Though it can be tempting to put off, cleaning your car has many benefits. It helps protect your car from contaminants like dust, pollen, tree sap and salt, which can deteriorate your vehicle’s paint and get into your car’s ventilation systems. When your car’s paint starts to deteriorate, surface rust will develop which can turn into a big problem, not to mention look bad. Letting rust form on your vehicle compromises its structural integrity, quickly making your car unsafe to drive.
Having a clean and tidy car has also proven to have a positive effect on your mental health. We naturally like to keep things organized but sometimes juggling work and family can get in the way. You may be inclined to put cleaning your car on the bottom of your priority list, but it will actually help you accomplish those everyday tasks more efficiently and happily.
Using eco-friendly products when cleaning your car is important to not harming the environment. The EPA names phosphorous, nitrogen, ammonia and chemicals known as “Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)” as the worst environmental hazards in household cleaners. VOCs and many of the aforementioned chemicals are found in some of the most popular car cleaning products.
Using eco-friendly cleaning products found around the house, as well as eco-friendly cleaning processes, not only helps save the environment, but also helps save you money. Check out our guide below to the best natural ways to make your car shine.
How to have an eco friendly car wash with natural alternatives
It’s never too early (or late) to start teaching your kids how to make sustainable decisions, especially when it comes to the little things. Even changing out your lightbulbs to more sustainably sourced LED lights can have a huge impact. Most of the cleaning products you find at the store can be easily replaced with safer, gentler, easy-to-make alternatives. Plus, more often than not, these green alternatives end up being much cheaper than their harsher counterparts.
Whether you plan on driving through the local carwash or taking the kids out with buckets and sponges on a Saturday afternoon to clean up the family van, cleaning a car might seem like a pretty simple, eco friendly lesson. It certainly can be – but only if you know what to avoid, what to use, and how to do it right.
What NOT to use in your DIY car wash
As a rule of thumb for deciding on whether or not a certain product uses “green” ingredients: read the labels! Generally, if your car wash soap or cleaner has one of these chemicals in it, they are NOT safe:
- Quarternary Ammonium Compounds, also known as “QUATS.” They’re found in most household cleaners and are labeled as “antibacterial. They are a major skin irritant, especially for younger children. A great, safe, and green alternative to QUATS is something we all carry in our pantries: vinegar.
- Phosphate, surfactants, triclosan are often labeled as “antibacterial” ingredients but are often extremely harmful to aquatic life, which may be affected if you allow the run-off from your car into the storm drain.
- Ammonia. We’ve all heard about it and it’s a truly detrimental chemical. Found most often in glass cleaners, ammonia is a lung irritant that can induce asthma and other long-lasting effects. You might want to consider using vodka or toothpaste to clean up your windows, especially if you enlist the kiddos to help.
- Perchloroethylene or “PERC”. Found carpet and upholstery cleaners, this one is especially dangerous. As a neurotoxin, PERC can affect the brain and cause painful headaches if inhaled. Three cups water, ¾ cup of a vegetable-based liquid soap, and 10 drops of peppermint essential oil will make your carpets look new, without any harmful side effects.
Even if you check the label and none of the above ingredients are mentioned, still take extra precaution. If there’s a chemical in the list you don’t recognize, look it up. Basically, the only ingredient for a good, clean scrub is lye — made up of caustic soda, sodium hydroxide, NaOH, potassium hydroxide, KOH, or NaOH/KOH. Other things to avoid in soaps and cleaners are excessive fragrances, lard, tallow, and parfum. We’ll provide you with a further list of green alternatives later on.
Car wash water conservation: How to do it right the first time
Washing your car is actually the biggest source of water waste in a family household. While most installed toilets will flush only about 3.5-7 gallons, a fifteen-minute car wash can waste 40-140 gallons! That means you’d have to take an hour and a half long shower to waste the same amount. Yikes! In addition to proven links to poor fish population and health, some experts also believe that this over-watering runoff is the cause of 50% of landscape water waste.
Here are some easy ways to save water while washing your car:
- Avoid storm drains and park your car on grass or an area where the water can filter into the ground.
- Keep the drainage away from the storm drain. Many local governments lend out pump kits at no cost. These pumps temporarily plug the storm drain and pump the dirty water to the sanitary sewer, thereby preventing the runoff from ending up in a river.
- Dispose of all your soapy water out in the sink or into the ground.
- There are also eco friendly commercial car washes like GeoWash or DetailXPerts where the wash water drains to the sanitary sewer. Some car washes recycle water instead of letting it run down the sewer drains. Saving the planet and some time? Sounds like a great idea!
Eco friendly car wash soap: Small changes you can make
Now that we’ve got the big dangerous stuff already covered, let’s get into the nitty-gritty: how to have an eco friendly car wash. If you use it to clean your car, we probably found a green, healthy, organic alternative.
What you use: antibacterial soap
What you should use: DIY biodegradable car wash
With some liquid dishwashing detergent, sustainable laundry detergent, and three gallons of water, you got yourself green, clean, dirt-fighting machine! Remember to always check that any ingredients you use for your mixture are chlorine-and-phosphate free, as well as non-petroleum based.
What you use: your average garden hose
what you should use: a hose with a shut-off valve
This minor modification will reduce possible runoff from your lawn. Another great alternative to using/wasting tons of water with a hose (leaky or not) is to simply use a bucket and sponge. A hose can waste 6 gallons every minute, but using a bucket and sponge only uses a few gallons!
What you use: a big yellow sponge
what you should use: a real sea sponge.
The process to mold sea sponges into something we humans can use is very eco friendly; there are no harmful byproducts that result and there is little waste, as any excess is ground up and recycled back into the mix. You can also go one water-saving step further: instead of throwing dirty sponges in the washing machine, microwave them. Disinfect your natural sponge by soaking them in vinegar or boiling them with water.
If you’re still concerned about any environmental effects of collecting natural sponges for commercial use, rest knowing there are other alternatives. You can use rags made from sustainable fibers like hemp and bamboo, or sponges made from corn fibers, coconut husks, coconut coir fiber, plant-based cellulose, or a combination of agave and nylon fibers.
What you use: tire cleaners
what you should use: water-based tire dressings.
Be careful though when applying these dressings. While they seem like the perfect, eco friendly option, they can dry and/or crack the surface of your tires if applied incorrectly.
What you use: Armor All
what you should use: distilled water + baby oil + vinegar + Dawn soap or Melaleuca oil
We found a great DIY Armor All wipes recipe here that is very environmentally friendly and ended up costing only $0.02 to make.
What you use: harsh, light-cleaner chemicals
what you should use: soap, baking soda, and vinegar
Having a murky headlight can diffuse the light from the perspective of the driver, which reduces forward visibility. Conversely, these headlights could project higher light levels toward oncoming vehicles, which then blind an oncoming driver. You can also use toothpaste, water, and a toothbrush to bustle away that grime.
What you use: Windex to clean your windshield
what you should use: lemon juice, white vinegar, and water (or Coca Cola!)
Yes, you read that right. Coca Cola can make your windows shine like new! You can also reduce your waste, eliminate toxins from your home, and save mucho moola each year by making your own window cleaner solution. That being said, always keep an eye out for DIY recipes that are actually really harmful for the environment — if they use ammonia or dish soap, don’t use them!
Here are some more natural, DIY replacements for the car wash harsh chemicals
- What you use: car wax and sealants; what you should use: coconut oil + carnauba wax + beeswax + white vinegar + essential oils (optional)
- What you use: Clorox wet wipes or bleach; what you should use: hydrogen peroxide + lemon juice + baking soda + vinegar + citric acid + lemon essential oil (optional)
- What you use: RainX to clean up your windshield wipers; what you should use: warm soapy water + rubbing alcohol
- What you use: fake citrus air freshener packets; what you should use: baking soda + some dried herbs (like lavender or dried roses)
- What you use: harsh leather repair chemicals; what you should use: olive oil. Use soda to remove the slick residue and dry with a towel.
- What you use: a high-powered laundry mat to clean your car’s carpet; what you should use: vinegar and water
- What you use: a heavy, dusty vacuum you have to lug around on your hip; what you should use: a light-weight bagless vacuum. When looking for the perfect, most efficient vacuum for your household, be sure it has a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. Additionally, corded vacuum cleaners have been found more energy efficient than their cordless/battery-powered cousins. Bagless vacuum cleaners are also well-known for their eco-friendliness. Plus, when scraping dirt off the car, be sure to use that vacuum so the dust doesn’t settle somewhere else.
- What you use: a high-powered water spray to get bugs out of the grill of your car; what you should use: a warm, wet dryer sheet, disposed in an eco friendly way
- What you use: your trash bin and (hopefully) your recycling bin to get rid of all the receipts, plastic bags, and styrofoam cups that find their way into your car; what you should use: all of the resources available to you!
For everything that doesn’t fit inside your government-provided bins, check Earth911’s recycling database for drop-off locations to dispose of paint, batteries, pesticides and more. For electronics, many drop-off programs like Best Buy’s and the EPA’s eCycling Program are great places to recycle those out-of-date cell phones and computers.
Large items often prove most difficult to throw away. We know they probably don’t belong in the local bins, but where do they go? And as kids grow, the biggest (and most frequently reused) item in any car will be the car seat. Many organizations like Old Car Seat, New Life will repurpose old, used children’s car seats into ones that look and feel brand new. If you don’t have a local location, you can always mail in your old car seat to BabyEarthRENEW. However, if you’re in the market for a reused car seat yourself, be sure to check the following before purchasing:
- The expiration date, date of manufacture, and model number
- If the car seat has been involved in a crash
- If the seat has all of the original parts
- If any parts are cracked or damaged
How to make your car environmentally friendly — forever and always
So by this point, your car is back in your driveway, sparkling and smelling like new — without the cost of harming your kids or the local environment. However, this guide wouldn’t be complete without going one step further and helping you remain eco-friendly into the future.
Here are our final tips to keep your car clean and organized, inside and out:
- Put that glove compartment to use. Use tab folders to identify your car insurance and registration, emergency contacts, your car’s handbook, and all the maintenance receipts.
- Change your fuel filter every 30,000 miles to make sure it’s running efficiently. However, if you smell gas or see your car leaking on the road, get it checked immediately.
- Don’t idle in your car. Prevent any unnecessary fumes from escaping.
- Don’t top off at the gas station. This prevents harmful vapors from evaporating into the atmosphere.
- Have biodegradable plastic bags at the ready! Keep mini-trash bags at hand by storing them in a kleenex box and under a seat for easy access.
- Keep your tires inflated to improve gas mileage. Not only is this a great eco friendly tip, but it is also super important for safety.
- Drive smart. If you maintain a steady pace without any rapid accelerations or decelerations, you can actually lengthen the life of your car and burn less fuel.
Saving money by using natural household cleaning products isn’t the only easy way to help your wallet grow. Check out our comprehensive car insurance guide to find the best policies in your area.