Is rain a substitute for a car wash?

What looks clean isn’t always clean
by Sharleen Banzon | Jul 5, 2021
PHOTO: Shutterstock

There’s a running joke that on any given day you get your car washed—sometimes as soon as you pull out of your garage or car-wash place—it almost always rains. There goes your time, money, and effort down the drain, and you’re left asking why you even bothered.

But what if you hadn’t bothered, and the heavens open up as you’re on the road in your dirt-encrusted ride? Does this mean you just scored a free car wash?

Straight answer: No. And if you’ve been relying on thunderstorms to ‘clean’ your car, it’s time to kick the habit.

A heavy downpour will wash off dirt, leaves, and other loose bits stuck on your car. But it also leaves a number of harmful contaminants on the surface—minerals, chemicals, and other impurities drawn from the atmosphere. Left to dry, these impurities leave water spots on the surface and can cause permanent damage to the paint job.

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Rain also can’t do anything about the gunk stuck on your car’s underside and crevices—and when you drive through muddy puddles on the road, you get more muck splattered onto your ride, which means more water spots and more potential for rusting down the line.

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Seeing as there’s really nothing we can do about the weather, the best way to keep your car clean during the rainy season is to wash it properly—and not with recycled rainwater for reasons we’ve just discussed—when the weather forecast is favorable. If you have the time and space, it’s not a bad idea to just do this at home so you don’t have to take your chances with a thunderstorm on the way back from a car wash. If you already have water spots to deal with, check out our tip sheet on how to remove them.

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Then, after the car is completely dry, apply a layer of good-quality wax for extra protection against the elements. That way, any contaminants from the rain will sit on the wax layer and not the clear coat of the paint job itself. Spray-on waxes also work in a pinch if you’re in a rush or trying to stretch the time between full-on wax jobs.

Now, if you get caught in the rain with a freshly cleaned car (there’s a 97.38% chance of it happening, is our totally unscientific guesstimate), do you have to repeat the entire process? It depends on how much muck gets on the surface. If your car has been waxed, you can likely get away with a thorough rinse and a wipe-down with a clean microfiber cloth. See, it’s worth bothering with a proper wash and wax, after all.

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