Eco Friendly Car Wash Guide

Even though your vehicle has a lot of surface cleaning conundrums, there are simple and effective eco friendly ways to keep those surfaces clean and protected.

eco friendly car washing guideEasy Does It is this eco friendly car wash guides number one rule of thumb when it comes to cleaning your car, van, truck, RV, or boat:  A gentle touch goes a long way. Even though your car may be really grimy resist the urge to get out the heavy-duty detergent and surface cleaner, abrasive cleaning pads and scrubbing brushes.

Keep Your Vehicle clean with Gentle, Nontoxic Cleaning Solutions

Any cloth with even a hint of texture can damage your cars finishes and the detergents and other chemicals in those ‘heavy duty’ products could mess up your vehicles interior vinyl, leather, upholstery, and carpeting. Instead of that stuff think soft, lint free cleaning cloths and pads, and very mild soap. Tires are an exception for which you will need a soft bristle brush.

Exterior wax and polishes are products that car owners may be reluctant to experiment with on their precious vehicles, especially if the car is still under warranty. And green choices for body waxes and polishes are limited so Naturally Bubbly’s advice will be to look for the least toxic products formulated just for vehicles. Knowing how to read a label and recognize what ingredients are dangerously toxic to humans and the earth is challenging. Check out these links to find databases of product ingredients and what they mean:

Household Products Database

Consumer Product Information Database

I’m not too excited by all those chemically laced cleaning and surface protecting products in the automotive section of my local box store. Target had the usual array of brand name products, 6 different types of Armor All—sigh—and lots of synthetic microfiber cleaning cloths and pads. Microfibers can be too rough to use on your vehicle especially to wash, wax and polish the exterior paint and metal. Choose natural fibers first such as lambs wool and cotton.

eco friendly car wash guide

Car Wash Sign Series keep scrolling

I still have a bottle of the Armor All Original Shine Protectant pump spray that my boyfriend (at the time) bought me to clean the interior of my brand new (used) Volvo 1990 Station Wagon 240. I’m not sure if I’ll try it out or just throw it away. If I toss it, it can’t be in the trash. It will have to go to the chemical recycling center in my town, assuming they have one. Why even have to go through this? Stick with natural, biodegradable products!

Anyway, back to personal vehicles. I just traded in that old Volvo for a new Honda Fit! Goodbye funky old workhorse Volvo; hello to brand new paint finish, new upholstery, new vinyl, new rubber, new glass! New everything. (And pretty decent gas mileage for a non-hybrid.) How can I keep it clean when I use the car for my green home cleaning and gardening services?

I admit that I was tempted to buy a bottle of some Armor All wipes (how convenient!) but thought better of it. What about making my own green car washing products? Naturally Bubbly mixes her own cleaning solutions for kitchen, bath, bedroom, and beyond—why not for her brand new car? And, as is the case with green housecleaning, green car cleaning, or any vehicle—van, truck, boat, RV—requires only a small green cleaning kit.

Even though your vehicle has almost as many surface cleaning conundrums as your house, there are simple and effective eco friendly ways to keep those surfaces clean and protected from the environment!

So what about those commercial car care products. Although Armor All (I keep mentioning this brand because it is probably the most well known and it’s the only one I’ve ever used) products do claim to guard against UV damage with some stuff (maybe it’s safe, who knows?) called “ultraviolet light inhibitors,” (which sounds on-the-surface like a great feature of the product) Armor All Protectant Original Shine formula contains many un-specified toxic chemicals referred to at the faq page as “water-based silicon emulsions”, “surfactants”, “humectants”, “dispersants”, and “gloss enhancers.” And many, many more . . .

When you can’t decipher the ingredients list (and by the way these unsafe ingredients aren’t required by law to be listed on the bottle—you have to research it to find out) that’s a signal for you as a practitioner of green cleaning and green living to avoid that undecipherable chemical cleaning product like the plague. Run straight into the arms of your old friends distilled white vinegar and baking soda!

Car Cleaning Supplies – Eco Friendly Car Wash

Gather together these Green Car Cleaning Supplies

  • Vinegar (made from grain, not petroleum)
  • Mild liquid soap (Castile soap)
  • Baking soda
  • Lambs wool (real not synthetic) or 100 percent cotton washing pads or mitts
  • Cotton lint-free polishing cloths (‘barkeepers towels’ found in grocery stores are perfect. So are washable all cotton baby diapers)

And possibly these:

Enzyme cleaner for pet stains

Plastic tablecloths and beach towels to protect car seat upholstery from kids and pets (more good advice from the Complete Idiot’s Guide).

green car wash guide


Green Car Washing – The Exterior

Washing the car usually means getting out the hose, bucket, and assortment of cloth’s, pads, and sponges. And then there is the image of the hose just running . . . as the car is washed. What you need is a hose nozzle that has a setting for a stream not a spray of water. A spray can damage the surface! And a toggle switch so you can shut off the water while you do the washing.

Unless your vehicle is really dirty or salty, you don’t need a lot of product to get it clean. Just water with a little vinegar to prevent water spots, and just a little mild soap will do the trick. Vinegar, also called acetic acid is safe to use mixed with plenty of water so don’t worry about using it on your car’s finishes. Vinegar is Naturally Bubbly’s biodegradable cleaning ingredient of choice, mixed with water, for cleaning and polishing practically every non-porous surface known to man! Vinegar neutralizes the minerals in alkaline, or hard water, thus preventing water spots! That’s why we use it in the dishwasher too!

Basic Car Wash Solution

1/3 cup of distilled white vinegar – 1 gallon of water. Period. Add a couple of tablespoons of mild soap or detergent if your vehicle is really dirty.

Important – Don’t use any cleaning product that contains a degreasing agent even if it is natural or eco friendly, like citrus orange cleaners. Soap alone is enough. The degreasing chemicals will break down the clear and gel coat finish of your car. Over time this break down of protection will allow the paint to then oxidize. You don’t want that.

  1. Wash one area at a time, no more than you can get rinsed off before the soap dries. Use your Basic Car Wash Solution to clean all of your car’s exterior surfaces be they paint, chrome, vinyl, plastic, glass, or rubber! Use a soft bristle brush on your tires if need be. Try not to waste water while doing this by leaving the water running as you wash.
  2. When you are done cleaning, dry and polish the vehicle with your lint free polishing cloths. Car polishing is a really important step if you want your car to shine!

TIPS to remember when cleaning your car exterior

  • Never wipe down your car with a dry cloth. You will scratch and damage the surface. Even these so-called dry car wash products can pick up that road sand on your car that it cannot dissolve, thus causing scratching and damage.
  • Clean squashed bugs off the car as soon as you can. The little decaying carcasses will become acidic and eat through your finish. If the bugs are dry and really stuck on make a paste of baking soda and water and scrub gently.
  • Rubber tires need to be scrubbed 4 times a year just to remove the oxidation that naturally takes place as rubber ages. Needless to say, we don’t really need to mention this right? Not to use tire treatments to shine up your tires. Most of these products contain petroleum distillates that will actually eat away at the rubber and cause a blow out. One that wouldn’t be covered by your warranty . . . And, needless to say, petroleum distillates are dangerously toxic.

Cleaning Car Windows

Wash the windows as you are washing the whole exterior of the car. Unless they are particularly grubby. Wait until after you have finished washing and drying the entire vehicle. Then attack the car windows with some stronger glass cleaning solution, such as the recipe here

That is basically a little bit stronger vinegar to water ratio with some liquid detergent added. Don’t use this solution on anything but the glass windows.

Tree sap and honey dew can be sticky and smear when you try to wash the windows normally. Kerosene is the best way to remove these sticky messes from your car’s glass. Don’t let that kerosene near your paint, chrome, vinyl, rubber or plastic surfaces. Alternatively you could try straight vinegar to remove sappy stuff, just be very careful not to drip on same surfaces. Kerosene will be fast; vinegar will take more rubbing effort.

eco friendly car washing

Commercial Car Wash?

Ellen Sandbeck in her book Green Housekeeping brings up an interesting point when she says,

“The environmentally savvy way to wash a car is to take it to a commercial car wash: The businesses are required to install filter systems that catch dirt and pollutants, and must use environmentally friendly soaps, detergents, and waxes. The water pressure is high a car washes, so less water is used per vehicle. The runoff from the home-washed is much more likely to pollute groundwater.

If you must wash your car at home, park it on the lawn so the grass can absorb the dirty water and prevent it from running directly onto the street, into the storm sewer, or into surface water . . . When you are done washing the car, pour the soapy water down the toilet, not down a storm sewer or on the street. “ p. 347 Green Housekeeping

Thanks for that Ellen Sandbeck.

Interior Green Car Cleaning

Vinyl interiors can be regularly wiped down with just water and a lint free microfiber cloth. I use a microfiber buffing pad with water and that works great on the slightly textured vinyl dash. For vinyl upholstery try a homemade recipe just for fun! There’s one below that could be an alternative to Armor All. I’m going to try it out soon.

Leather interiors are a lot healthier for you than vinyl car interiors because vinyl outgases V.O.C’s for 2 years or so, and is not bio-degradable, so not good for the earth. Obviously leather can be a lot more expensive . . . but it is a “durable, water-repellent, and low maintenance” (Sandbeck) so maybe worth the investment. To clean and condition leather Ellen suggests using liquid saddle soap never solvents or alcohol. Glycerin based saddle soap will condition the leather while it cleans it. Leather can’t dry out or it will crack.

Complete Idiot’s Guide suggests that for a new vehicle that has vinyl interior one should keep a window cracked for two years to allow the toxic gasses to escape. This could be difficult if you want your alarm system to function though. . .

Glass inside the car can get coated with vapors from the out gassing, according to many green-cleaning sources I have researched. Cleaning the inside glass is important for visibility and cleanliness. Use straight club soda from a spray bottle to clean the inside glass.

Cleaning Car Upholstery and Carpeting

Vacuum the carpeted areas of your vehicle regularly, before the dirt can get ground in. Don’t let dirt, grit, sand and dirty water have a chance to settle into your carpeting or upholstery I just invested in a little Dirt Devil battery powered vac to keep my interior carpet and cloth upholstery clean.

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Julia has been practicing green cleaning for several years as the owner of As You Like It Home Cleaning and organic gardening for almost 20 years running Julia Houriet Custom Gardening. She studied landscape design at Radcliffe Seminars in Cambridge Massachusetts. Her expertise is gleaned from education and years of experience.

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