Do Automatic car washes ruin paint?
Do "scratch and shines“ or automated car washes destroy car paint?
Tough question, this one. And the answer depends on your very own definition of the term “destroy”. Because if you don’t care about (light) paint defects, swirls and scratches, then by all means, no. Automated car washes don’t destroy your car’s paint.
However, from a purely objective standpoint, the answer could also very much be yes. In order to understand this, we need to take a step back and think about why cars are painted in the first place. Yes, they are painted to visually please us – especially since we moved on from Henry Ford’s premise that you can have your car in every colour you want, as long as it’s black.
But the real reason why cars are painted is to protect their body and all the precious metals which were used to build them. Without paint, these metals and other materials would just be eaten away over time by nature’s elements.
So, a car’s paint is not only there to make it look good, it’s main purpose is to protect a car’s body that’s underneath it. That’s why looking after your car’s paint does not only make it look good and does not only make your beloved neighbors jealous, it also means making sure that the paint can perform its function of protecting your car’s metal bits for as long as possible. Because at the end of the day, any paint damage means a reduction in this protective function, as a scratch of any kind is a spot at which your paint was removed. The deeper the scratch, the more paint is permanently removed.
Everything in car care has one goal: to reduce, prevent, and/or eliminate paint damage. That’s why we use high quality car shampoo’s, specialized wash buckets with Grit Guards / Dirt Locks, or microfiber wash mitts and towels. We know that there are rather advanced automated car washes out there with soft microfiber “bristles” out there which are kept clean and in check – but that’s not the norm, is it? Most automated car washes are there to make their owners money. That’s why they are equipped with cheap or overly aggressive chemicals, cheap bristles, and are not looked after properly. And that’s ok, as most people who use them have one goal and one goal only: make their cars as clean as possible as quick and cheap as possible. We don’t judge that, that’s perfectly fine.
That’s why the combination of cheap chemicals (like watered-down or overly aggressive car shampoos which don’t offer much lubrication), cheap bristles (which are only there to offer abrasion to get rid of dirt, but are not gentle), and a lack of servicing (which e.g. makes cheap and aggressive bristles even worse and/or leads to dirt and debris being caught up in those bristles) leads to a situation in which automated car washes actually do destroy your car’s paint. They do so by inducing swirls, marring, and more-or-less deep scratches in the paint. And as we just learnt above, paint defects mean that paint is permanently and irreversibly removed. Yes, you can polish your car’s paint to make it look better, but by doing that, you’ll remove even more paint (clear coat, to be exact). Less paint, less protection for your car’s body, destruction complete. That’s why such places are often referred to as “scratch and shines”, as a clean car of course shines more than a dirty one. But getting your car clean is not what we are after in car care. We want to get cars clean as gentle as possible!
Yes, wrong hand wash techniques and tools can absolutely be worse than a properly maintained, excellently equipped automated car wash. But the latter ones are hard to find and the basics of car care and hand washing are much, much easier to learn than finding such a place.
As you see, questions in car care can hardly ever be answered with a simple yes or no, the answer almost always is “it depends”. Automated car washes are not generally destroying your car’s paint, but they absolutely can.