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Automatic Car Washes vs Hand Washing: The Honest Truth

As the automatic car wash vs hand wash debate rages on, today I’ll cut through the noise and explain the pros and cons of each. Spoiler: Hand washing will always be a more thorough and professional car wash method, but automatic car washes have their place.

Here’s what to know so you can be confident in your decision.

Car washes are best for the occasional maintenance wash

Both automatic and do-it-yourself car washes allow you to knock off surface dirt; this is referred to as maintenance washing—not detailing. Exterior detailing takes washing a step further and involves techniques like removing contaminants using clay, polishing scratches, and waxing.

Let’s say you detail your vehicle by properly applying a wax or sealant. Your next few washes will fall into the maintenance washing category, because you’ll only need to full detail your vehicle a few times each year.

Is it safe to use an automatic car wash?

It is okay to use a touchless or touch-free automatic car wash in certain situations, like if you’re out of town with road salt or heavy dirt on your vehicle. Key word: touchless. Stay away from soft-touch or brush-based car washes because felt or fabric ‘flappers’ can easily scratch or mar a vehicle.

Even though a traditional flapper-style car wash can make a vehicle look cleaner, it’s one of the easiest ways to produce swirl marks on a new car for the first time

Most all automatic washes also don’t clean certain areas well, like rims and tires, wheel wells, or mirrors and glass.

Unlike some in the detailing community…I’m not 100% anti-car wash. On a long road trip and have salt sticking to an older vehicle? Go ahead and use a touchless or self-serve car wash. In these situations, you’re better off using a touchless automatic car wash as opposed to waiting weeks and letting corrosion or dirt buildup occur.

While you shouldn’t expect a blemish-free clear coat, automatic washes remove large particles (like salt) fairly well. Sometimes on extended beach vacations, I’ll use a touchless wash if there’s nothing else. Always use your best judgement :)

Caution!

All automatic car washes spray pressurized water, so consider this if your vehicle is rusting or doesn’t seal well. It’s not ideal for water to remain in and around door frames and between seams and metal for long periods of time.

Pros and cons of automatic car washes

Pros

Convenience

Undercarriage rinsing

Cons

Water spots

Often inadequate rinsing

Increased risk of scratching

Some chemicals used are harsh

Many are overpriced

Benefits of hand washing vs automatic car wash

The only real con of hand washing is that it takes longer, but here are a few important pros to note:

Ability to clean hard-to-reach areas

Total control over the quality and amount of soap applied

Reduced risk of scratching the paint when done properly

Water spots can be removed; drying is more effective

Ability to properly clean and dress tires and trim

While automatic washes can remove large organic particles fairly well, don’t expect a blemish-free clear coat.

Some contaminants that cling to your car—like traffic film—you’ll need to remove by hand since water and soap alone aren’t enough. Microfiber wash mitts and towels are designed to lift stubborn particles stuck on the clear coat when the right chemicals are used.

If you’re limited by time, check out our 10 clever hacks to wash your vehicle faster.

Learn how to get great results hand washing

Many people are never taught how to properly wash a vehicle the right way…so it takes forever! While it isn’t rocket science, it’s important to know some basic fundamentals.

Check out our course Washing and Detailing for Beginners if you’re tired of spending money at the car wash and ready to see pro-level results. Use code BLOG at checkout for 15% off. Happy washing!

Ready to improve your washing and detailing skills?

This video course unpacks the fundamentals of washing and detailing. From exterior cleaning and blemish removal…you’ll learn the secrets that will give you spotless pro-level results!

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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