A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

7 Reasons You Should Avoid Going to the Car Wash

Whipping brushes, acid-etching chemicals, and mineral deposits—you might want to think twice before heading to the car wash.

a dark car in a car wash with caution symbols popping up over the image
rd.com, Getty Images (2)

Abrasive brushes can scratch your car’s paint

While some newer car washes have swapped out those old abrasive brushes for softer ones, the slapping against the side of your car can still cause trouble. Not only are the brushes covered with grit from all the cars before yours, but “having bristles rub against your car can scratch your clear coat,” says Lauren Fix, Editor-in-Chief of Car Coach Reports and a nationally recognized automotive expert. When it comes to the inside of your car, here’s how often you should really be cleaning your car’s interior.

Manual vehicle washing on a car wash, closeup on washer's hand
Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

Even “touchless” car washes carry risks

So, how about a brushless (sometimes called a “touchless”) car wash? Though it might seem like a safer alternative, it still has its downsides. “Washing your car in a brushless car wash is the equivalent of shooting it with a wet sandblaster,” says Alex Lauderdale, the transportation expert at educateddriver.org. “There’s a chance that some of the particles [from previous dirty cars] can end up being blasted on your car. The result could be thin, spider web scratches.”

Another danger to consider: “If you have paint protection, many times they’ll tell you not to use car washes,” says Fix. “If you do, you could void the warranty on your paint.”

rain drops on car window

The products they use could harm the glass

That goes for any glass protection you have on your car, too. “With glass protection,” Fix says, “they don’t like you to run it through a car wash.” Why not? “You don’t know what products they’re using,” Fix says. While there are premium cleaners that won’t damage your glass protection (Fix recommends Obsessed Garage), you have no way of knowing whether the car wash you go to is using them. Here are some more car maintenance tips that will extend the life of your car.

Blue car washing on open air

The hard water might leave mineral deposits

Turns out, your car likes filtered water just as much as you do. Hard water can leave mineral deposits on your paint if it evaporates too quickly afterward, and that can leave permanent water spots. To keep the evaporation rate at bay, it’s best to wash your car on a cloudy, overcast day—not in direct sunlight. “That’s why car washes are generally in shaded areas,” says Fix, who warns that with car washes, “you don’t know if the water they’re using has been filtered or not.” Speaking of overcast days, here are some winter car safety tips.

Car wash brushes and water
Konstantinos Niarchos/Getty Images

The water could be dirty—or worse

With car washes, “there’s always good, bad, and ugly,” says Fix. “The ugly ones take the water and just reuse it.” Of course, you shouldn’t wash anything with dirty water.

In extreme circumstances, the water’s pressure could also be problematic. “If it’s really high,” Fix says, “and you’ve got an issue like rust, the blast of water could cause that bubble to burst.” In other words, “You could get rust underneath the paint. That would expose the metal even further, which would then cause more rust,” says Fix. One more thing your mechanic won’t tell you.

Bubble soap on the red car, Car washing

Dirty cloths can also scratch your car’s paint

Many car washes use terrycloth towels to dry your car. The problem? They keep washing and reusing them. “With terrycloth,” Fix says, “especially if it’s been washed a lot of times, it gets rough.” Just like abrasive brushes, dirty cloths can put scratches on your car’s paint. Fix recommends using softer shammy towels.

Car in outdoors self-service car wash, car in foam, toned

Your antennas, windshield wipers, and mirrors could suffer

If you are going to run your car through a car wash, “Always fold your side mirrors in,” says Fix, who warns repairing broken side mirrors can get costly. As for the wiper blades, “they should put a plastic sleeve over the back wiper blade if it’s hanging down,” Fix says. Otherwise, “it could get ripped off.”

If any damage does occur, “you need to report it before you depart the property,” says Fix. “They always have cameras and you can ask to see the footage.”

Here’s what car dealerships don’t want you to know when shopping for a car.

Father and daughter washing car in driveway
Cavan Images/Getty Images

What you should do instead

Alright, so we’ve convinced you to avoid commercial car washes. But you still want your car to be clean. Hand-washing your car is a great alternative. You can control exactly which products you use. (Make sure to use soap that is specifically designed for automobile paint and a separate, dedicated wheel cleaner for the wheels.) Another bonus? “You can burn 200 calories an hour,” says Fix. “It’s a good little workout.” Next, check out this car cleaning putty that will get those hard-to-reach areas.


Brittany Gibson
Brittany Gibson is a regular contributor to RD.com’s culture, food, health, and travel sections. She was previously an editorial intern for RD.com and Westchester Magazine. Her articles have appeared on Buzzfeed, Business Insider, AOL, Yahoo, and MSN, among other sites. She earned a BA in English from the University of Connecticut.