Are Automatic Car Washes Bad for Your Car?

Are Automatic Car Washes Bad for Your Car?

Automatic car washes offer a convenient way to keep your vehicle clean, but they come with potential risks that can compromise your car's appearance and integrity. Understanding these risks and knowing how to mitigate them can help you make informed decisions about using automatic car washes.

How Automatic Car Washes Can Damage Your Vehicle

Surface Scratches and Swirl Marks

The paint on a red car with scratches in the gel coat on the left, and a fresh polished gel coat on the right.

Brushes and Cloth Strips: Many automatic car washes use rotating brushes or cloth strips to scrub the car’s surface. These cleaning tools can collect dirt and debris from previous vehicles, which can scratch your car's paint as they move across the surface.

Abrasive Contact: Even when relatively clean, the repeated contact of brushes or strips can cause micro-abrasions, leading to swirl marks that dull the paint over time.

Chemical Damage

Harsh Detergents: Automatic car washes often use strong chemicals to remove stubborn grime quickly. While effective, these chemicals can strip away protective wax layers and damage the clear coat, leading to premature fading or oxidation of the paint.

Residual Deposits: Inadequate rinsing can leave chemical residues on the car's surface, which can further damage the paint and trim if not removed promptly.

Water Spots and Streaks

Automatic car washes that rely on blow-dryers or air drying can leave water spots and streaks, especially if the water used contains high mineral content. These spots can be difficult to remove and may etch into the paint over time.

Undercarriage Corrosion

Many automatic car washes do not adequately clean the car's undercarriage, which is particularly vulnerable to corrosion from road salt and grime, especially in winter months. This can lead to rust and structural damage if not addressed.

Misaligned or Malfunctioning Equipment

Automatic car washes rely on complex machinery that can occasionally malfunction or become misaligned. This can result in broken mirrors, bent antennas, or scratches from loose or improperly calibrated parts.

How to Minimize Damage to Your Car During Washings

A man uses a microfiber cloth to hand wash his black car.

Wash Your Car by Hand

The best way to avoid the potential damage caused by automatic car washes is to wash your vehicle by hand. Hand washing allows you to control the cleaning process, ensuring that gentle, high-quality products are used and that every part of the car is cleaned thoroughly and safely. By using soft microfiber towels, wash mitts, and a dirt trap in your bucket, you can minimize the risk of scratches and swirl marks that often result from abrasive brushes and dirty sponges. 

Additionally, hand washing gives you the opportunity to inspect your car closely for any issues, apply wax or sealants properly, and clean hard-to-reach areas like the undercarriage more effectively. This personalized care helps maintain the integrity of your vehicle's paint and overall appearance, keeping it in pristine condition.

If You Must Use a Car Wash: Choose Touchless Car Washes

Opt for touchless or brushless car washes that use high-pressure water and detergents to clean the car without physical contact. This significantly reduces the risk of scratches and swirl marks.

Limit the use of automatic car washes. While convenient, frequent use can increase the cumulative risk of paint damage. Consider hand washing your car occasionally to give it a more thorough and gentle clean.


Automatic car washes, while convenient, can potentially damage your vehicle through scratches, chemical exposure, and insufficient cleaning techniques. By understanding these risks and taking steps to mitigate them, you can keep your car in excellent condition. Opt for hand washes, maintain regular waxing, and inspect your vehicle regularly to ensure it remains in pristine shape.


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