Rinseless car wash products have been controversial since the day they hit the market. The biggest debate is whether or not they’ll scratch your paint. The truth is using a rinseless wash is completely safe, as long as you do it properly.
Much like anything else in detailing, your technique matters the most. Rinseless wash products serve a purpose and as long as you stick with that, you won’t have any problems. Issues only arise when you use them improperly or have unrealistic expectations of what they can do.
What is a rinseless wash?
A rinseless wash is a modern version of car soap that can be wiped off rather than rinsed off. That’s where the term “rinseless” comes in. These products are very heavily lubricated and feature surfactants, detergents, and polymers that are formulated specifically for this purpose.
There are a few major benefits to using a rinseless wash to clean your car. The first and most obvious is that you’ll use much less water. Think of a traditional 2 bucket wash. You need to hose the entire car down, fill multiple buckets up with water, and also hose the soap back off the entire car when you’re done.
With a rinseless wash, you can typically get away with 1 or 2 gallons of water in a bucket. Personally, I choose to still use a hose to pre-rinse the car for safety. Even in doing so, you’re saving a ton of water. That can make a big difference depending on your local rules in regard to water consumption.
Another benefit of using a rinseless wash is being able to use it easily in direct sunlight. You don’t have to worry about the soap residue drying on the surface and staining. When a rinseless wash dries, you can simply reactivate it by spraying or wiping it again.
Will a no rinse car wash scratch your paint?
Technically, yes. But that stands for any other method of washing a car including the use of car soap, multiple mitts, multiple buckets, foam cannons, and all the water in the world. Quite simply, the act of wiping dirt across a painted surface has the potential to mar the paint over time.
The question is whether or not a rinseless car wash is more likely to scratch your paint than other more traditional methods. The answer is no, as long as you use the proper techniques.
I adopted rinseless washing when caring for my own vehicles a few years ago. In that time, I’ve pushed it to the limits in every aspect: my winter-driven 4runner that also occasionally gets covered in mud, my MR2 with extremely soft, thin paint, and my Harley with soft, gloss black paint. I’ve used it in the direct sun. I’ve used it in the winter (literally during a snowstorm once!).
Optimum No Rinse has been the only thing I’ve used to wash my 4runner in over 2 years. Once I realized how well it worked with the ceramic coatings, I stuck with it. I can wash it in direct sunlight in a bit over 30 minutes. I’ve made sure to closely monitor any scratching it might be causing and guess what?
It was no worse than a vehicle that had been washed with the traditional 2 bucket method. Later on during my testing, I added the extra step of using P&S Beadmaker as a drying aid which made the drying process even safer. The paint on my 4runner still looked fantastic right up until the 2.5 year mark when I decided to redo the ceramic coatings.
So to conclude my 2+ years of testing in the real world, using a rinseless wash product does not cause scratches in your paint.
Is rinseless car wash safe for ceramic coating?
A rinseless wash will not harm your ceramic coating. Coatings are intended to protect against heavy chemicals and acids so a product like a rinseless wash won’t be anywhere near powerful enough to damage it. Rinseless washes that include wax might temporarily cover up your coating’s water behavior, but won’t hurt it.
The best rinseless wash technique
I mentioned above that using a rinseless wash properly makes all the difference in whether or not your paint will remain safe from scratches. Technique is everything. The reason some people claim that a rinseless wash will cause scratches is because they’re being careless with it or they have unrealistic expectations.
If your car hasn’t been washed in months and is covered in dirt, grime, and mud, jumping straight to wiping it down with a wet towel or sponge is not a good idea. You have to use common sense – in extreme cases, simply following the directions on the bottle might not be careful enough.
Just because the product is called a rinseless wash doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to rinse the vehicle off before using it. As a matter of fact, you should be doing this every time if you’re concerned about scratches. Remember, the term “rinseless” comes from not having to rinse it off before drying – not beforehand.
Oddly enough, rinsing plays the most important role when it comes to keeping your paint safe from scratches. There are 2 reasons why rinsing matters so much: a) the ability to remove dirt without touching the paint and b) added lubrication. The type of rinsing you need to do will depend on how dirty your car is.
A layer of dust on a vehicle that might have sat outside a few days after its last wash. No heavy contaminants or major buildup of grime.
You can use a spray bottle filled with a mixture of your rinseless wash to spray each panel down and avoid the need to use a hose at all. This is only safe in a mild situation like this.
A vehicle that has been driven in different weather conditions without being washed for more than a week. There may be a buildup of road grime, some bugs, an overall normal amount of dirt for a vehicle that looks like it could use a wash.
In this case, it’s best to grab the garden hose. Pre-spray the vehicle down with the nozzle on some sort of “jet” setting to remove as much of the dirt and crud without having to physically touch it. After that, you can begin your regular rinseless wash process.
This is for the winter driven vehicles or the ones that have been taken off road or neglected. Lots of mud, dirt, and road salt present with a visible buildup in certain areas.
Now is the time to break out the pressure washer. If you don’t own one, heading down to your local coin-op car wash to pre-rinse it is fine too. Depending on how far from home you have to travel, you might need to start over at the “slightly dirty” step in the event that it has a chance to dry up before you can continue with your rinseless wash. Lubrication is key.
Sponges vs mitts vs towels
This comes down to personal preference but I find the safest way to use a rinseless wash is with the Garry Dean method (using multiple towels instead of a wash mitt). If you would rather use a single mitt or something like the Big Red Sponge, I would recommend adding a second “rinse” bucket to your routine. It doesn’t hurt to be extra safe.
The reason why I believe using multiple towels is the safest way is because you’re never putting them back into your clean wash bucket. Clean a panel, then flip to a fresh, clean side or toss the towel and move on to the next one. Either way, the dirt from the car has zero chance of entering into your clean wash bucket. The cleaner you can work, the less chance there is of scratches appearing.
It should go without saying that you should never apply any kind of pressure whether you’re using a towel, mitt, or sponge. Always wipe the surface lightly.
The photo below shows the condition of my 4runner’s paint after 2.5 years of rinseless washing:
When to avoid a rinseless wash – when is a car too dirty?
If you follow my guideline for pre-rinsing based on how dirty the vehicle is, there is rarely a time when you can’t safely use a rinseless wash. Perhaps an extremely muddy or neglected vehicle, where pre-rinsing still leaves behind a really dirty surface.
For the most part though, a pressure washer is the great equalizer. There’s a very good chance that using a traditional car soap on an extremely dirty vehicle will create scratches in that scenario as well. There’s just no way to avoid wiping all that gunk across the surface.
One thing I’ll admit that rinseless washing doesn’t do well is cleaning deep down in cracks or gaps between panels. The places where a big soapy wash mitt can reach down and flush out. A microfiber towel just doesn’t do the trick as well. So if you’re looking for a deep clean (maybe before doing a paint correction or applying paint protection film) you might want to avoid the rinseless wash route.
The bottom line is as long as you take the necessary precautions, you can use a rinseless car wash safely. There’s no need to be afraid, just make sure to use common sense.
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: