The answer really depends on the type of automatic car wash you’re taking it through, but the short answer to this very common question is: Absolutely do not take your vehicle through the automatic car wash because it IS very bad for your vehicle’s paint finish!
I remember when I was in high school. I had a 1985 Dodge Omni that was also my first car. It was a maroon color, and I loved the car. Literally every other day I would take it to the local car wash. This car wash had a spray wand and a brush that had tons of foamy soap coming out of the brush. I remember scrubbing away but never looking at the brush head to see if there were any small rocks, grains of sand, or any type of abrasive material. I can almost guarantee that there was a lot of particles in that brush head that caused scratches. But I was always in a hurry, and I got the car “clean!”
Not so fast…..
Let’s talk about some of the different kinds of car washes.
First, there’s the tunnel car wash with spinning “brushes.” I always refer to these as swirl-o-matics! You can spend all day and night polishing a car to perfection, and completely ruin it in one trip through this type of car wash. These are typically very abrasive, and the dirt, grime, and abrasive debris from all of the other vehicles that have gone through the “swirl-o-matic” are now being applied to your car at a high rate of speed. “Scratch, ding, OUCH!” Avoid these at all costs and only go through unless someone has a gun to your head!
Next, there are the “gentle” or “soft-cloth” car washes. The selling point on these is the fact that (1) they are made of soft cloth hanging vertically from the machine, and that (2) they just gently agitate the surface of your car’s paint. They are more gentle than the spinning brush tunnel washes, but they are still abrasive! As you can see in the photo on the left, a piece of the “soft” cloth got caught on the front bumper area and headlight of this 2012 BMW. The “soft cloth” isn’t so soft because it’s caked with abrasive debris from all of the other vehicles that have been there such as grease, dirt, micro pieces of sand, rocks, you name it! The small amount of water being sprayed on them between each wash isn’t enough to thoroughly clean them. And it’s not like they have a maintenance crew cleaning the cloth after each use. Avoid these types of washes as well.
Finally, there are the “touchless,” or “laser wash” places. These don’t get the vehicles as clean, but they are a lot safer than the other types of washes. I’d rather have a partially dirty car than a clean one with swirls and scratches than what you get with the other types of washes. The biggest drawback to these however is that they use pretty harsh chemicals to do the “cleaning” so I wouldn’t recommend using them on a “regular” basis. At one time we did some advertising at the local car wash and the owner of the wash place told me about a time that their “rinse” cycle didn’t work, and the “ACID” that they use for soap dried on the paint and ruined it, costing the car wash place a few thousand dollars to make it up to the customer.
So what about the places that do hand washes? If it’s a volume-based place with an assembly line of people working there, you’re probably getting the same abrasive kind of a wash as an automatic car wash would provide. Unless you find a professional detailer that is schooled on the 2-bucket method of car washing, it’s going to be very difficult to receive a scratch-free wash.
If you have a place to do your own washing, I would highly recommend learning the latest washing and drying techniques to keep your paint looking its best. Go to the local Wal-Mart and buy a couple of buckets, some microfiber towels, and a reputable car wash soap. Take a Saturday morning with the kids and make it fun! Improper washing and drying is the number one reason for swirls and scratches in paint! Take a look at your cars paints someday out in the sunlight. If you see swirl marks, those are scratches caused by improper washing or improper “Buffing”. The only way to correct that is to have the vehicle polished by a professional car detailer. Applying Opti Coat afterward is also a GREAT way to resist scratches and swirls. We offer this service so be sure to ask about it so you can learn about this amazing coating for your vehicle.