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Give your car an eco-friendly wash

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Giving your car an eco-friendly wash can conserve water and prevent a potpourri of pollutants—coming from both your car and the detergent you choose to wash with—from entering local waterways.

How to give your car an eco-friendly wash

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, many of us are borderline obsessive when it comes to our automobiles. It can come down to fretting over optimum mileage or installing rubberneck-worthy rims, but for a large percentage of the car-crazed populace it’s all about exterior glow and shine. Since some of us won’t let others—be it man or machine—lay a finger on our six-cylinder babies, home car washing is a popular—yet highly polluting and water-wasting—national pastime.

There are, ways, however, to bestow your car with that desired sparkle while decreasing environmental repercussions…

  • Avoid toxic chems. Even if they promise luxurious suds and a remarkable shine, eschew car wash chemicals containing silicon, kerosene, mineral spirits, and petroleum-distillates—all environmentally damaging carcinogens. Also, avoid soaps with phosphates; when phosphates enter water supplies oxygen levels drop due to excessive algae growth and, in turn, aquatic life can perish. Luckily, there are alternatives—both homemade and mass-produced—for at-home car washers aware of the danger attached to the time-honored pursuit of automotive cleanliness.
  • Car washing double-duty. The neighbors might gawk, but driving your car up onto your lawn for a washing—instead of in the driveway or on the street—will filter wastewater, prevent it from directly entering storm drains, and water your lawn in the process.
  • Keep your hands off that hose. Practicing hose avoidance while bathing your beauty will conserve up to 100 gallons of water.[1] Allow yourself a single bucket refilled for washing and rinsing, or, if the hose is just too hard to resist, install an automatic shut-off valve.
  • Just say no to paper towels. Avoid washing and drying your car with a roll (or six pack) of paper towels, a financial and environmental blunder. Instead, use old undershirts, terry towels, and other unneeded cotton textiles. Feel like spending a few bucks? Microfiber towels meant for automotive use are extremely absorbent and can be used repeatedly.

But wait… Although treating your car to an old fashioned yet eco-forward car wash at home can certainly be done—as proven above and described further below—there are even greener options: visiting a commercial car wash and waiting for a big, cleansing rainfall.

Precautionary note for fundraising car washers: Holding a summertime car wash fundraiser is a wet and wild way (bikinis or not) to raise money and transform dingy neighborhood cars into the flashiest fleet in town. Unfortunately, if you aren’t disposing of wastewater properly you could be breaking the law. Organizations such as the Puget Sound Car Wash Association and Clean Water New Jersey allow fundraisers to sell tickets that can be validated at local professional car washes—they use less, treat, and often recycle water. Although it may take the foamy fun out of holding a car wash event, this is an eco-effective way to raise money without polluting waterways and wasting water.

How to wash your car using a homemade natural car wash

If you're loath to spend a lot of money of premade products for car cleaning, try making your own!

You will need

  1. Two large plastic buckets
  2. Two to three cellulose sponges and/or several microfiber towels
  3. Pure castile soap
  4. Spray bottle with 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and water
  5. Interior polish or mixture of 1/4 cup white vinegar and 1 tsp. jojoba oil
  6. (Optional) All-purpose car wax
  7. Washing soda and salt
  8. Shop-vac or hand-held vacuum for interiors

Start outside

  • Clean in the shade or in the evening while it is cooler, so the water doesn't dry too fast, creating spots on the car.
  • First rinse the car to get as much grit and dirt off as possible before scrubbing. This is a good idea to avoid scratching the paint, even if you are going waterless for the rest of the wash.
  • Prepare two buckets: one with hot soapy water using a couple squirts of pure castile soap and a second bucket of clean rinse water. Use two sponges or microfiber towels, one for each bucket. Wash and rinse in small sections. Change out water as needed.
  • Dry quickly with a clean, soft rag.

Clean the interior

  • Use a shop-vac or small hand-held vacuum on carpeting and fabric upholstery. To absorb odors, tuck an open box or two of baking soda under seats when finished.
  • For tough grime in mats, lay them out on the sidewalk and saturate with a mixture of one cup each of washing soda, water, and salt to form a paste. Let sit then scrub with plenty of water and an old hairbrush or scrub brush. Be sure to let them dry completely afterward.
  • Use the same 50/50 mixture of vinegar and water to clean vinyl, plastic, wood, chrome, and leather interior detailing. Squirt on a microfiber cloth and wipe with gentle circular motions. Note: take care to avoid waxed surfaces, vinegar will begin to strip any wax previously applied. In this case hot water works well to clean.
  • Prepare a second application of vinegar and jojoba oil to condition wood, vinyl, and leather. (Shake well during use.) Apply in long strokes and alternately buff to a shine with a clean rag. Always test on an inconspicuous spot first.

Finish with the wheels, mirrors, headlights, and windows

  • Make a 50/50 paste of washing soda and salt, using enough water to mix it to the consistency of frosting. Cover rims and tires with paste and let sit about 10 minutes before scrubbing and rinsing. This handles grease and rust. Use a separate sponge or towel for this job, as it will get grimy and should never be used on painted surfaces.
  • Use a vinegar and water mix to shine chrome. Note: vinegar can tarnish some aluminum alloys; avoid using it if you are not certain.
  • Clean glass and mirrors last with a spray-bottle of full-strength white vinegar and a supply of newsprint. Simply squirt and wipe, or let sit a few seconds to break up dirt or cut greasy fingerprints.
  • Fill your windshield-washing fluid reservoir with a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water, this cleans the windshield, as well as prevents frost.

Find it! Natural Car Washes

If you don't have white vinegar and castile soap on hand to make your own earth-safe car wash solution, check out the biodegradable and waterless products we've found as sudsy, green alternatives to traditional automotive soaps and detergents.

Giving your car an eco-friendly wash helps you go green because…

  • It decreases the amount of water used.
  • It reduces the amount of earth-unfriendly chemicals and other matter—from both a car itself and from cleaning agents—that end up in storm drains, and later, lakes, rivers, and other waterways.

Around 44.5 percent of Americans prefer to wash their cars at home in their driveways or curbside instead of at a commercial car wash.[2] An estimated 25 percent of these Americans fall under the category of “chronic car washer” (washing their cars at least once a month). When preventative measures aren’t taken, home car washing is water-intensive. It’s estimated that between 80 and 140 gallons of water are required to wash one's car at home.[3]

In all, there are 27 million residential car washers who have the potential to contribute polluted runoff to storm drain systems.[4] Once in storm drain systems, toxic wastewater can enter local lakes, streams, rivers, and oceans where it becomes a threat to aquatic life. The contaminants found in residential car wash wastewater are twofold. First, there are the residual chemicals and matter—more severe than run-of-the-mill dirt and dust—that are freed from a car’s exterior when washed. These substances can include oils, greases, rust, trace amounts of benzene, and residues from brake pads and exhaust fumes.

Secondly, the wastewater can include chemical residues originating from the cleaning agents themselves (soaps, degreasers, sprays, wipes, etc.) used to wash a vehicle, including dyes, acids, and ammonia. It's been speculated that oil originating from residential driveways and roadways is more prevalent in North America's lakes and rivers than oil coming from large-scale spills and accidents.[2]


  • benzene: A flammable solvent used to make many household products, including detergents, nylon, paint, furniture wax, lacquer, resins, and oil (although its use in many other household products was banned in 1978). It is poisonous when ingested.

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