumpers, splitters, and spoilers.
Any modification that alters the exterior of your vehicle is a potential hang-up for an automatic car wash with brushes. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem though if you’re using a touch-free automatic car wash.
Some car washes require you to park one or both front wheels in a chain-driven dolly and keep your transmission in neutral as it pulls your car through the tunnel. This is a recipe for curbed wheels (scratches on the faces). Others have guard rails down the center of the tunnel and could scrape the underside of your vehicle if it is lower than factory ride height or is just a lower car from the factory.
Lifted trucks may be too tall for the car wash. Luckily, most car washes have a maximum height warning with a horizontal maximum height safety sign. Make sure you know the different risks each car wash poses to your vehicle.
Alternatives to automatic car washes
If all automatic car washes pose some level of risk to your vehicle. What are some easy ways to keep up with the detailing needs of your pride and joy?
First and foremost, regularly cleaning your car will make it easier and save you time. If you have access to water, a thorough wash at home is your absolute best option.
If a garage isn’t an option, getting an affordable canvas carport is a great way to keep out of the sun while washing to prevent water spots. Adding a water deionizer to your washing setup can go a long way in helping to prevent water spots when washing outdoors.
Washing your car in direct sunlight isn’t the best option, but it is possible with the right technique. Learn all about that in this article:
If you don’t have access to water and your car isn’t dirty but rather has a light layer of dust, I’d recommend a waterless wash. A small amount of water is still needed to use these products but you don’t need to have access to running water outside.
If you don’t like using waterless washes, Larry from AMMO NYC has come up with a clever product that not only uses almost no water but can also be used on more soiled vehicles. He calls it Frothe and it is applied with an aerator that creates a thick foam that lifts the dirt off the paint. It works on the same principle as shaving cream to lubricate the paint and leave a clean scratch-free surface underneath.
Another option (and probably the most fun) is to go to car meets and other local automotive events and make new friends. You’ll either find an enthusiast that won’t mind giving you a good deal on a quality detail job or someone with a good at-home detailing setup that would appreciate having a buddy come over to hang out and detail cars together.
You never know, you might just meet your future best friend simply because you needed a place to wash your car. And if that’s the case, it won’t stop at detailing. One enthusiast friend turns into another, turns into another, turns into another, I’m sure you get the point.
Not all automatic car washes are the same. The old-style ones that touch your car physically with brushes should always be avoided at all costs. Touch-free and coin-operated car washes can be helpful if you aren’t able to wash your car at home though. In the end, it’s always better to wash your car yourself if you care about your paint and the protection you put on it.
Jeremy got his start in the automotive industry in 2012 as a detailer. He also tried sales and a role in the service department at a Chrysler dealership before deciding to become an automotive technician for Volkswagen. Read more about Jeremy: