The Pros and Cons of Different Types of Car Washes

Updated: May 23, 2023

A pro car wash can be fully automated or done by hand. Here's how to decide which option is right for your car, time and budget.

When you can’t wash the car yourself, there are plenty of ways to get your car washed. Whether it needs the spa treatment or a quick bath, learn about the pros and cons of the different car cleaning services.

It’s also important to note the thoroughness of a car wash varies, depending on the car model and the method. So use your best judgement when deciding which car wash is best for your car.

Self-Service Car Washes

Roll up your sleeves (without using any of your tools) at a self-service car wash, which typically costs less than $10. Use their water hose, soaps and sponges, just bring your attention to detail and elbow grease. Check beforehand if you need towels for drying. Washing, rinsing, and drying one section at a time will help avoid water spots. Check out the benefits of an eco-friendly car wash.

Be sure you use this option under the right conditions. If you’ve been driving around for a while, your car is probably too hot to wash; the soap will dry and leave spots before you can rinse it off. The same goes for washing with the sun beating down on you.

Automated Car Washes

Automated in-bay car washes pull your car along a conveyor belt while machines dispense soap and water. Automatic car washes can be a speedy and economical choice, costing between $5 and $10. Cleaning the undercarriage, wheels and tires or using additional soaps and waxes cost extra, usually $1 to $2 per extra service.

Soft Touch Car Washes

There are soft-touch automated car washes that use cloth to scrub cars, and no-touch automated car washes which only use high-pressure water and soap (not foam). Learn how to pressure wash your car without damaging it.

Soft-touch washes offer a more thorough cleaning. If the car wash uses brushes, they usually reach every part of the car and are good for getting rid of dust and pollen. But the force of the brushes can damage side-view mirrors or antennas. If the car wash uses thick cloth strips, the car must also be thoroughly rinsed before the cloth touches it or else the cloth can cause the dirt to scratch the paint.

No-Touch Car Wash

No-touch car washes are cloth- and brush-free so there’s less risk of scratches. They also use less water, if you’re hoping to be a friend to the environment. But without brushes or cloth strips, a no-touch wash may be less effective. No-touch washes that rely on more cleaning agents to make up for the lack of cloth or brushes could also damage your paint.

Machine Dryer Car Wash

Some automated car washes use machine dryers at the end, but some will have staffers dry your car by hand with towels. If they provide this service, the car wash will cost a few dollars more.

Hand Car Wash

Professionals washing your car by hand will use top-notch supplies and go over every inch with a thorough eye, making sure to remove dirt or water spots automated car washes may miss. But even hand-washing comes with risks. Using the same sponge to clean the vehicle’s painted surfaces and the tires and wheel wells is a common mistake that introduces abrasives to the cleaning process. Be sure your pro uses best practices, including rinsing and cleaning sponges and microfiber towels religiously.

You can splurge on waxing, detailing and interior cleaning — and in some cases even get your annual state inspection done. The only con is the extra time and money. Hand-done car washes can cost from $15 to $35. But if your car needs some TLC, it could be worth it.

Waterless Car Wash

Short of cash? There’s always DIY. A waterless car wash is a high lubricity spray mixture that heavily saturates a vehicle’s panel, then wipes off dirt or road grime to a dry shine with a clean cloth. This waterless car wash kit is great for a mess-free experience, especially if you live in a neighborhood where your water use is restricted. The 2EZ Wax Waterless car detailing kit is a great option at about $50. These car interior cleaning kit products will keep your passenger area looking and smelling fresh.

Rinseless Car Wash

A rinseless car wash is another kit method that eliminates the final hosing off, saving time, water, and chemical usage. Optimum No Rinse Wash and Shine comes highly rated. To use, add one ounce to two gallons of water in a bucket. Soak a plush microfiber towel into the solution and wash one section at a time until clean. Dry with a clean plush microfiber towel. That’s it!