8 Simple Reasons Why Car Washes Are Not Safe for Cars

Taking your car through a car wash provides a quick, easy way to remove dirt and grime — but at what cost? By now, you’ve probably heard that car washes are bad for vehicles, but why? 

Quick Answer

Car washes are not safe for cars because most use worn equipment that doesn’t provide adequate washing or drying and may leave water spots on a vehicle. Even worse, the abrasive equipment and harsh cleaners can scratch the paint or clear coat. 

Not only that, but car washes are rather expensive considering what you get. In this article, I’ll outline the many reasons why automatic touch and touchless car washes are bad for cars.

Toward the end, I’ll explain the best way to wash your vehicle to ensure a spotless clean with no damage. 

Why Are Car Washes Bad for Your Car?

The reasons why automatic car washes are bad for a vehicle go beyond cosmetic damage, although cosmetic damage is reason enough to avoid them. 

Quick Answer

Car washes are bad for your car because they can damage a car’s clear coat or body. Many use abrasive cleaning tools, repurposed water, and harsh chemicals. Users have no control over the efficiency of automatic car washes. Moreover, many newer cars aren’t compatible with pull-through car washes. 

Below, I’ll outline in detail the many reasons why car washes are bad for cars.

  • They may damage a vehicle’s clear coat. According to a study published in Elsevier’s peer-reviewed journal, “Thin Solid Films,” clear coat samples subjected to brushing by an automatic car wash showed scratches and fractures. Defects are more apparent under a microscope, but with the naked eye, they may appear as unsightly swirl marks on a vehicle’s paint.
  • Car washes can damage a car’s body. Side-view mirrors, trim, or body kits may incur damage from automatic car washes. This is particularly true for soft cloth car washes, which can damage any parts of a vehicle that are loosened or sticking out.
  • Some use abrasive cleaning tools. It might be advisable to avoid automatic car washes altogether due to the use of abrasive cleaning tools. Worn, damaged, or dirty rotary brushes or cloths may contain microscopic pieces of dirt and debris that could potentially scratch your vehicle. 
  • Many use repurposed water. While I’m all for the conservation of such a precious resource, I don’t agree with using it in car washes if you want an effective cleaning. Repurposed car wash water may contain traces of road salt. Once the vehicle dries, the mineral deposits appear, leaving the car looking dirtier than before. 
  • You have little control. When using an automatic car wash, you have less control over the pressure, nozzles, and soap concentration. If pressure settings are too high or the nozzle malfunctions, you run the risk of damage. Additionally, hard or soft water may also pose a problem. Hard water can leave behind mineral deposits, and soft water prevents proper foaming for an adequate clean. 
  • Car washes use harsh chemicals. Even if you visit a professional detailing service, you can’t guarantee that they’re using gentle chemicals. In fact, some chemicals used in the car wash industry are so dangerous that they’ve caused burns and even fatalities. 
  • You won’t get a thorough clean. It doesn’t matter how often you run your vehicle through an automatic car wash — you simply won’t get a thorough clean. Touch and touchless car washes often leave dirt and grime behind. Not only that, but many of these car wash services don’t offer a way to clean the undercarriage or engine bay. 
  • The sensors on newer cars may prevent automatic car washes. Newer vehicles use sensors and other features, making them incompatible with pull-through car washes. Car washes require a vehicle to remain in neutral so the tracks can pull it through. However, many newer cars cannot be put in neutral with the engine off. Additionally, advanced driver-assistance systems may prevent the vehicle from moving at all. 

Not only can car washes damage your vehicle, but they’re also expensive — and what, exactly, are you paying for?

Imagine taking your vehicle to be cleaned, paying $20 (€18.10), only to end up with swirl marks, scratches, and water spots afterward.

It’s hardly worth the cost and may actually end up costing you in the future. 

With that said, some companies are working hard to construct safer, gentler, and more efficient car washes. 

Will Insurance Cover Car Wash Damage?

Driving a car through a car wash can lead to serious damage to the car.

If damage occurs, it is always a question of who the responsible party is.

Does the car wash cover the damages? Does your insurance cover it?

Quick Answer

Insurance will only cover car wash damages if negligence can be proven. Only if it is clear that the car wash is responsible for the damage, insurance will cover the damage. The amount of compensation also depends on the insurance coverage.

If you receive compensation for car wash damage depends on a lot of different factors.

According to Hensley Legal Group the only way to receive compensation for car wash damage from the insurance is if you can prove that the owner acted negligently.

This means that the owner e.g. knew about faulty equipment, did not train employees properly, did not provide instructions on how to operate the car wash, or they failed to follow safety guidelines.

Sadly, it is very difficult to prove negligence, so it is very hard and difficult to get compensation for damage to the car after using a car wash.

Some car wash owners require car owners to sign a waiver that is supposed to protect the owner from any kind of claims.

Luckily, these kinds of waivers do not protect car wash owners from negligent actions, according to AutoInsurance.org.

What Type Of Car Wash Is Best?

There are different types of car washes in use that can be divided into two main categories.

There are friction-based car washes and touchless car washes.

Friction-based car washes clean cars by using brushes or microfiber cloths and touching the car with these.

Touchless car washes only use strong chemicals and high pressured water to clean cars.

No equipment comes in direct contact with the car.

Quick Answer

It is best to use touchless car washes as they are highly unlikely to damage the car’s paint. Friction-based car washes on the other hand side almost always scratch car paint. The downside to touchless car washes is the high pressured water and strong chemicals. The high pressure can also damage electrical components.

Even though touchless car washes are unlikely to scratch car paint, other damages can occur.

The high water pressure can damage electrical components and sensors on the car.

The strong chemicals used to clean the car can also have negative effects on the car paint over time.

It is best to avoid automatic car washes altogether.

If this is not possible, it is best to use touchless car washes instead of friction-based car washes.

Should You Take A New Car Through A Car Wash?

New cars are meant to be in perfect condition, but the reality is different.

Even though these cars are new, they tend to have small imperfections and dirt on them, that most owners want to remove as soon as possible.

An automatic car wash seems like the perfect option to do so.

Quick Answer

Driving a new car through an automatic car wash should be avoided. Automatic car washes are very likely to leave optical damages on the car paint like scratches and swirl marks. These damages can impact resale value and the overall appearance of the car.

Instead of driving a new car through a car wash, it is best to properly protect it first.

Depending on the value of the car, a new car should be properly and professionally cleaned by hand before applying car wax or a high-end coating like a ceramic coating or a clear bra.

The last two options only make sense for more expensive cars, as the application is very expensive.

Nevertheless, the investment is worth it as high-end paint protection will make sure that the car looks the best way possible for a long time.

Also, the application process includes paint correction, so the car will look even better than after receiving it from the dealership.

What Is the Best Way To Wash a Car?

Now that you’re aware of the many reasons why an automatic car wash is not the best option for cleaning your car, I’m going to walk you through the best method for vehicle cleaning. 

Quick Answer

The best way to wash a vehicle is by hand using the two-bucket method. When washing a car by hand, you can focus on intricate details. Additionally, you choose the detergents, waxes, and techniques used. This method is safer for paint and far more thorough than an automatic car wash. 

Another bonus to hand washing a vehicle is that you can wash the undercarriage and engine bay.

Most automatic car washes do not offer these services. 

How To Avoid Damaging Your Vehicle When Hand Washing

Although hand washing is the safest and most effective way to wash your car, there are ways that you can damage the vehicle even when washing it by hand.

Beginners tend to find themselves wondering what materials to purchase and what products to use. 

I highly recommend avoiding abrasive materials, such as scrubbing brushes, coarse sponges, or scouring pads.

There’s absolutely no reason to use these items when washing a car.

Additionally, stay away from harsh chemicals that may strip the paint or clear coat.

Instead, opt for gentle automotive detergents (and choose one designed for your specific coating). 

If you’re utilizing a pressure washer to rinse the car, do not get it too close to the vehicle.

The closer you get, the higher the pressure becomes.

If the pressure is too high, you risk damaging the vehicle by stripping the wax coating, scratching the clear coat, or chipping the paint. 

Finally, when drying your car, do not opt for regular household bath or hand towels.

These towels may feel soft, but the large fibers may create microabrasions — they’re more abrasive than microfiber cloths.

Not only that, but these towels are notorious for leaving behind tiny cotton fibers and lint. 

Hand Washing vs. Automatic Car Wash

In the table below, I’ve outlined some of the features of automatic car washes versus hand washing.

As you can see, hand washing allows for a more detailed, thorough clean when compared to an automatic car wash. 

Car CleaningHand WashingAutomatic Car Wash
Cleans Vehicle Body
Washes Windows
Cleans Tires
Detailed Cleaning
Undercarriage Wash
Engine Bay Cleaning
More Control Over Cleaning
Removes Tar, Sap, Bird Droppings

Key Takeaways

Car washes provide little control over the equipment. It’s much more effective to wash a vehicle by hand.

Here are a few things to remember when washing your car:

  • Avoid automatic car washes that have bad reviews or have infrequent servicing.
  • Try to hand wash your car whenever possible.
  • Use a reputable car wash company if you don’t have time to hand wash your car.
  • Never use abrasive materials when washing your car by hand. 
  • Always use safe cleaning materials to wash your car.
  • Do not use dish soap or other generic household products to wash your car.


ScienceDirect: Nano-indentation, scratching and atomic force microscopy for evaluating the mar resistance of automotive clearcoats: study of the ductile scratches

Nationwide: How to Protect Your Car from Road Salt Damage This Winter

Academia.edu: Pressure Washing the Cars

University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences: Commercial Car Wash Chemical Can Harm Workers, Study Finds

Carwash.com: Automated carwashing vs. hand washing

Car and Driver: A Trip to the Automatic Carwash Can Be Tricky in Newer Vehicles

Michigan Technological University: Don’t Let Winter Leave You Salty (A Message from Liberty Mutual Insurance)

Automotive Training Center: How to Protect your Car from Road Salt

Academia.edu: The car is clean but what about the water

Jan-Lucas Ganssauge
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge