Car Washes Ranked – Which One Is the Best?

Car wash options seem to increase every day as innovators find ways to overcome the drawbacks of existing choices. However, every new opportunity inevitably brings a new set of pitfalls as no specific car wash choice can be perfect. Nevertheless, we can pick one option that’s most advantageous to the car and its owner. 

Hand washing a car is the best choice as it thoroughly cleans the car, uses mild chemicals, virtually eliminates the risk of significant damages, is unlikely to cause car scratches, and is environmentally friendly. The best automatic car wash is the touchless car wash as it minimizes the risk of damage to the car.

This article will provide a detailed assessment of car wash options by grading the different criteria, from rinseless to those with brushes. Furthermore, I’ll explain why you should avoid automatic car washes if you want to keep your vehicle and its finish in tip-top shape.

What Kind of Car Wash Is Best?

It’s easy to pick the wrong car wash for your car, especially if you are a new driver. 

So, below is a simplified table that’ll help you select the right option: 

CriteriaFriction (Brush)Hand washTouchlessFriction (Soft-touch)RinselessWaterless
Harshness of chemicalsDBFDDE
Risk of scratchesFBAECD
Thoroughness of cleaningDAEDCD
Environmental impactCBDCBB
Risk of major damageCABCAA
Time consumedADBADD
Overall RatingD-B+CDD+D

Let’s discuss each of these in more detail to get a better idea of why and how they may be good or bad for your vehicle.

Harshness of Chemicals

Dirt can be removed in three different ways. It is either removed by chemicals, friction, or a combination of both.

If there is no friction at all, as with a touchless car wash, the chemicals need to be more potent in order to clean the car properly compared to a car wash with friction.

Even though friction-based car washes do not have to use chemicals as potent as touchless car washes, they still rank significantly lower than a proper hand wash. The reason is that automatic car washes can not be as thorough as a hand wash and have to rely on chemicals to achieve a similar result, even if they use friction to their advantage.

You can think of it as washing your hands. If you did not rub the soap between your hands (friction), the soap would have to be much more potent in order to remove all germs and dirt. But rubbing your hands together loosens up the dirt on your hands and allows for less potent and safer soaps.

Therefore, depending on the type of car wash, they may need to use more chemicals to remove the dirt fully. So, although a soft car wash may sound like a great option, it actually needs to use some pretty powerful chemicals to get the job done.

Hard Bristle Car Washes

Hard bristle car washes or “brush” car washes were the first fully automated car washes to enter the market. They use stiff bristles to agitate the dirt and grime and your car, and since the bristles do most of the cleaning, they don’t need to use strong chemicals. 

Many companies have shifted to soft-touch car washes in recent years, but some brush car washes remain. 

Hand Washes

Hand washing requires heavy human involvement and, consequently, the use of very mild chemicals. It wouldn’t be safe to have people working around anything too potent, which is why this is often the best option in terms of chemicals and the environment. 

However, the process will take much longer without heavy machines and harsh chemicals.

Touchless Car Washes

Touchless car washes draw people in with the promise that no human or machine will touch your car during the wash. This enticing offer carries a significant drawback, though: the car wash uses powerful chemicals

Without an external force to agitate the dirt, touchless car washes must allow the chemical solution to sit on the vehicle before blasting the car with high-pressure jets. 

These strong chemicals can cause rapid paint degradation, negating the main advantage of touchless car washes. 

Soft-Touch Car Washes

Soft-touch or microfiber car washes use soft bristles to clean your car. 

However, where they lead in preventing scratches, they also need to compensate for the softness of the cloth by using stronger chemicals.

These chemicals are often more potent than you would find in a hard-bristle car wash. 

Rinseless and Waterless Car Washes

As the name suggests, rinseless car washes dispense with the rinse cycle and instead use water mixed with a chemical concentrate to agitate the dirt on the car’s surface. 

Since rinseless car washes aren’t meant to clean grime, the chemicals used aren’t that strong. 

Finally, waterless car washes exclude water entirely and rely on chemicals to clean the car. That means the chemicals must be strong to remove dirt on the surface without water. 

Risk of Scratches

One of the main reasons we get our cars cleaned is to remove dirt and debris from the surface. 

Unfortunately, if the debris is significant, it can cause severe scratches in the paint if not dealt with properly.

As always the main principle of car washing applies: Clean the car as thoroughly as possible without damaging the paint or interior.

As you will read in the following paragraphs, this principle is not always considered with automatic car washes. Especially friction car washes have major drawbacks in this area.

Hard Bristle Car Washes

The gradual abandonment of stiff bristles in automatic car washes happened due to the paint damage caused by them. In some cases, dirt became trapped between the bristles and scratched the car’s surface as they moved.

Since these machines are automated, they could then be used by multiple people, one after the other, leaving marks on each vehicle with each new cycle.

Given that the bristles are not properly maintained (thoroughly washed after every car) and bristles themselves are not suitable for cleaning cars, hard bristle car washes are guaranteed to scratch your car during the washing process.

The trapped dirt inside acts like sandpaper and scratches the car all over while inefficiently removing dirt.

Soft Touch Car Washes

To counter the hard bristle; car wash owners adopted soft-touch systems that utilized microfiber cloths. 

The switch to microfiber cloths eliminated the abrasion caused by hard bristles but failed to address the scratches caused by trapped contaminants.

Most soft-touch car wash attendants don’t bother to wash the microfiber cloths after a car passes through. That means any trapped debris reduces the effectiveness of the fabrics and increases the likelihood of scratches forming on the next vehicle. 

Touchless and Hand Car Washes

There’s absolutely no risk of scratches forming on your car when using a touchless car wash as nothing but water and chemicals touch your car’s surface.

Similarly, though the procedure is different, the risk of scratches forming on a vehicle when hand washing is minimal – but it exists. Failure to rinse a microfiber washing towel or remove hard debris from the car’s surface can cause scratches as the microfiber towel moves along the surface. 

Rinseless and Waterless Car Washes

The idea behind rinseless and waterless car washes is to minimize water use. That may be great for the environment, but it also means they only work well on cars with very little dirt. 

When misused – that is, a car with a lot of dirt and grime – these methods will cause severe scratching on the car’s surface. 

However, rinseless and waterless car washes are unlikely to cause scratches when used on a relatively clean vehicle.

Thoroughness of Cleaning

Hand washing is the best option if you want a thorough wash. It doesn’t usually matter if your car went through a sea of mud that then baked for days; a rigorous hand wash will remove all the dirt from your car’s interior and exterior. 

It will just take time.

Here’s a brief overview of the other car washes and their effectiveness in cleaning:

  • Hard bristle car washes – while effective on dirt and grime on the car’s surface, they are ineffective against hard-to-remove imperfections and hard-to-reach areas. 
  • Soft-touch car washes – also quite effective at removing dirt from the car’s surface, but they often fail to clean the nooks and crannies of a vehicle. 
  • Touchless car washes – notoriously poor at removing stubborn stains from car surfaces because, without the agitation, some of the dirt remains on the car. They also fail to clean the difficult-to-reach sections and do not touch the interior.
  • Rinseless car washes  – require unwavering attention to wipe off the cleaning solution before drying on the car. Such attention levels usually lead to thorough cleaning. 
  • Waterless car washes – since the water is forced to wash one panel at a time, the result is typically pretty thorough. However, waterless (and rinseless) car washes don’t work on very dirty cars, reducing their score on this metric.

Environmental Impact

The need for environmentally conservative ways of washing cars has spurred the development of rinseless and waterless car washes. 

That makes them the go-to option for areas with water restrictions.

Hand Car Washes

Though not as restrictive; hand washes are pretty environmentally friendly because the water used is treated and recycled. 

Moreover, the amount of water used is minimal compared to the amount of water used in an automatic car wash.

However, keep in mind that hand washes performed at home can potentially cause environmental pollution if contaminated water gets released into the public drains.

Friction and Touchless Car Washes

Friction car washes collect water used to clean cars, treat it, and reuse it to wash other vehicles, which is quite friendly to the environment. 

Similarly, touchless car washes use similar treatments, but they face a unique problem: the strong chemicals used to wash their cars don’t respond to some treatment methods.

Most of the harsh chemicals used to clean the car remain in the water, creating a potential environmental hazard. It also means that such car washes often use contaminated water to rinse vehicles. 

Risk of Major Damage

It is important for me to say that risk of major damages is a different category than risk of scratches. All friction automatic car washes are unsuitable to clean cars when it comes to the risk of scratching a car.

When talking about major damages like broken mirrors, cracked windshields, and more, all car wash options are relatively safe for cars.

A friction brush car wash won’t cause significant damage despite having stiff bristles. A soft-touch car wash is also gentle on your car.

However, you may have to remove antennae and fold side mirrors as a precaution before getting into the wash. Furthermore, low-profile vehicles or cars with wider wheel rims can get scratches or scrapes on the undercarriage, but it’s nothing to worry about.

It’s improbable that a friction car wash will damage your car’s windshield. However, friction car washes can increase the damage to an already cracked windshield

Touchless car washes are pretty safe as nothing except water and chemicals touch the car’s surface. They are the safest automatic car wash option for cars with wider wheels or low-profile vehicles. 

However, the harshness of chemicals used by touchless car washes affects its grade on this metric. The chemicals won’t cause significant damage, but frequent exposure to the chemicals may accelerate paint damage. 

The risk of significant damage is virtually non-existent in waterless, rinseless, and hand wash car washes. The low reliance on machines and harsh chemicals make the above options safe for your car. 

Time Consumed

Though not always, some people choose the type of car wash based on how long they have. For example, if you’re in a rush, you might opt for a quick, automated wash at the garage. But if you have time to kill, you might splurge on a hand wash. 

  • omatic car washes save on time massively. The car goes in, and after a few minutes, it emerges relatively clean but with possible paint damage. You’ll spend a few minutes waiting for friction and touchless car washes to clean your car: the use of machines accelerates the wash. 
  • Waterless, rinseless, and hand wash car washes require intensive human input and, therefore, are quite time-consuming. Waterless car washes require you to spray the car with a particular chemical before wiping with a microfiber towel. This method takes time, especially if you are washing a large vehicle. 
  • A rinseless car wash involves washing the panel with the wash solution and wiping before the solution dries on the panel. It can be painstakingly slow, especially on a large vehicle. 
  • Hand washing also takes plenty of time, considering the processes and attention to detail involved. It takes longer if you opt for a paint-protection option after the wash. 

Why Hand Washes Are the Best Option for Your Car

Automated car washes have improved a great deal since their inception, but they can’t yet beat hand washing. 

Waterless and rinseless car washes offer solutions to people with water restrictions, but they have severe limitations. 

Thanks to the use of mild chemicals, hand washing is gentle on your car. Furthermore, hand washing takes greater care of your vehicle: washers are more precise in removing debris that can cause scratches and swirls.

There’s no crevice that handwashing can’t get to, both on the exterior and interior of your vehicle. Also, most local laws provided that hand wash car washes treat and reuse water to reduce wastage and environmental pollution. 

A minor downside to hand washing is that it is time-consuming. However, considering the advantages of hand wash car washes, you can afford to wait a little longer for the technician to complete the wash. 

Are Automatic Car Washes Safe for Your Car?

You might assume by the sheer number of cars that use automatic car washes that they are the best option for your vehicle. After all, they’re a popular option since they take a few minutes to ‘wash’ your car. 

However, in this case, the popular option is not the safest choice. 

Automatic car washes are unsafe for your car because they use harsh chemicals that can degrade the car’s paint, the bristles may leave behind swirls or scratches, and it’s even possible that it can damage or break off pieces of the car. Plus, they can be expensive while not being very thorough.

Let’s look at the above in greater detail to help you understand why you should avoid automatic car washes. 

If you want to learn more about why automatic car washes are not safe for your car, make sure to check out my in-depth article about it. I list all the reasons why you should make sure to avoid automatic car washes whenever possible.

The Harsh Chemicals Used Can Degrade Car Paint

Friction car washes use spinning brushes and chemical solutions to agitate the dirt off your car. 

Such car washes aim to wash as many cars in the shortest time possible. Therefore, they use strong chemicals to clean your vehicle and rapidly move to the next one. 

Touchless car washes also use very harsh chemicals to clean your car. And since they have no external force to agitate the debris, they use extra-strong chemicals to coax the dirt off the car’s exterior. 

The pull of this specific system is that your car avoids the brushes and bristles of friction car washes. However, the strong-chemical alternative is perhaps more damaging to your vehicle. 

The harsh compounds can cause paint degradation, leading to dull paint after several washes. 

Wastewater from automatic car washes contains these minerals, and due to the high concentration of chemicals, filtration can’t remove all the chemicals. That means most automatic car washes reuse the inadequately-filtered water to save costs, causing further paint degradation. 

Dirty Wash Cloths Cause Swirl Marks and Scratches

Like the microfiber mitts used in hand wash car washes, the brushes, and cloths used in automatic car washes trap debris and get dirty. 

However, unlike hand wash microfiber mitts that get regular rinsing, the brushes and cloths used in automatic car washes rarely get cleaned.

Automatic car wash owners prefer not to pay for the extra labor needed to clean the brushes and cloths. Furthermore, washing the brushes would halt the washing process, something the owners can’t afford. 

Therefore, nearly all cars passing through an automatic car wash get swirl marks and scratches. Washing cloths with trapped debris act like sandpaper, creating unsightly imperfections on your vehicle. 

This study on the evaluation of the mar resistance of vehicle clear coats found that car wash brushes reduce the gloss of automotive paint. 

A Quick Wash Isn’t Thorough

Five minutes are not enough to wash your car. 

Automatic car washes can’t remove stubborn stains from the surface of your car. Furthermore, the rushed process can’t wash the tough-to-get-to crevices of your vehicle. 

In addition, some car wash owners limit the cleaning products used, affecting the quality of the wash provided. 

Moreover, cleaning a car thoroughly requires a lot of flexibility to reach all areas properly and alto to clean different cars thoroughly. Different cars have different bodies that require slightly different approaches to cleaning in order to achieve a good result.

Automatic car washes cannot offer this flexibility as they are machines designed to clean as many cars as possible in the shortest amount of time. Standardization is great for efficiency, which is great for the car wash owner, but as a car owner effectiveness is more important.

It Can Damage or Break Off Car Parts

Ever wondered why most automatic car washes have multiple signs reminding customers that they aren’t responsible for damage occurring inside the wash? It’s because there’s a likelihood of car damage. 

Major damage or injury remains unlikely, but automatic car washes can break antennae and side mirrors. Low clearance cars can also suffer damage in such car washes. 

On the rare occasions that you opt for an automatic car wash, inspect your car before leaving and report any damage regardless of the disclaimers on the walls. 

It Is Expensive

A basic wash at an automatic wash won’t cost you much, but you’ll likely leave the car wash with ugly-looking water spots on your car – and you may even need to pay extra to get your vehicle dried. 

At a fee, the car wash attendants will also wash the undercarriage and rustproof your car. By the end, you’ll end up parting with an excessive fee for the wash. 

Furthermore, you might need to polish your car to remove swirl marks and scratches, which can be expensive. And in worse-case scenarios, you might also need to replace broken antenna and perhaps, damaged side-view mirrors. 

The initial cost of automatic car washes can seem negligible, but it may cost you more in the long run. 

Key Takeaways

  • Hand wash car washes are the best option for your car. 
  • Other car wash types may adversely affect your vehicle. 
  • The one negligible drawback of hand wash car washes is that they consume a lot of time.
  • Poor automatic car wash maintenance causes swirl marks and scratches on your car.
  • Automatic car washes cause rapid paint degradation and are expensive. 
  • Avoid automatic car washes and opt for hand wash car washes.

Sources Pros and cons: soft-touch vs. touch-free car washing

House Grail: Touchless car washes: What are the pros & cons?

Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash: Pros and cons: Soft-touch car wash vs. touch-free car wash

The Car Connection: Wash me now: What’s the best type of car wash?

Detailing Wiki: What is a rinseless wash?

DetailXPerts: Automatic Car Wash vs. Hand Car Wash: Pros and Cons

Family Handyman: The pros and cons of different types of car washes

DetailXPerts: Why automatic car wash is not safe for your car

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

ShinyCarProject: Car washes: Why they are not safe for your car

Jan-Lucas Ganssauge
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge