Washes Compared

Just like there’s more than one way to cook an egg, there’s many types of car washes. But don’t take that to mean all washing methods are equal—far from it. Each one comes with its own set of upsides and downsides. Those pros and cons, however, aren’t always clear. Here’s the run down every wash method, distilling the good and bad to help you navigate the most important part of car care.

Method #1: Handwash

Ask any detailing expert and they’ll tell you the safest method is handwash. There’s a few different ways a handwash can be done, ranging from the traditional two-bucket method to high tech, pressurized foam cannons, but whichever way you go, they all have you (or your detailer) sudsing up water with soap and washing the vehicle with a soft mitt in hand. 

So what does a handwash look like? At Gonzo Detailing operation, I start with a pre-wash in which we cover the vehicle with snow foam and rinse the car off. Not 100% necessary, but it helps us get a more thorough clean. From there, I coat the vehicle again with a layer of suds, which I then agitate with soft wash mitts. The foam breaks the contaminants down while the wash mitts help break them loose. I then rinse and dry. 

This kind of wash requires a good chunk of time, a variety of equipment, and if you’re getting it done by a professional, a bit of money. But between how gentle it is on the finish and how thorough it is at getting off heavy contamination, it’s the most effective kind of car wash you can do.

PROS: 

  • Minimizes scratching
  • Can remove heavy contamination

CONS:

  • Takes longer than other methods
  • More expensive than automatic washes
  • Requires more equipment than other methods
  • Requires a lot of water
  • Tough to do with limited space
  • Tough to do in colder temperatures

Method #2: Waterless Wash

A waterless wash utilizes only a spray-bottle product and several microfiber towels. You simply spray the surface with your waterless wash product, then wipe with a microfiber towel. People use waterless washes for a number of reasons: they don’t have the space for a handwash, they can’t use water, they’re on the road, etc. Basically, it’s an option of last resort. 

Why’s that? Well, waterless washes aren’t great at removing heavy gunk. They’ll make quick work of dust, but if you just got back from off-roading on a muddy trail, you’re not going to have much luck. Another drawback is their potential for scratching. Though waterless wash products are formulated to heavily lubricate the surface, they don’t quite approach the slickness of a foamy handwash. As such, there’s a good chance you’ll pick up and drag some particle across your finish, causing a scratch. 

PROS:

  • Doesn’t take as long as a handwash or rinseless wash
  • Can be done with limited space
  • Doesn’t use water
  • Only requires a waterless wash product and microfiber towels

CONS:

  • More chances for scratching
  • Can’t remove heavy contamination

Method #3: Rinseless Wash

A rinseless wash is different than a waterless wash. In a way, it’s sort of a hybrid between a handwash and a waterless wash. With a rinseless wash, you’ll take a small amount of your rinseless wash product and mix it into a bucket of water. It won’t produce any suds, though—that’s why you don’t need to rinse. All you need to do once you’ve washed an area is wipe down to dry. 

Rinseless washes can be done with wash mitts or microfiber towels. Many detailers are partial to the “Garry Dean Method”, which involves soaking several microfiber towels in a bucket filled with rinseless wash product and water. You take one microfiber towel, wring it out, and set it aside to dry with. Then, you spray a panel with a pre-wash product and grab a soaking microfiber towel and start cleaning. You take your wringed-out drying towel, dry the panel, and then finally you take a fresh, dry microfiber and complete the drying process. Repeat panel-by-panel until your vehicle is clean. 

A rinseless wash method tends to be favored by those under water restriction or with limited space, who are also concerned with the scratching a waterless wash might cause. It still scratches more than a handwash, but far less than a waterless. You’re also not going to be able to remove heavy soiling as well as you could with a handwash. 

PROS:

  • Can be faster than a handwash
  • Requires less water than a handwash
  • Requires less equipment than a handwash
  • Can be performed with limited space
  • Less likely to scratch than a waterless wash

CONS: 

  • More likely to scratch than a handwash 
  • Can’t remove heavy contamination
  • Requires more equipment than a waterless wash

Method #4: Automatic Wash

Automatic washes, also known as “tunnel” washes, generally involve driving your vehicle onto a conveyer belt, which leads you through a series of brushes and blowers. The bristles on these rough brushes are often contaminated with abrasive grime from previous vehicles which can heavily mar your finish. They also utilize harsh cleaning chemicals that can strip waxes/coatings and even dry out your paint, which can lead to it cracking or even the color fading. 

So why would anyone want to use one of these washes? Simple: they’re inexpensive and don’t take long, which makes them the most popular kind of wash by far, just out of sheer convenience. Most people either don’t know or don’t care how badly it’s damaging their finish. Which isn’t necessarily bad for professional detailers; all that scratching is what makes a lot of people pay for a paintwork correction!

PROS: 

  • Inexpensive
  • Fast

CONS: 

  • Causes heavy scratching 
  • Harsh chemicals can damage finish
  • May not remove heavy contamination

Method #5: Brushless Wash

A “brushless” wash is a kind of automatic wash that uses strips soft cloths in place of bristles in its machinery. You might think that solves the problem of abrasive bristles tearing up your finish, but contaminated cloth can scratch just as much as a bristle. Dirt left behind from the thousands of cars that came before you can and will mar your finish. Plus, these washes still use the same harsh chemicals we mentioned above. 

PROS:

  • Inexpensive
  • Fast
  • Less abrasive than a brush automatic wash

CONS:

  • Causes significant scratching
  • Harsh chemicals can damage finish
  • May not remove heavy contamination

Method #6: Touchless Wash

A “touchless” automatic wash cleans your vehicle without use of bristles or brushes. Instead, the entire wash is conducted with chemical cleaners, pressure washers and pressurized air. Sounds like it solves all the problems of other automatic washes, right? Well, not quite. For one, you’ve still got harsh chemicals to deal with. So unless you want to dry out your paint or risk stripping your wax/coating, make sure you know ahead of time what kind of chemicals they’re using.

Also keep in mind brushless washes and touchless washes are not the same. Some see the word “brushless” and assume that means “touchless”. Don’t make the same mistake! Always do your research beforehand and make sure you’re getting the right kind of wash. 

PROS:

  • Less expensive than a handwash
  • Fast
  • Minimizes scratching

CONS:

  • More expensive than automatic and brushless washes
  • Harsh chemicals may damage finish
  • May not remove heavy contamination

Other Methods

We’ve seen people clean their cars with just about everything imaginable—even paper towels and Windex. Of course, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. If it’s not already a common method, there’s probably a reason why. So no matter what ingenious lifehack you come up with, it’s probably going to damage your finish. And that’s just not worth it. 

The Verdict

The best possible wash for your vehicle’s finish is a handwash. It’s the least abrasive wash you can perform without sacrificing thoroughness. Though as with anything in life, sometimes the best possible isn’t an option. So what’s second best (and third, fourth, fifth and sixth)? Here’s our ranking:

  1. Handwash
  2. Touchless wash (if using gentle soap)
  3. Rinseless wash
  4. Waterless wash
  5. Brushless wash
  6. Automatic wash
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