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Will an Unwashed Car Really Destroy Your Paint Job?

Fact-checking your dad’s favorite automobile-care advice

If the modern automobile had a status on Facebook, it would undoubtedly be “It’s complicated.” With their computer-controlled fuel injection systems, continuously variable transmissions and three-phase four-pole AC induction motors, the days when every Tom, Dick and Harry could wrench on their ride seem long gone. So let us help — especially with the seemingly mundane stuff that if not done properly, your dad and/or his favorite mechanic vowed would ruin your car forever. Because when it comes to cars — and this column — no question is too dumb.

I despise having to wash my car. Every time I do, I feel like Sisyphus, rolling my car up the mountain to get clean (at $25 a pop), only to have it roll back down again into the dirt a few days later. So honestly, who am I hurting by going a couple of months without a wash?
Well, duh, yourself. More specifically, your wallet, because not washing your car on the reg for $25 a pop might be hurting your car’s resale value (or cost you when it’s time to turn your lease in) to the tune of an amount more than you would have spent had you just gotten it washed in the first place. And that doesn’t even take into account the perception, particularly among friends, family, coworkers — and perhaps most importantly, potential sexual partners — that you’re a slob.

Let’s tackle the wallet issue first.

When you wash your car, you’re doing more than simply making a dirty car appear clean — you’re protecting it from that which would harm its luscious paint job. That’s because, when the manufacturer gussies up your car, they’re not just slapping a coat of paint on it and calling it a day. They also apply an invisible top coat, the purpose of which is to prevent damage to your color coat, create an additional layer of vibrancy and protect your paint from harmful UV damage that can fade the color. How serious is this added bit of protection? Just look how serious William H. Macy’s character is about it in Fargo:

He’s not wrong — that clear coat, if you don’t get it, you get oxidation problems that’ll cost you a heck of a lot more than $500. You see, the dirt and grime that sticks to your car during normal driving conditions (don’t even get me started on extreme conditions, like in the frozen tundra of Fargo, North Dakota) is abrasive, and abrasions are the sworn enemy of your car’s clear coat. Tree sap, bee poop, bird shit, it doesn’t matter — unless properly taken care of, like, by getting your car washed and/or detailed regularly, all that gritty material is corroding the one thing protecting your paint from the perils of the outside world. And if you let it go too long, you run the risk of serious damage, like the aforementioned oxidation problems, i.e., rust, that occur after your car’s metal body has become exposed.

So when you decide, “Oh, I’m not going to wash my whip this week, it’s only half dirty,” what you’re really deciding is that the time and cost benefit of not spending $25 to get your car washed is worth the risk to its paint and soft metal underbelly. And that’s a huge risk. Because according to Angie’s List, the average paint job repair can run you $566, and rust damage can cost hundreds of dollars on top of that.

Sure, if you want to skip a few weeks here or there, or you park in a covered garage away from the elements, fine, that probably won’t do your car much harm. But if you’re going to go months, or God forbid, years, without sniffing some Turtle Wax and a shammy, you’re playing with fire.

Oh, and back to the “slob” aspect: Dude — you’re never going to get laid driving a nasty-ass car.