How To Wash Your Car Without Nasty Chemicals Or Wasting Water

5 tips to wash your car without harming the planet.

June 27, 2017
woman washing her car
Daniel Grilll/getty

Between the gallons of water you use to soap up your sponges and the fresh water flowing unrestricted from your garden hose, cleaning your car at home can use up between 80 and 140 gallons.

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)


That water picks up a nasty load of everything that's been stuck to your car—gasoline, oil, heavy metal particles, tar, and particulate matter from exhaust fumes—and sends it down your driveway directly to the nearest lake or river, totally untreated, as many storm drains don't lead to a sewage treatment plant. But giving up washing in the driveway doesn't mean you'll have to just live with a dirty car, or spend a ton for a professional wash. (Thinking about giving up on driving? Read up on the life-changing benefits of ditching your car.) After all, excess dirt can scratch your car's finish, which can lead to rust problems if you live in a city that salts its the roads in winter. So here are some simple green ways to wash your car without wasting any water: 

Related: The Best Eco-Friendly Cars Of 2016

Get Off The Pavement

If you change nothing else in your car-care routine, park your vehicle on a flat, permeable surface like your lawn, gravel, or dirt, rather than on pavement. Natural microbes in grass, soil, and dirt work as natural filters, breaking down some of the nasty compounds in your wash water and preventing them from running off into the nearest storm drain.

Related: 8 Awesome Commutes To Look Forward To If You're Outdoorsy

Go To A Self-Service Wash

woman washing window of car
Hero Images/getty


For those who really relish the hands-on experience of shining up their rides, head to a self-service car wash where the runoff water is captured and sent to a treatment plant. This is often the greenest—and least expensive—option, using about 15 gallons of water. Plus, you can use your own biodegradable dish soap.

Those larger commercial drive-through systems use more water than self-service, about 35 to 50 gallons, depending on the type, but that's still much less than if you washed it at home. Just be sure to pass up the extra treatments and waxes, which are unlikely to offer eco-options, and stick with a plain-Jane wash.

Go Waterless

While buckets, oversized sponges, a long hose, and soaked clothing are part of DIY car wash tradition, you really don't need any of those things to give your car, truck, motorcycle, boat, or plane—don't laugh, I've washed more small planes than I have cars over the years—a clean, green shine. There are a number of pre-made, eco-friendly waterless car wash products available.

Buy it: Eco Touch Waterless Car Wash, from $17, 

Or you can just grab your spray bottle of home-brewed window cleaner and at least two soft, absorbent, clean rags or microfiber cleaning cloths (more if your car is really grubby). Read the directions if you're using a commercial product. But if using homemade cleaners, mist a small area with the spray-on cleaner, wipe the product and dirt off that area with the first cloth, and then buff the area with the second dry cloth. Replace the cloths as needed.


Related: 9 Things You Should Always Buy Used

Use Vinegar 

vinegar bottle
iidea studio/shutterstock

Loosen baked-on bugs first by spraying with cleaner and letting it sit for a couple of minutes before wiping, or use a nonabrasive kitchen scrubby to loosen them. You can also soak a cloth with vinegar or denatured alcohol and use it to soak and rub off dried-on bugs. Rinse with water and rewax the area, since vinegar (if left on) can strip a car's finish. (Here are 5 more things you didn't know you could clean with vinegar.)

Related: 8 Natural Cleaning Products You Can Easily Make

Raid Your Pantry

For tree sap or tar on the exterior, dab some peanut butter or solid shortening on the goo, let it sit for a minute or two, and wipe it off with a separate cloth before using your cleaner. Repeat a few times if necessary. Denatured alcohol will also remove tar and sap.

Related: The 12 Worst Chemicals in Your Home (And How To Avoid Them)

Score A Squeegee

Wash the windows inside and out, and while you're at it, wash the mirrors and the headlight and taillight glass with a sponge like this one. Follow my tips for using a squeegee to get the cleanest windows in the parking lot.

Hint: Roll the door windows down slightly and clean the top edge first, then roll them up and clean the remainder of the window. You can also apply an ecofriendly antifogging treatment like Doctor Klear to the windshield and mirrors.

Buy it: Doctor Klear Klear-To-Sea Cleaning and Polishing Liquid, from $20, 

Sprinkle On A Natural Deodorizer

Vacuum the interior using a crevice tool to get into the cracks and crannies, and freshen up your upholstery if it needs it, by sprinkling some odor-absorbing dry baking soda onto the seats, and letting it sit for 30 minutes to two hours before vacuuming it up.

Related: 10 Ways To Make A Bike Ride Even More Eco-Friendly

Wax On Organically

car wax

Make your own protectant by mixing one part fresh lemon juice (Here are 12 more things you can clean with a lemon) with two parts olive oil in a small bowl. Dab a small amount onto a soft cloth and rub it over the dashboard and other plastic and vinyl surfaces (but not the pedals, the steering wheel, or other surfaces that shouldn't be slippery).

Use a retired toothbrush to work the solution into cracks and remove trapped dust and gunk. Buff with a second dry, clean cloth; the mixture will leave a soft shine and a pleasant smell. Discard any unused mixture, or store it in a clearly marked container in the fridge.

DIY Car Wax

Most new cars have highly resistant shiny protective finishes, but if you feel the need to shine, or if you used vinegar to get bugs or other gunk off the body, you can revive the shine using a batch of your own green car wax.

1 cup linseed oil
4 tablespoons pure carnauba wax (sold in auto parts stores and online)
2 tablespoons beeswax
½ cup apple cider vinegar

1. Place ingredients in an old double boiler or in a tin can set in a saucepan of hot water. Heat over low heat, stirring frequently, until the waxes melt and disappear. Pour into a shallow container with a lid and allow to cool.

2. Wax your car in the shade so the metal stays reasonably cool, and work on a small section at a time. Apply a small dab to a clean surface with a soft cloth, rubbing in a circular motion; then buff with a clean cloth.