Take care of your vehicle, and your vehicle will take care of you. It’s a phrase you’ve likely heard to the point you roll your eyes at it, but it remains solid advice. Keeping your car’s exterior spick and span is very much a part—making your ride look good and in some cases making it more efficient. However, if you don’t have readily accessible water for something like this, whether due to your region’s climate or your home lacking a spigot for a hose, a proper car wash can be difficult.
Thankfully, waterless car wash isn’t an oxymoron. Though they’re not a full replacement for a thorough washing, there are specialized sprays, waxes, and towels that make keeping your rig clean possible.
What Is Waterless Car Wash?
As per the name, waterless car wash products rid the vehicle’s paint of light detritus without the power of water. Compared to a hose—or a pressure washer, if you’re lucky enough to have one—waterless wash emulsifies dirt, dust, and other contaminants, making them easy to wipe away with a microfiber towel. And these sprays are highly lubricating to ensure the dirt and other crud doesn’t scratch your paint on the way off.
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This 3-in-1 waterless wash from Turtle Wax proved the most effective throughout testing. Along with clearing the paint, it serves as a spray wax and hydrophobic coating, adding extra shine while allowing water to bead up and roll off. This beading decreases the amount of dirt that sticks to you car, making it much easier to clean the next time you give it a proper wash. While the Turtle Wax is fairly pricey at around $17 a bottle, Adam’s Polishes makes a $10 waterless wash that proved a great alternative without any waxing or coating ability.
Depending on your priorities or situation, the biggest advantage of waterless car wash is just that: not having to use any water, potentially saving money and resources. But the products are also tremendously easy to use. Specifically, they’re massive time savers. Giving my Volkswagen GTI its bi-weekly wash generally takes me about two hours—yes, I’m quite OCD when it comes to spiffing up my car.
However, a quick spray and wipe down only took me roughly 10 minutes. And all the while, I didn’t have to use any water. I found the best results by spraying down one panel at a time, letting the product sit for roughly 30 seconds, and then wiping it away in straight lines. After wiping down the whole car, I checked for any spots I may have missed—these show up still looking wet—with a clean towel. And that’s it.
Another advantage is affordability. All you need to achieve great results with waterless car wash is the product itself and a microfiber towel—we found the Adam’s Polishes drying towel to work best. Meanwhile, even the most basic car wash setup requires accessories like buckets, wash mitts, brushes, and drying towels—that’s before buying more advanced items like power washers and polishers.
Unfortunately, waterless car wash isn’t a true substitute for a full traditional exterior cleaning. It won’t be able to clear your car of caked-on mud. In our testing, we weren’t able to remove anything more than light dust or dirt accumulated on the paint. So if you regularly go off-roading or live somewhere that sees frequent precipitation, it may not be as of much use to you. It’s also no replacement for a spring car wash to scrub away winter’s accumulated snow and salt.
Also, if you’re not careful, misapplying waterless car wash poses a chance of embedding dirt into your paint. Many of these types of products (particularly cheaper versions) include fillers that merely cover up grime to make your car “look” clean when it really isn’t. These caked-on layers of dirt aren’t permanent but are a pain to remove—much better to just do things properly. A quick look at the Material Safety Data Sheet (essentially a recipe) for these products revealed that most of the more expensive variants don’t include any fillers.
In the end, I see myself using these spray-on products as more of a stop-gap between my bi-weekly washes. Waterless car washes work as advertised on vehicles with only a light dusting on the paint. Any more than that and they didn’t cut it.
Think of these then as a great way to maintain that concourse-level shine without needing to break out the hose and a wash bucket. But if your vehicle is heavily soiled, you will have to fire up the heavy artillery.
Matt Crisara is a native Austinite who has an unbridled passion for cars and motorsports, both foreign and domestic, and as the Autos Editor for Popular Mechanics, he writes the majority of automotive coverage across digital and print. He was previously a contributing writer for Motor1 following internships at Circuit Of The Americas F1 Track and Speed City, an Austin radio broadcaster focused on the world of motor racing. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he raced mountain bikes with the University Club Team. When he isn’t working, he enjoys sim-racing, FPV drones, and the great outdoors.