Waterless car wash products are one of the most polarizing topics in the detailing community. Some car enthusiasts (and obviously the product manufacturers) will lead you to believe they’re perfectly safe to use. Others refuse to touch them with a 10-foot pole, claiming they’ll scratch your paint instantly.
A waterless car wash can be used without damaging your paint as long as you use it safely. Safe use includes careful judgment of how dirty the car is, cycling many towels, and minimal pressure/scrubbing. These products should be used for touch-ups and wiping dust – not moderately dirty cars.
Does waterless wash damage paint?
A waterless car wash can absolutely scratch your paint if you’re not careful. Despite what some people might want you to believe, this is never intended to replace a traditional (or even rinseless) wash on a fairly dirty car.
Do not drive your car in a storm or take it off-road and expect to be able to clean it with a waterless wash without causing damage. These products are made of pretty nifty formulas, but they aren’t miracle workers.
Remember, dirt and grime is abrasive and the more abrasive contaminants you have on a surface, the more likely it is to be scratched.
Using a waterless wash on an excessively dirty car is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
Perhaps the most important step in a traditional wash when it comes to scratch avoidance is the pre-rinse. That’s why I have adopted it into my rinseless wash routine as well. Being able to spray off a bunch of dirt and grime without touching the paint physically makes a huge difference in terms of safety.
Waterless washes remove that important step from the equation. Sure, they’re extra slippery with lubrication and they supposedly “encapsulate” the dirt (I’m doing a slight eye roll on this – I’m still not entirely convinced it’s real). The fact is, you’re going straight to touching the surface and scrubbing all of the dirt immediately.
Because of this, I’d normally say these products shouldn’t be trusted and you should stick to traditional or rinseless wash products. But I believe there are times where a high-quality waterless wash can be safe to use – you just have to be smart about it.
When you should use a waterless car wash
This is the biggest factor in whether or not a waterless wash product will scratch your paint. “When” you choose to use it will make all the difference in the world. Extra dirty, muddy car? Don’t use it. Got caught in the rain and it’s covered in thick road grime? Don’t use it. Just pulled your hot rod out of the garage after being stored for 5 years without a car cover? Don’t use it.
Pressurized water is your friend when you’re dealing with a dirty vehicle. There’s just no way around it. So when should you use a waterless wash?
When your car is dusty after a recent wash
Say you did a thorough wash on your car after work on Friday night, and now you want to take it to Cars and Coffee on Sunday morning. It probably has a light layer of dust all over it. Even though people that sell detail sprays or quick detailers will tell you it’s safe to wipe your whole car down in this situation, don’t!
Use a waterless wash and take advantage of its extra lubrication and cleaning power. It’s like a detail spray on steroids – except those steroids keep your paint from getting scratched rather than give you a short temper and back acne!
It’s crucial that you pay close attention to how I’m recommending you use this for bug removal. Do not use a waterless wash to remove bugs that have been dried onto the surface.
I go further into detail on the topic of bug removal here, but one of the key points is that the sooner you can remove bugs, the easier it is and it’s also less likely to cause scratches. That means using a pressure washer and wash mitt as soon as you get home.
Here at Canadian Gearhead, we’re all about being realistic. How likely is it that you’re going to want to get your hose and all of your car wash gear out as soon as you get home? If you’re a regular person that just ended a long highway drive, you’re tired, the kids are screaming, and everyone’s hungry. It’s just not reasonable in many cases.
Grabbing a bottle of waterless wash and a towel is much quicker, so you’re more likely to take action while the bugs are still soft. This way, you can take care of them while the BBQ is warming up.
Sure, wiping bugs with harder shells has the potential to scratch your paint, but this is the lesser of two evils. The potential for scratches becomes worse when waiting for days to do a traditional wash. By then, the bugs are dry and hard – and you’ll run an even higher risk of scratching your paint when removing them.
Obviously, you need to be extra careful when using a waterless wash to remove bugs. Remember that scrubbing is the enemy when trying to avoid scratches so keep the pressure to a minimum and the surface wet.
Bird dropping removal
Much the same as bug removal, bird dropping removal can be considered the lesser of two evils in more extreme situations.
The best way to remove bird poop is always with a hose and traditional wash. But if you’re in a pinch and your vehicle is going to be stuck out in the hot sun with no chance of washing it for a while, your waterless wash bottle is going to come in clutch.
Again, there is potential for scratching your paint here. But this is a situation where you have to manage the inevitable damage.
Bird droppings are very acidic and if left on the paint in the hot sun, can absolutely etch into your clear coat permanently. Sometimes you can get lucky and remove the damage with heavy compounding or wet sanding but there are plenty of times where it just can’t be fixed.
I’d much rather have to polish out some fine scratches that were created by wiping the poop off the paint than deal with something etched deeply in the clear coat.
Smudges, fingerprints, and light touch-ups
Cars get used. Even after a fresh wash, there’s bound to be a few marks or spills here or there. Planning on hitting a cruise night but your kid put a big handprint on your door? Grab your waterless wash. It’s the safest option – much better than a detail spray.
How to use a waterless wash product
The easiest way to explain the process is to use it the way companies tell you to use a detail spray. This is just safer. At least that’s how I think of it.
For this article, I decided to test out Lithium Glow Maxx while giving my Harley a 5 min wipe down to kick off the weekend. I used nothing more than the waterless wash and a Rag Company Creature towel. It’s worth noting that this bike is ceramic coated with Gtechniq Crystal Serum Light and had a heavier layer of dust on it.
The process couldn’t be easier – I simply sprayed it on the surface, 1 shot on the towel, and wiped gently. I then flipped the towel to a dry side and buffed it to a streak-free finish. The end result looks great and as you can see, there are no new scratches evident in the soft black paint.
Here are my tips for using a waterless wash on your vehicle:
You’ll want to spray the surface liberally. Remember, we’re taking the hose out of the equation here so the least we can do is make sure to spray plenty of product on the paint.
It doesn’t hurt to spray some directly into the towel as well. This will help boost the lubrication which in turn will decrease the chance of scratches.
Speaking of towels, this isn’t the time to use the cheap ones you picked up at the parts store. You’ll want to use high-quality towels that are soft with a thick nap for picking up contaminants.
Remember, microfiber is designed to grab and hold.
Make sure to use multiple towels. This isn’t a matter of grabbing a bottle, a single towel, and cleaning your entire car. You need to keep a very close eye on how dirty your towel is getting after each swipe, and switch to a new folded side accordingly.
You might also need an extra towel to buff the surface to a streak-free finish afterward. Your cleaning towels might be so saturated with product that you aren’t able to get that final bit of clarity. That’s where following up with a separate drying towel comes in.
Take it easy. You want to use the least amount of pressure and the least amount of scrubbing. If you’re cleaning a dusty car, just enough pressure to hold the towel on the surface is all you should be using.
Benefits of waterless car wash
There are definitely pros to using a waterless car wash product.
- They’re quick and easy
- They allow you to conserve water if that’s important to you (or regulated)
- Freedom to use them anywhere, no utilities needed (like at a car show)
Disadvantages of waterless car wash
These downsides are simply the nature of the beast. They’re certainly worth considering.
- Potential for scratches – no matter how careful you are, it’s always there
- Product use/cost – remember all that spraying I told you to do earlier? It adds up!
- Can only be used safely in certain scenarios
Frequently asked questions:
Is waterless car wash safe for ceramic coating?
Whether it’s safe to use or beneficial to use are two different things when it comes to ceramic coatings. As far as safety goes, your coating can easily withstand the cleaners and chemicals in a waterless wash. Protection is a ceramic coating’s job and it can hold up to far stronger chemicals.
As for whether it’s beneficial to use or not – it really depends on the product itself. Lithium Glow Maxx actually contains Si-02 just like some toppers, detail sprays, and soaps that are intended to be used with a ceramic coating. So it won’t affect it in a bad way.
As for other waterless washes, they might contain wax or polymers that will temporarily cover up your ceramic coating’s water behavior. It’s not a problem, and it won’t hurt it. It also might be more streaky if the product doesn’t play nice with your coating.
Does waterless car wash remove water spots?
Soft water spots will wipe right off with a waterless wash. More stubborn water spots that contain minerals might be removed easier with a dedicated water spot remover. Even worse, water spots that have etched into the clear coat will require paint correction to remove.
Can you wax after waterless car wash?
Of course. The only thing that really matters when applying wax is that the car is clean. How long the wax lasts, however, is a different story. You want to ensure that the wax is being applied to a surface that’s free of contaminants. That can require the use of a clay bar.
So in order to get the most life out of your wax, you might need to take it a step further. It’s perfectly safe to apply the wax right after a waterless wash though.
Whether or not waterless wash is safe to use heavily depends on the situation and your technique. It’s important that you exercise common sense and if your gut tells you to break out the hose, do it!
Waterless wash products can be great time savers and even better if you need to get something off your paint immediately before it has a chance to dry or harden. Just use your head, avoid any pressure, have plenty of towels on hand, and be careful!
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: