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What is a Touchless Car Wash? Are They Safe?

A touchless car wash is a type of car wash that uses water pressure as a means of cleaning a vehicle rather than hands-on washing, manual spraying, or brushes.

Touchless car washes are just one of many different car washes, and they aim to combine the ease of automated car washing without the use of spinning brushes which can cause paint damage. Even though they are a safer alternative than washes that do use brushes, they are still not the safest type of car wash, and they cannot compete with the quality of a proper two or three bucket car wash completed by hand. 

Even though a touchless automatic is designed to be safer than automated car washes that use spinning brushes, to say that they are safe is an overstatement. They pose some of the same hazards as any other kind of automatic car wash.

One of the most well-known hazards of an automatic car wash with brushes is that the friction from the brushes can grind dirt into the clear coat and scratch it. Touchless car washes do not use brushes, but the same type of damage can occur from the increased water pressure used, even if the risk of that happening is slightly diminished.

Additionally, because touchless car washes do not use brushes, they typically have to use stronger soaps and chemicals to make up for the lack of direct vehicle contact. This increases the chances of paint damage, especially with frequent visits.

How Does a Touchless Car Wash Work?

touchless car wash

There are usually three general steps involved in the touchless car wash process. There can be more steps or sub-steps added depending on the “package” selected and individual car wash, but usually, wash selection, rinsing, and washing are the bare minimum you pay for when using a touchless car wash.

Wash Selection

Before you put your vehicle through the car wash, there is a screen for payment and selection of the type of wash you want. The level of washing your vehicle receives can vary from basic to complicated, potentially adding things like several soap layers, protective coating application, tire shine, and drying options. The more you want the wash to do, the more you will pay for it. 

Rinsing

Most automatic washes start the cleaning process with some kind of rinsing. Rinsing the vehicle before washing it is certainly important as it can loosen up the surface dirt and make it easier to remove, but rinsing itself does not fully prevent paint damage from occurring.

Since rinsing your vehicle is essentially a preparatory step to the actual washing, it is not meant to fully rid the vehicle of most of the dirt that accumulates on its surface.

Washing

The washing part of the process is usually the last step for most touchless automatics if a very basic package is chosen. Most washes have dryers as well, but extra payment is usually required. It is this step that is most potentially unsafe for your vehicle’s paint. The application of highly concentrated soaps and highly pressurized water can both have a negative effect.

What Other Types of Car Washes Are There?

There are numerous options available for those who need their car washed. Each has its own pros and cons, and each caters to a different need.

Hand Wash

two bucket wash

A hand car wash can be one of the most effective or one of the least effective ways to wash your car. Likewise, it can be the safest or the most damaging depending on how it is done.

If done correctly, a hand wash is an expert-recommended method of washing a vehicle, and it is usually the safest if the proper technique is followed.

The downside to a hand car wash is that it usually takes time and preparation to complete a thorough job. There are several different types of hand washes.

A two or three bucket car wash at home is the safest car wash method.

DIY Station

DIY stations are far less common than they used to be as quicker automatic washes have sprung up. A DIY station car wash is usually a car wash station with bays where you use washing equipment on-site for a small fee.

This is good if you do not have your own equipment or do not want to buy your own equipment, but the usage level of the rented equipment may be high. Using dirty equipment can also lead to scratches.

Service Station

A service station is like a DIY station except that employees are the ones that hand wash your vehicle with their equipment instead of you. This can be a much faster way of getting your vehicle hand-washed, but the same hazards apply from using dirty equipment.

Mobile

Mobile car washes are those that come to you. These can be great if the company has a good reputation since your vehicle can receive a hand wash and anything extra you might want without having to leave home. The biggest downside to mobile car washes is that they can be pricey. 

Waterless

A waterless car wash is a type of car wash that does not require water. These are becoming more popular, but they are not as effective as traditional hand washes using water and microfiber cloths.

A waterless wash is not as much a different kind of hand wash as it is a different product, but the car wash method is slightly different than a hand car wash with water as a result.

Self-Service

A self-service wash is a fairly common type of car wash in which you can park your vehicle and pay to use a spray nozzle to wash your vehicle. These also used to be much more common than they are now.

Most also allow you to select different types of sprays from the nozzle and different soaps that are mixed with the water. Many also have a foam brush you can use to apply soap.

These types of washes allow you to control what goes into your particular car wash, and they can be quick in a pinch, but using the foam brush or using the high-pressure spray settings too quickly can also cause paint damage.

Automatic

automatic car wash

Automatic car washes can refer to multiple different kinds, the touchless automatic being one of them. Other types include tunnel washes and brushless washes. 

Tunnel car washes are those which move your vehicle forward through a series of wash mechanisms, usually spinning brushes. Once through the wash, attendants will usually drive your vehicle out to more attendants waiting to add some finishing touches and dry your vehicle

Brushless automatic car washes are different from a touchless wash, tunnel wash, or a regular automatic wash. Instead of using brushes, they utilize strips of softer material – such as cotton – in an attempt to be gentler on vehicle paint as they spin.  

Which Type of Car Wash Is the Best?

Most experts agree that a hand wash is the best and safest type of car wash since almost every factor is controllable. Automated car washes are usually said to be the most unsafe because of the spinning brushes and the damage they can cause, though they can do a thorough and quick job.

Touchless automatic washes fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum when it comes to safety, and they can be one of the quickest ways to get a car wash. Unfortunately, they often fall short when a thorough cleaning is needed since pressurized water often cannot compete with the use of friction to remove dirt. 

If you need the best possible car wash but do not have the time to do it yourself, it is recommended that a mobile service with a good reputation be used as they usually provide both hand washing and detailing services.

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
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