Are Car Washes Bad For Your Car? (Automatic Damage)

Image Credit: duallogic via Envato Elements

Image Credit: duallogic via Envato Elements

Are Car Washes Bad For Your Car? (Automatic Damage)


All cars need to be washed from time to time. Hand washing at home can be a bit of a production if want to do the job properly.

An automatic car wash is quick, cheap, and easy. But what’s the catch? How can a job that is so expensive to have professional detailers perform, be so inexpensive and fast?

Glad you asked! You’re in the right place to get your answer. The truth is that there are a few different types of automatic car washes and they can all affect your car’s finish. Tunnel car washes, laser wash, etc.

Let’s dive into the details of what makes a good automatic car wash and what’s the best way to keep your car clean.

Are Car Washes Bad For Your Car?

Automatic car washes aren’t bad for your car if you use a touchless car wash and do so in moderation.

Friction-based automatic car washes can cause swirl marks and light scratches in your clear coat, although some soft cloth car washes are quite gentle and far less likely to cause fine scratches on the paint finish.

Automatic Car Wash Vs Hand Wash

An automatic car wash get’s a bit of a bad reputation from car detailers and car enthusiasts. For a long time, most car washes used spinning bristle brushes to clean car painted surfaces. This method was extremely aggressive and leaves light scratches in the clear coat of modern vehicles.

Newer automatic car wash designs use spinning microfiber towels or curtains that gently move back and forth. Microfiber is much less aggressive than plastic bristles although even microfiber can cause swirl marks and light scratches.

The safest automatic car wash designs to prevent scratches are touchless car washes. A touchless car wash is a machine that uses more aggressive chemicals and high pressure water to clean your car’s paint.

Hand washing can be just as damaging or more some if done improperly. The 2 bucket car washing method and the touchless method of washing your car at home help minimize the potential to cause light scratches in the clear coat of your car’s finish.


Do Automatic Car Washes Damage Paint?

Most modern automatic car wash designs minimize the potential to damage your vehicle. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to eliminate it with an automatic car wash. Car wash owners obviously don’t want to be responsible for damage to your vehicle, so they do their best to ensure the machinery used in their automatic wash is the safest and while also effective at getting your car clean. Any method of using friction to clean a car’s finish runs a chance of causing light damage to your paint finish. Most car owners will never notice the light scratches and swirls in the transparent layer of urethane on the top of their paintwork. Car enthusiasts, especially those that are detailing enthusiasts will certainly notice. This light damage builds up over time and causes the paint finish to look dull. It doesn’t compromise the integrity of the paint so you don’t run a risk of true damage that will cause your paint to fail and begin peeling solely due to using an automatic car wash.

Are Hand Car Washes Bad For Your Car?

Hand washing your vehicle can cause the exact same damage that an automatic car wash can cause. It comes down to the tools and techniques used to get your car or truck clean. The two bucket method of hand washing is fairly safe but done often enough, you will eventually end up with some minor paint damage over time. It’s an inevitable truth due to how soft the clear urethane coating on the surface of your paint is. The touchless method of washing your car at home will all but eliminate the chance of causing fine swirls or scratches, but it also can only remove just so much dirt and grime. A very dirty car or truck just isn’t going to get spotless from a touchless wash.

Types Of Automatic Car Washes

There are a few different types of automatic car washes you should be aware of when you’re making the decision whether to use one or not.

Let’s go over the main types of cleaning methods used in an automatic car wash:

Bristle Brush Car Wash

I’d like to think that there are no more bristle brush car washes still in use today, but I’m sure there are one or two out there somewhere.

Spinning bristle brushes on a robotic arm are guided over your car or truck as it moves through the car wash. This bristles are spinning at a high rate of speed and the bristles themselves are not soft.

Combined with soap and water, the abrasive brushes will remove dirt, road tar, bird droppings, and other difficult to remove environmental contaminants.

This will aggressively clean your vehicle but it will certainly cause damage to the soft clear coat on the surface of your paintwork. It will also be aggressive on any wax, paint sealant, or ceramic coating that might be on your car or truck as well.


Will do a far better job of removing road grime and dirt than most other types of car washes.


Will without a doubt cause light damage to the surface of your paint.

Soft Cloth Car Wash

A soft cloth wash is an attempt to minimize the damage that a spinning bristle brush can cause. The spinning plastic bristles are replaced with soft cloth microfiber strands which are far more delicate.

An even gentler version of the soft cloth wash is the microfiber curtain that sways gently back and forth. This method still uses friction, but only the weight of the wet curtain is presses down on your paintwork.


Far safer than bristle brushes.

Still provides very effective cleaning power.


Still has the potential to cause light damage.

Touchless Car Wash

Touchless automatic car wash machines are the safest type of car wash to use if you’re concerned about the dulling effect that light scratches can cause over time.

These automatic car washes use strong detergents to chemically break down the environmental contaminants and road grime on your paintwork.

After the strong soap goes to work, high pressure water jets blast the mud and dirt from the surface of your car or truck.


The safest automatic car wash to use if you’re concerned about the build up of light scratches on your paintwork over time.


There is some concern about how harsh the detergents may be to your finish, plastics, and rubber seals. Especially if used often.

Not as effective at getting your vehicle clean when compared to friction-based methods.

Best Type Of Automatic Car Wash

The best type of automatic car wash is the touchless wash. Touchless car washing runs very little risk of causing damage to your paintwork and does a good job of getting your car or truck clean.

Some may be willing to risk the soft cloth car washing system with the microfiber curtains to help increase cleaning performance and reduce exposure to harsher chemicals.



Is it bad to take your car through a carwash everyday?

Using a car wash every day will do more harm than good. Automatic wash systems are hard on your car’s finish.

If your car or truck doesn’t have a build up of dirt, mud, or other road debris that needs to be cleaned off, you only end up wasting money and risk causing premature wear to your clear coat.

If you feel the need to keep your vehicle clean all the time, you’re better off getting some waterless wash and a microfiber towel to keep in your trunk.

Use this cleaning method to touch up your car’s exterior from time to time when it begins to collect dust or you get a little bit of dirt or something on the paintwork somewhere.


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You can hire a professional detailer or hand wash your vehicle yourself. Neither of these methods are as convenient or as inexpensive as automatic washes.

Automatic car wash machines are extremely convenient and effective but even the best ones have issues you need to be aware of before you commit to using them.

A touchless car wash is my personal choice in the rare moment that I opt for the easy way out. They are very effective at removing dirt, brake dust, bird poop, and more. All without anything physically coming into contact with your car’s paintwork.

It’s great to be able to drive through a wash and pull away with a clean car or truck just minutes later and only a few dollars lighter.

It takes time, effort, and the proper tools to hand wash and protect your vehicle at home. It can be a tedious chore for some and a passion for others. Even the most dedicated DIY detailer will have a moment of weakness though.

Most people just want clean car and could care less about some light scratches they’ll never notice. Others would rather take a beating before using one of those automated monstrosities.

No matter which camp you fall in, if or when the time comes, you now know the pros and cons of the different types and can make an informed decision about how to get your car or truck clean when you’re in a pinch.

Good luck and happy detailing.

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