What is a Waterless Car Wash & How Do You Do It?

A waterless car wash is a spray-on product that enables you to clean your car pretty much anywhere without the need for a traditional water hose and bucket.  A quality waterless car wash like 3D Waterless Car Wash is formulated to break down, loosen, and emulsify surface dirt, road grime, traffic film and other contaminants while also lubricating the surface to prevent swirls and scratches during wipe-off.  The key to getting great results with a waterless car wash is using lots of clean, dry microfiber towels.

What’s the difference between a waterless car wash, a spray detailer and a spray wax?

Great questions as there’s some confusion over what each of these products are formulated to do and when to use one over the other.  Let me remove the confusion below.

Waterless Car Wash

The primary function of a waterless car wash is to safely clean a dirty car when no other option for cleaning is available.  A quality waterless car wash is formulated to both clean and lubricate the paint finish at the same time.  The primary emphasis for a waterless car wash is to clean, not add shine and protection however some waterless car washes do also add shine and protection.

Spray Detailer 

The primary function of a spray detailer is to remove light dust, fingerprints and smudges while giving your car that just detailed look by adding a little gloss and shine.  Spray detailers do not offer as much cleaning power as a waterless car wash, which offers more cleaning ability for dirty, oily and grimy surfaces.

Spray Wax

The primary function of a spray wax is to seal the paint to protect it while maximizing gloss and shine.  Spray waxes are not formulated to clean dirty cars but instead or formulated to be used on cars that are already clean.  For example, it would be correct detailing procedure to use a spray wax AFTER using either a waterless car wash or after a spray detailer.

The key to successfully using a waterless car wash → lots of microfiber towels

Besides a quality waterless car wash, one that is formulated by a real chemist that understands all the different aspects of cleaning scratch-sensitive clearcoats paints is to also have plenty of clean microfiber towels on hand to do the job right.

My own personal technique is to use one towel per panel.  The reason why to use 1 towel per panel is to avoid cross-contamination when cleaning the car.  The idea being to never rub dirt removed from one section of a panel onto a different section of a panel by re-folding the current towel to expose a fresh, clean side and/or switching to a fresh towel often.   In order to do this you need a lot of towels.  For example, a 2-door passenger car has 9 panels, 

  1. Roof
  2. Hood
  3. Trunk Lid
  4. Driver’s front fender
  5. Driver’s door
  6. Driver’s side rear fender
  7. Passenger side front fender
  8. Passenger side door
  9. Passenger side rear fender

There’s also the front of a car which includes the grill, headlights, turn signals,vertical areas of painted body panels around the grill and headlights, etc and the back of the car which includes the rear bumper, tail lights and miscellaneous vertical areas of painted body panels. 

If you figure 9 towels for the major body panels and then a few extra towels for the front and back of the car, you’re looking at a minimum of a dozen towels.

If you were working on a 4-door car, a larger SUV or truck, then maybel include a few extra towels for these larger vehicles with more surface area to clean.

Supplies needed

  1. Waterless Car Wash
  2. A dozen microfiber towels 
  3. Clean 5-gallon bucket

The waterless car wash and the microfiber towels are for cleaning the car, the clean 5-gallon bucket is to have a clean place to put each towel after use.  Then after completing the task, take the bucket of dirty towels right to the washing machine and wash and dry them and then store them in a clean place for the next detailing project.  For a detailed article on how to correctly wash, dry and inspect your microfiber towels, see this article.

Towel Wiping Techniques

There are two different techniques that work well for cleaning a car using a waterless car wash.

1: The Maintenance Wash Technique

A maintenance wash is where you’re cleaning a car that you have already detailed and/or is in like new condition.  You are MAINTAINING the car or more specifically, the finish on the car.

This type of car is regularly maintained and has a good coat of wax, synthetic paint sealant or ceramic coating on the finish and is already in good to excellent condition.  With this style of waterless car wash you’re being extra careful and using plenty of towels because you don’t want to put any new swirls and scratches into the finish.

One wipe per side of folded towel

With a Maintenance waterless car wash, you fold your towel 4-ways.  This gives you 8-sides to wipe with.  The big picture idea is to only use a clean, fresh side of the folded towel to make one wipe on a panel and then stop using this side.  Refold and continue to refold until you have used all 8 sides to clean a panel or a portion of a larger panel only making one wipe with each side.

Step 1: Spray a single body panel with waterless car wash.

Use enough waterless car wash to cover the entire panel.  Because you’re not flooding the panel or the entire car with lots of water from a water hose, which provides lots of lubrication,  you make up for this by using lots of waterless car wash on each panel to ensure there’s plenty of product, which provides lubrication.

Step 2: Start in the middle of a panel and make a single wipe.

This side of the towel is now used and do not use it again as you will wipe any dirt collected onto this side over the next section of paint potentially putting swirls and scratches into the paint.

Step 3: Flip to the opposite side and make another wipe next to the first wipe.

Now this side of the towel is used so do not use it again.  The goal is to avoid cross-contamination but at the same time, get as many single wipe passes as possible out of a single towel.

Step 4: Re-fold the towel to expose clean, fresh sides or sections of towel.

Open the folded towel and then re-fold to put the two used sides on the inside leaving two unused sides on the outside and make two more passes over the panel making only one pass with one side of the folded towel.

Continue using this same technique around the rest of the car.  When working on horizontal panels like the roof, hood and trunk lid, start at the inside of the panel and work your way outward.

The average size of a microfiber towel is 16” x 16” square.  If you fold this size towel 4-ways you get 8 sides to wipe with with each side 8” x 8”, which fits your hand perfectly.

Always spray down an ample amount of waterless car wash to provide plenty of lubrication and also ample cleaning agents.

When working on vertical side panels like doors and fenders, start at the top of the panel and work your way down.

Keep your dirty towels clean

When you have used all 8-sides of a towel, place this towel in the clean 5-gallon.  The goal is no matter what type of detailing job you’re doing, it’s important to prevent your microfiber towels from becoming contaminated with things like dried leaves, sticks, dead bugs, dirt, rocks, etc.  By always having a clean bucket or some other container to place your used towels, you dramatically increase your success rate for maintaining uncontaminated towels.

The number one contributor to swirls and scratches in your car’s paint are contaminated towels, wash mitts and drying towels.  These are the things that actually touch the paint and if they are contaminated, the contaminants when rubbed over the delicate clearcoat finish will scratch it.

Switch to a new, clean towel often

After using all 8-sides of a microfiber towel, place the towel in the bucket and switch to a fresh, clean and dry towel and continue cleaning the current panel or move onto a new panel.  With this extra careful style, you simply make one pass over a section of a panel and then flip or fold to an unused side.  

2: The Prep Wash Technique

A prep wash is the type of wash you do to prep a NEGLECTED car for detailing, which usually will involve claying the paint and then doing some form of paint correction steps like compounding and polishing.  When doing this style,  the focus is more on cleaning and less on being careful because you’re going to be doing paint correction after cleaning the car.

For the prep wash technique you simply lay a clean microfiber towel flat on the surface and use it like this versus folding the towel 4-ways.

Step 1: Start by spraying a single body panel with waterless car wash.

Use enough waterless car wash to cover the entire panel.  Next lay a clean microfiber towel down flat on the panel and spread the waterless car wash over the panel.  This spreading action is using the waterless car wash to loosen and emulsify any surface dirt and road grime so that it can be more easily wiped off.  

Step 2: Flip the towel over to the un-used side and re-wipe this panel.

The first was for spreading the waterless car wash evenly over the surface.  The other side is used to remove all the waterless car wash and any surface dirt it has loosened thus leaving this panel clean and dry.  After finishing this panel, place this towel in the clean 5-gallon bucket as you are now done with this towel.

Step 3:  Repeat this single towel per panel technique.

Repeat this technique until each panel has been washed and then wiped clean and dry.  The prep wash technique is faster but it’s also not as careful as the maintenance wash technique.


A waterless car wash is a great replacement for a traditional hose and bucket wash when you don’t have access to running water.  The four primary important factors are,

1: Have plenty of clean, uncontaminated microfiber towels on hand.

Professional detailers know the secret to cleaning a car without running water is to have LOTS of clean, premium quality microfiber towels ready to go.

2: Use plenty of waterless car wash

You want to use a generous amount of waterless car wash to provide plenty of cleaning agents as well as ample lubrication to cushion and lubricate the finish when wiping.

3: Use the Maintenance Wash Technique for cars in excellent condition.

Only use one side of a microfiber towel folded to create 8 different sides to wipe with and after using all 8 sides switch to a fresh microfiber towel and repeat this technique.

4: Use the Prep Wash Technique for cars in neglected condition.

This is where you lay a towel flat and use this first side to spread the waterless car wash, then flip to the other side to wipe the surface dry.

Examples of when to use a waterless car wash

  • In geographical areas of drought.
  • In countries or states where there are government restrictions.
  • If you live in a condo or apartment without access to running water.
  • When traveling cross-country.
  • After driving to display at a car show.
  • During winter months when outside temperatures are freezing.

High gloss, scratch-free results

When used with the right technique, you can clean your car anywhere in a few minutes with results that look like you spent all day detailing the car.

If you have any questions or need help, please feel free to contact me.

Mike Phillips

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