Are Touchless Car Washes Safe for Your Paint?
One question I regularly get asked is how do I feel about automatic car washes, and right off the bat I will tell people that they are the root of all evil and will more than likely damage your cars paintwork and degrade the finish while giving your car a sub-par clean.
If these automatic car washes are so bad then why do most of the general population use them on their cars? One word. Convenience!
The average joe doesn’t consider ( or even know ) the implications of running a car through an automated wash system that you would find at most petrol stations.
So if you are not already aware, and I assume that most readers of this blog will have the common sense to know this, below are some of the dangers of these wash systems
The Dangers of Automated Washes ( Touch )
The brushes and bristles on these systems are packed with dirt and debris. Hundreds of cars go through these systems every day of the week, and as a result, the brushes will pick up all of the dirt from these cars.
What happens when you bring your car through next?
These brushes will be dragged across your paintwork, often with great force. This can end in some serious scratches being inflicted on your cars paintwork and you can guarantee you will end up with some medium to serve to swirl in your finish.
I have seen the damage they cause first hand and it can be quite severe.
These systems are far from gentle on your car and can often use excessive force as they work their way around the vehicle. I have often heard of wing mirrors or antennas being snapped off with ease.
This is not the type of risk you want to take with your pride and joy.
A lot of these systems that use brushes are outdated and more modern ones are now “Touchless” Systems. In these new types of systems, nothing but water touches the vehicle’s exterior. But are they any safer/better? And are they an effective solution for washing your vehicle?
Let’s take a look.
What is a Touchless Car Wash?
A touchless car wash is an automated car wash, without the use of brushes and bristles. In these systems, nothing (other than water and detergent) will physically come in contact with your car.
The difference is that instead of brushes it uses high-pressure water jets and more powerful chemicals to lift the dirt from the paintwork.
The main components involved in washing a car ( Automated or Manual) are
- Detergent Action ( Shampoo )
- Pressure ( Power Washer )
- Friction ( Wash mitt )
When it comes to touchless car washes, the use of High pressure can’t completely replace physically touching the surface of your paint to get it clean. To help close the gap, touchless automatic car washes usually use a combination of high pH and low pH cleaning solutions to break down the dirt, to try to make up for the lack of friction cleaning.
So, with all this lack of friction going on, are they safe for your paintwork?
Are Touchless Car Washes Safe for Paint?
While the touchless washer is deemed Safer for your paintwork, they are not completely without risk. Let’s take a look.
Excessive Water Pressure
To make up for the lack of friction, touchless car washes operate with a much higher force of pressure than your typical automated wash with brushes. This excessive force from the jets can send debris from a heavily soiled vehicle across the paintwork and end up leaving scratches on the paintwork.
Aside from the scratches, I don’t like the sound of any excessive force on the clear coat of paint and I am sure that if you are constantly running a car through these types of washes, it will damage it over time.
As I mentioned above, one of the other methods of cleaning these touchless washes implement is the use of extremely powerful and harsh chemical detergents to break down the dirt on top of the paintwork.
Again, I feel that these harsh chemicals are not clear coat safe in the long run and I wouldn’t recommend any car be exposed to them over an extended period.
Strip Protection / Ceramic Coatings
If you have Ceramic Coating or Wax applied to your paintwork, you can be sure it will be degraded or completely stripped after a couple of runs through one of these touchless car wash systems.
If you have gone to the effort of applying such protection to your paintwork, it would be pointless to partially remove it or reduce its long term effectiveness
To run these touchless systems with high pressurized water, the water needs to go through a conditioning process before it is used by the machine. The water is “softened” through a process of adding salts, which removes larger minerals, making the water flow through the systems easier and faster.
The reconditioning of water creates a buildup in the concentration of salt in the water and can leave a film of dried salt on the paintwork.
Not good by any means.
Are Touchless Car Washes Effective at Cleaning a Car?
Aside from the points I’ve mentioned above regarding the dangers to your paint, Touchless car washes are not even effective at removing all the dirt from a vehicle. I have seen cars come out with dirty spots as the jets have not reached all the areas of the car.
You have to ask yourself, is it even worth risking damage to your paintwork if it is not even getting cleaned in the process?
Touchless Car Washes – My Advice
Those who know me well enough at this point know exactly what I am going to say, and that is if you cannot do a safe car wash by hand ( or by someone who knows what they are doing ), don’t get it washed at all. In my opinion, no automated wash machine will ever be able to match the care and quality of a correct handwash by a human.
if you care about having the best finish on your car, it is always best to use the correct products combined with the safest wash methods.
What do I do personally to keep my car clean between washes?
If I am struggling for time and my car is filthy I usually just give it a blast with a pressure washer. If you are using a good quality sealant or coating, your car can get a decent clean just by doing this every so often in between full maintenance washes. This usually takes me 10 minutes max and keeps me sane until I can give my car a proper clean.
Have you used an automatic wash in the past? If so please let me know what your opinions are in the comments, or join the discussion over on the DriveDetailed Forum!
Until Next time,
About the Author – Darren O Hara
Darren is the founder of the DriveDetailed blog and is a keen detailing enthusiast living in the rainy south of Ireland. When he is not cleaning his car he is always researching ways he can improve his techniques and enjoys testing out new products.
Darren currently drives an Audi TTRS and is a big fan of performance cars.
You can follow Darren on Instagram @darrenoharacork
13 thoughts on “Are Touchless Car Washes Safe for Your Paint?”
I bought my suv in July 2021 and have been using Mister Car wash in my home town Merced CA and usually got my car washed 2x/wk and noticed some really bad deep scratches that I feel they had made since it had the swish swirl and I filed a claim against them but they denied it stating the cameras didn’t show any damage. I don’t feel this is right. I have seen many comments on their site of complaints from other users damages. If you can assist if be very appreciative. Thank you. S. Singer
Hi Shelena ,it is most likely the car wash caused those scratches.
The good news is , is that it is most likely repairable by getting the paint machine polished by an experienced detailer
You said you use a pressure washer In between hand washes if you don’t think l touchless washes are safe then why do you do it or is that with your home water also I’m very picky with my vehicle I only use touchless I’m my mind so one one touches it yet I see swirls starting to form I had my jeep hand washes 2 times in 8 months I had the vehicle is it really worth getting swirls fix or not I know most people don’t care but is swirls just going to show up again and if so why get them fix or should I get my vehicle polished the few times I get it hand washes last it makes me wonder if my jeep had swirls when I bought it or if the Detailer did it I had 2 different detailers wash my car I normally do a spring and fall full outside detail
Hi Adam , yes i use a hand held pressure washer ( Just water ) in between washes. The touchless washes i am referring to in the article are the automated ones you see in filling stations etc. ( That you go through while sitting in the car ). In my opinion it is worth fixing swirls if you are careful with the washing and drying afterwards. Even one bad wash or dry can scratch or swirl the paint.
Or dont worry about it if the vehicle is just going to go back through the wash again my friend told me why worry about scratches and swirls if it’s your everyday vehicle and if you don’t hand wash