I’ve been asked “how often should you wash your car” a few times lately and I think my answer might surprise some of you. Many people will stick to washing their car as often as possible because they like to keep it clean and well cared for. For 90% of car owners, that strategy will work well. For the other 10% of us that obsess over the appearance of our paint, it’s more complicated than you might think.
We already know that we risk marring our paint and/or creating swirl marks every time we wash and dry our vehicles. Some cars with softer paint jobs are much more vulnerable to this type of damage even when using the safest washing techniques and products. Does this mean that we should avoid washing our cars? Of course not. But we do need to put a little more thought into when and how we wash our cars than the general population does.
If your vehicle is a few years old and has never received a paint correction or any type of polishing, you don’t need to worry about any of this. Chances are, your paint already has some swirl marks and an overall hazy appearance although it probably isn’t noticeable to you.
If you’re content with your paint simply being clean and shiny, do yourself a favor and avoid going down the rabbit hole of learning about paint defects and correction. What you don’t know won’t hurt you. And once your eye is trained to spot the types of things I mention in this article, you can’t turn it off. You’ll become one of “us”!
The other 10%, a.k.a. “The Weirdos”
For those of us that notice every little mark, scuff, scratch, or even fingerprint on our paint jobs, we need to be extra careful of how we care for them. Whether you paid a professional thousands of dollars to polish your paint or spent many hours doing it yourself, the last thing you want is to undo that work. In my post: 12 Ways You Could Be Scratching Your Paint Without Knowing It, I mention both washing and drying as things that I consider to be high-risk. How come?
Because any time you wipe the surface of your paint with anything, regardless of whether it’s dry or lubricated, there is potential for scratching and marring. This is also why I always recommend polishing after you use a clay bar. The small amount of marring caused by doing these things isn’t noticeable on the average car. But on one that has been polished to perfection, especially darker, non-metallic colors (that show everything!), it can absolutely make a difference.
Is it bad to wash your car too often?
Just like anything else in detailing (like using a clay bar, polishing your paint, or scrubbing your fabric), you don’t want to overdo it. Performing any of these tasks too often can actually cause damage even though it might feel like you’re pampering it. Washing your car is no different. We need to avoid washing clean cars. If there’s potential to cause scratches whenever we do it, we need to make sure that we only do it when it’s absolutely necessary.
Asking any mid-level professional detailer this same question will probably get you a different answer. Keep their motivation in mind though.
They’d love it if you asked them to wash your car every day and clay bar it once a week. That’s some solid repeat business for them! Plus, if and when all that unnecessary detailing catches up to you and reveals tons of swirl marks in your paint, they can sell you an expensive paint correction to remove the scratches they caused. It might be a great business model for them, but as the owner of the car, it can be avoided if you choose to do so.
Don’t touch your paint unless you have to
It really is as simple as that. Always ask yourself if you “absolutely need to do this” before you touch the paint on your car. Every time. You might check yourself before washing it when it’s already clean. Or maybe you’re touching the wrong part of the door when you close it. It might even be when you’re tempted to lean on a fender after a long day. Treating your paint like it’s been freshly sprayed at all times is the best way to keep it scratch-free.
I’ve heard people talk about how their vehicle must have a really high-quality paint job because they only wash it once a year and when they do, it’s still in incredible condition. Now that I’ve shared my thoughts on this, you can probably see why that might be. All of the dirt that has built up on that paint throughout the year is dirt that hasn’t been rubbed across the panel while washing it. In a very strange way, the paint is still in good shape because that dirt is still there.
As long as nothing has come into contact with their dirty paint (such as tree branches or their jeans), then technically there hasn’t been a reason for it to get scratched yet. Yes, it’s ugly and full of dirt and grime on the outside. It might even look neglected. But underneath all that gunk is likely a scratch-free paint job.
So this isn’t necessarily a case of high-quality paint. The real reason the paint still looks good is because it’s rarely wiped with anything. Think of this as the exact opposite of the guys that love to over-use quick detail sprays and California dusters at car shows (or what I refer to as the classic Scratch ‘N Shine!)
So in order for our paint to look good, we’re supposed to… neglect it?
Of course not! I’m just using that as an extreme example to explain my rather uncommon views on this. In order to keep our paint shining to the highest standard, we need to find a happy medium between leaving it dirty and washing it excessively.
This is a really odd situation where the more we care for our vehicles, the more damage we could be causing. I know it goes against everything we believe in as detailing enthusiasts, but sometimes it’s better to leave things alone until the appropriate time comes to deal with them.
On the other hand, allowing your paint to get too dirty will mean it’ll require more work to get it clean. More work might mean stronger chemicals or more scrubbing. Obviously, this isn’t an ideal way to keep our paint looking perfect either. Wiping a bunch more dirt across a panel while washing it is much more likely to scratch your paint than excessive washing. So with that in mind, leaning toward washing it often rather than neglecting it is still the safer option.
Finding a happy medium
Every vehicle is different as well as the climate it lives in. For example, my MR2 is only driven in the summer months and even then, it rarely sees any kind of bad weather. So it stays clean for a really long time. If anything, it will have a layer of dust build up on it after a while. In this case, a light layer of dust doesn’t warrant a car wash.
This car’s paint is extremely soft and easy to scratch, so I’ll choose a slightly dusty car over a scratched one any day. If I don’t touch it, I don’t scratch it. I’ll wait until the dust gets noticeably worse, then wash it. I’ll admit that I don’t like leaving it dusty. But I’ve had to wrap my mind around the fact that this is safer for my paint in the long run.
If you live in an area that uses road salt in the winter time, you know how quickly a car can get dirty. As a matter of fact, every time you drive on a wet road in the winter here in Canada, your vehicle gets filthy. That means that trying to keep it clean at all times would require washing it after nearly every drive. That just isn’t manageable. So we have no choice but to allow the grime to build up a bit before we’re able to do a proper car wash.
It’s up to you to figure out how often your particular vehicle needs to be washed. I wouldn’t recommend leaving it more than a month unless it hasn’t been driven much and it’s kept indoors. For dirty vehicles, I wouldn’t wash it more often than once a week. If you keep some of the points I’ve made in this article in mind, you should be able to figure out how often your car needs to be washed based on your situation.
Stick with washing it only when you deem it necessary rather than having a preset schedule. If you tell yourself to wash your car every 10 days, you’ll probably wash it on that 10th day whether it actually needs it or not. Instead, pay attention to your car. When it gets to the point of looking noticeably dirty, that’s probably a good time to wash it.
Why protection is important
Protecting your paint with a wax or sealant like this one will make it easier to clean when it gets dirty. It also serves as a sacrificial layer. In the event that you need to use heavier duty cleaners, it can be removed during the wash process and reapplied after. If your car will be staying dirty for a prolonged period of time, you’ll definitely want to protect your paint with a wax or sealant.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention ceramic coatings above. That’s because in my experience, they don’t like getting overly dirty. These coatings last much longer when they’re maintained often and kept clean. The good news is that due to their hardness, ceramic coatings are less vulnerable to swirl marks and marring. So you can get away with washing those vehicles more often if you wish.
How often should you wash your car in the winter?
Different types of dirty cars require different levels of urgency. Road salt for example, is very corrosive and will lead to rust forming if it’s left on your vehicle, especially if it’s parked in a warm garage. I’m a pretty firm believer in cleaning the salt off your vehicle in the winter time as soon as you can. That isn’t always possible though.
My 4runner is parked outside all winter long and washing it isn’t a realistic option when the temperature is way below freezing. Even if I was able to wash it, the doors would likely be frozen shut the next morning. So during long cold spells, this vehicle stays dirty and covered with salt.
The good news is that rust typically doesn’t form in really cold, dry climates. It’s the warm, humid weather that causes a problem. That means that I try my best to get it cleaned up on any mild days we have throughout the winter.
If your vehicle is parked somewhere warm during the winter months like an attached garage, you’ll want to clean it often. Once a week would be a good goal to aim for if you really want to maintain its condition. If your normal wash regimen isn’t possible, a quick pressure wash followed by a spot-free rinse at your nearest coin-op car wash is a lot better than doing nothing. Remember to spray as much of your undercarriage and wheel wells as you can to avoid rust and never, ever use the soapy brush!
Do automatic car washes scratch your car?
It’s common knowledge that automatic car washes that use brushes wreak havoc on your paint job. Because of this, touch-free car washes have become much more popular. They simply spray water, soap, and cleaners on your car while you drive through. So no, these will not scratch your paint. Good news, right?
What many people don’t realize though is that just because these touch-free car washes don’t scratch your paint doesn’t mean that they’re completely harmless. Have you ever tried dumping soapy water on your dirty car without scrubbing or agitating it? It didn’t do a very good job of cleaning, did it. Yet cars drive out of these touch-free car washes looking nice and clean. That’s because they usually use some kind of acid. Yes, acid.
That might sound really scary at first but in many cases, acid won’t harm your paint. In fact, many wheel cleaners contain acid. One thing acids do though is eat up dirt, grease, and oils. So say goodbye to your wax or sealant. Using these touch-free car washes on a regular basis will strip any layers of protection off your paint. I’m not saying they’re unsafe to use – this is just something to keep in mind. Don’t be surprised if your paint sealant of choice doesn’t last as long as it’s supposed to.
How often should you clean the inside of your car?
The inside of your car is a totally different story. You can clean your interior as often as you want. I encourage you to do so. Giving your interior a quick once-over often will prevent you from having to spend an entire day cleaning it. Wipe spills up right away. Throw your garbage out as soon as you’re near a trash can, don’t let it build up in the back seat. The more you stay on top of it, the nicer your interior will be.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: