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Are ‘Soft Cloth’ Car Washes Safe For Your Paint?

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Are ‘Soft Cloth’ Car Washes Safe For Your Paint?

Washing your vehicle is a time-consuming, wet, and messy enterprise, and while it can be fun if you’re an enthusiast who enjoys caressing every last curve and corner of their car’s sheet metal, for almost everyone else it’s a chore.

No surprise, then, that automated car washes are so popular. The premise is simple: pay your $5 to $10, punch in your access code, and spend a few relaxing minutes watching the spinning sponges and foam do all the work for you through the windshield (or, in some cases, the floor-to-ceiling windows of a semi-comfortable lounge).

What could go wrong? Robots washing cars is certainly better than having them plotting global domination, right? Sure, from that perspective an automated wash is better than Judgment Day.

But have you ever looked closely at your paint after coming out of one of these things?

Yikes.

Clean, Clean, Clean

Do you have a friend who’s into detailing cars? Or a relative whose personal ride always looks spotless, almost every day of the year? If so, ask them for their opinion on ‘brushless’ ‘soft-touch’ or ‘soft cloth’ car washes sometime, if only to see their faces redden, steam coming out of their ears, and their jaws flap uncontrollably.

This is because anyone who’s taken even a slight interest in caring for their vehicle’s finish knows the most important thing when washing is to always make sure whatever touches the paint, chrome, or glass is as clean as possible. For some hand-washers, this means rinsing off their lambswool mitt in a separate bucket from their suds in between soapings or even throwing a detailing towel in the laundry the second it touches the ground accidentally.

You never want to introduce the chance that spec of dirt, or a small rock, or a piece of sap will get caught up on your washcloth or mitt and then scratch along the car while soaping up. The entire reason you rinse a vehicle first when washing is to knock off as much grime as possible, and then you rely on a soap to lift that same grime up and off the paint without causing any scratches. If you’re using a dirty cloth at any step of the process, you run the risk of hazing, scratching, and otherwise damaging your vehicle’s looks.

Sandpaper Kisses

Now imagine, for a second, that you used the same mitt to wash every single car in your neighborhood, every single day, for years at a time. That is essentially what is happening at your local ‘brushless’ car wash.

You see, even though the automated car wash industry has largely changed over from stiff spinning plastic bristles to soft-looking foam strips, there’s still a major problem associated with the design of these systems. Over time, even the softest of spinning foam accumulates enough grit and gunk to essentially stand in for sandpaper. Pulling in to one of these places is the automotive equivalent of paying for the privilege of blasting your car with everyone else’s leftover road salt and rocks.

It’s easy to recognize the effects of this kind of paint abuse. It most often appears as a network of ‘spider web’ type scratches that extend over the entire surface of a vehicle’s clear coat and in some cases even plastic and chrome trim, all the result of regular exposure to brushless washing systems. If a particularly large rock is stuck in the foam slappers, you can also see larger, more noticeable scratches as well.

Touchless Or Hand Wash

car wash carwash sponge clean

This is the part of the article where the professional organization that represents the interests of automatic car wash owners picks up their phone and sends a threatening email to the editor of AutoGuide.com. Don’t laugh – it’s actually happened to this author in the distant past when discussing a similar topic.

Fortunately, for those who don’t have the time nor the inclination to hand wash their vehicle, there are alternatives to the brushless scourge. ‘Touchless’ car washes use jets high-pressure water and soap to spray away dirt, and while they can’t get into every nook and cranny (no automated system can), they’re far and away safer for your paint’s longevity, which almost no risk of damage (unless you’ve got loose trim or other wear-related issues with your vehicle, of course. It’s not the fault of a pressure washer if it takes off a mud flap that was hanging from a single fastener).

Either way, if you want to avoid scratches, dulling, and hazing on your paint and trim, you’re going to have to cross ‘brushless’ car washes off your list. Stick with touchless or hand-washes for the best possible results. And just ignore that email from the bristle-pushers.