Full-service, drive-thru car washes are appealing for those looking to save themselves the time and hassle of hand washing their own car. And keeping a squeaky clean exterior also helps your car retain its value. But when it comes to preserving a car’s exterior finish not all automatic car washes are created equal. Here’s what you should know.

Be Wary of Brushes

Many older car washes rely on brushes to wash your car. The problem with these aging, automatic systems is that their brushes can be overly abrasive, making millions of tiny scratches on your car’s finish. This is especially true for newer cars, which tend to have clear, shiny finishes. Even today’s softer, fabric brushes can do damage. They may drag debris from other cars onto your exterior and leach its paint and finish. If you can, check out the car wash’s brushes before you send your car through and skip their service if they look overly dirty or soiled.

What about Touchless?

By contrast, brushless or touchless car washes use high-pressure jets of water combined with specially formulated cleansers to clean your car. While that sounds like good news for those living in fear of scratches, there may be some drawbacks to the kinds of heavy chemical detergents used in many touchless systems. Though your exterior will be safe from abrasive brushes, the cleaners that brushless systems rely on may strip your car of its protective wax layer or other exterior sealants, leaving it more vulnerable to fading. Touchless systems are also totally dependent on the mix of detergents and water to get the job done. They might not be enough for heavily soiled cars (think mud-caked tires or a road salt-coated undercarriage). In these instances, hand or brush washing may be necessary to get your vehicle totally clean.

Drive-Thru Drying

Automatic car washes offer a few different methods for drying. Some hit your car with huge jets of heated air at the end of the wash cycle. Others have employees towel off your car by hand. These methods are usually fine, but towels should look clean and be free of abrasives. Otherwise you run the risk of scratching your exterior. Letting your car air-dry is generally the safest bet. And if streaking really irks you, you might take care of it when you get home.

The bottom line? Bringing your car to a professional car wash is the a great way to save time and hassle. It’s even good for water conservation. Otherwise accumulated dirt, bird droppings, grime, and road salt will likely spell trouble for a car’s exterior. It can impact everything from resale value to costly fixes and claims for rust and corrosion. So invest in protecting your car’s finish, and be sure to look for reputable car washes that use modern, well-maintained equipment and have positive customer reviews. Happy washing!

Safe and smart | Car safety

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about Rebecca

Rebecca is a freelance copywriter and editor living in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two kids. She enjoys productively channeling her anxiety into safety-minded articles for home and garden, running with her robot trainer, and advocating on behalf of the Oxford comma.