How to Dry a Car Without Causing Scratches and Swirl Marks


Every time you wash and dry your car, you need to be very careful, and use the correct tools to avoid inflicting clear coat damage in the form of swirl marks and scratches. The drying process is one of the most likely times for this kind of damage to occur, and most car owners are using the wrong equipment.

In this article, I’ll take you through exactly how you can dry your car, and keep the finish swirl and scratch free. So let’s get started.

The Quick Answer

The best way to dry a car without causing scratches is to use a soft, plush and clean microfiber towel, or a car dryer/ leaf blower. Never use a water blade (squeegee), bath towels or chamois leather to dry a car or it is likely to cause scratches.

Methods to Dry a Car Without Scratching

  • Microfiber towel
  • Car dryer
  • Leaf blower

Tools That Will Cause Scratching When Drying

  • Chamois leather
  • Bath towels
  • Water blades (squeegees)

Drying Safely is Essential

It’s vital that you dry your car after you wash it to avoid water spot damage. Water spots, as well as dulling the finish, can actually corrode the clear coat if left to bake onto the surface over time.

I’ve written a whole article on the importance of drying your car, if you’re interested and want to learn a bit more about the topic.

However, even worse than simply not drying your vehicle, is using the wrong techniques and wrong equipment. This is one of the easiest ways to cause scratches and swirl marks.

In fact there are two causes of scratches during the drying process.

  1. The actually tool you use for drying can itself cause scratches
  2. Rubbing dirt or dust left over after washing can also cause swirl marks

So how can this be avoided?

Microfiber Towels Are The Gold Standard

I always use microfiber towels to dry my car, and any other cars I detail. Why?

Well first things first, they’re very soft. This means that they won’t scratch the paintwork during the drying process. Microfiber towels are the only type of towel you should use to touch the paintwork because other types like bath towels, are just too harsh.

Your car’s clear coat is super delicate, and although it may seem a bit over the top, any kind of friction can cause minor clear coat scratches.

These scratches can only really be seen in direct sunlight, but they cause the paintwork to look duller in all types of lighting.

The only way you can get rid of them, is by cutting away a layer of the paint to expose a flat layer. So you should always be cautions when touching the paintwork during the washing and drying process, as you really need to avoid these clear coat scratches.

The second reason why microfiber is so effective, is because the fibers are very good at pulling dirt and dust back into the towel, rather than trapping it on the surface.

This means that you’re less likely to drag dust and grit along the paintwork that may have been missed when washing. The result, is a reduced risk of clear coat scratches.

These two reasons are why microfiber towels are one of the most effective methods of drying. They’re also fairly inexpensive, reusable (if properly cared for), and easy to use which are definite pluses.

Best Type of Microfiber Towel for Drying

Not all microfiber towels are created equally, and there are definitely types that work better for drying, and are safer (less likely to cause scratches) than others. A good microfiber towel will have the following properties.

  • Plush (high-pile)
  • Very soft
  • Be large

The size is kind of a personal preference, but you’ll definitely find the process is faster with a larger towel. But be careful not to use a towel that’s too large that you risk it being dragged along the floor when drying the lower panels.

Here’s a quick summary of the different types of microfiber towels.

Best microfiber for drying
Best microfiber for buffing
Best microfiber for glass

The towel on the left is suitable for drying because it’s plush, soft and fairly large. The towel on the right is called a waffle-weave microfiber towel, and the pile is far too low to be safe on the paintwork.

How to Use Microfiber for Drying

Even though microfiber towels are very suitable for drying, if you use incorrect techniques, then you still run a risk of scratching the paintwork. Here are some things to consider.

  1. Inspect the microfiber towel first to check it’s not got any dirt stuck in the fibers.
  2. Dampen the microfiber towel before using on the paintwork. Dam microfiber absorbs water far more effectively than dry microfiber.
  3. Instead of wiping the paint, simply hold the microfiber on the paint for a second or two, without moving it. This allows it to collect the water but pretty much eliminates the risk of swirl marks.
  4. Dry from top to bottom because the top half of the car is less likely to have dirt remaining after the wash process. It prevents you transferring dust to other sections of the paintwork which can cause scratches.
  5. Keep checking the towel doesn’t show any signs of dirt or dust. If it does, swap it out for a new one.

If you follow these steps, then you won’t scratch your car when using a microfiber towel.

I’ve written a full guide to using microfiber without causing scratches which will take you through common mistakes, and tips for cleaning your microfiber as well.

Use a Drying Aid

If you really want to take an extra step to make sure the drying process is safe, you can use a drying aid spray, or a quick detailer spray to help lubricate the paintwork and reduce the risk of causing swirl marks.

Spray the detailer or drying aid over the wet car, and then use the towel as described above.

Dry the Car Straight Away

It’s also really important not to let the car sit for long after washing, before you dry it. Dust collects on the vehicle very quickly, especially if you live in a hot climate.

When you use a microfiber towel on a dust car, it can drag these dust particles along the paintwork, causing swirl marks and scratches easily.

So make sure you aim to dry your car immediately after you wash it. If you have to wait for whatever reason, rinse the car down again before preceeding.

Here’s a quick summary of the pros and cons of using a microfiber towel to dry your car.

Advantages

  • Cheap option
  • Effective on all cars
  • Easy method

Disadvantages

  • Some risk of scratches if used improperly since you are touching the paint

Car Dryers Offer the Safest Option

If you want the absolute safest method of drying your car, which eliminates the risk of causing scratches and swirls almost entirely, then you can use a car dryer.

Car dryers essentially blow pressurised air onto the car, to push the water off the surface without even touching it. This completely removes the risk of causing scratches, because you won’t rub dust into the paintwork.

However, this method is only effective on cars with a very hydrophobic wax, sealant or ceramic coating. If the water doesn’t already bead or sheet off the paintwork, then the dryer won’t actually push much water off the surface.

Here are a few tips for using a car dryer effectively.

  • Start from the top and work downwards to push the water off the car.
  • Move onto the bonnet next and push the water onto the lower areas.
  • When you reach the lower sections, use a sideways motion to push water off the curves and edges of the car. A downward motion on the lower panels risks blowing air onto the ground which causes dust and dirt to fly up onto the paint.
  • Keep an eye out for sneaky water pockets. Common areas are the wing mirrors, door seals and fuel cap.
  • Don’t get too close to the paintwork, or you risk the nozzle coming into contact with it and causing scratches.

Car dryers can be pretty though as well, especially if you want a decent one. Expect to be paying upwards of $75 for a decent car dryer that won’t take forever to go around the vehicle.

Cordless dryers work best because you don’t have to worry about hitting the car with the cord, which again can cause scratches as well.

Advantages

  • Touch-less so no risk of scratches
  • Easy to use

Disadvantages

  • Expensive
  • Only works on hydrophobic coatings

Leaf Blowers Work Well Too

If you don’t want to shell out for a car dryer, and you have a leaf blower already, then this is another great option.

Again, it doesn’t involve any friction on the paintwork, so removes the risk of causing scratches and swirls. Leaf blowers, like car dryers, can simply push the water off the paint.

Again, this only works on cars that have a very hydrophobic coating on the surface. Otherwise the water won’t fly off the paint, and will just cling to it instead.

It’s worth noting that you should only use a leaf blower that has an air filter. Otherwise you may blow dust onto your freshly washed car.

Also, you should never use a gas-powered leaf blower indoors because they produce harmful emissions and the ventilation is not adequate inside a garage.

If you want to use a leaf blower to dry your car in a garage, then use an electric powered model.

I’ve written an entire guide to using a leaf blower to dry a car safely, so check it out if you’re interested in trying this method out.

Advantages

  • Free method if you already have one
  • Touch-less so no risk of scratches

Disadvantages

  • Noisy
  • Can be hard to control
  • Only works on hydrophobic coatings

“Rinse it Dry”

Okay, so this may sound like a bit of an oxymoron, but it is possible in some cases to literally “rinse a car dry”. So what does this mean.

Well, if the car has a very hydrophobic coating or sealant on the paint, then water in most cases, is sheeted off the surface.

If you spray it with a hose at high pressure, then you’ll get beading. But if you simply run a very low pressure hose over the paint, the water can just run off entirely and leave no droplets remaining.

Check out this video to see this method in action.

Keep in mind though, that only works on cars with a good coating, wax or sealant. It’s most effective on cars that have recently been protected with one of these methods.

But if your car does have a very hydrophobic coating, then you should take full advantage of it. After properly rinsing the car, follow this by rinsing it very gently with a low-pressure hose and you’ll be left with a dryer car afterwards.

Advantages

  • Touch-less method so no risk of scratches
  • Very simple and fast technique

Disadvantages

  • Only works on cars with hydrophobic coating
  • Doesn’t always remove all the water

Combine the Techniques

I’ve found that the most effective drying technique, uses a combination of these methods. Of course, each method has it’s advantages and disadvantages, so you can use them together to get the best of everything. Here’s what I do.

  1. “Rinse the car dry” using a low-pressure hose to sheet off as much water as possible.
  2. Use a leaf blower to push water out of hard to reach areas such as the wing mirrors, and to get as much remaining water off the water as possible.
  3. Use a damp microfiber towel to deal with any stray water droplets that may be remaining.

I find that this technique effectively, and most importantly, safely dries the car without risking scratches or swirl marks from occuring.

Biggest Car Drying Mistakes

Now we’ve been through some of the best methods for drying your car without damaging the clear coat, I thought it’d be a good idea to mention some of the biggest mistakes car owners make when drying their vehicles.

Here’s a quick list of tools you should never use to dry a car.

  • Water blades or “squeegees”
  • Bath towels
  • Chamois leather

There are two issues with these tools.

Firstly, they are too aggressive and not soft enough to use on the paintwork so can cause scratches when they come into contact with it.

Secondly, they drag dust and grit across the paint that may be left after washing, or have accumulated very quickly if you’re in a dust environment.

Water blades and chamois in particular, will grind this into the paint and leave it covered in swirl marks.

More Frequently Asked Questions

Don’t worry if you still have a few questions left. Check out these answers to the most common car drying related questions.

What’s the fastest way to dry a car?

Microfiber towels offer the fastest solution to drying. Usually it will take around 5 minutes to dry a car with a wax, sealant or coating on the surface, by using a microfiber towel. Cars without a hydrophobic coating, will normally take around 10 minutes to dry using a microfiber towel.

Can you drive a car to dry it?

Driving your car after you’ve washed it can help to dry it if the car has a very hydrophobic wax, sealant or coating, where the water will fly off if driven at higher speeds (usually above 50mph/ 80kpg).

However, it often will leave some water spots and streaking. So you should use a microfiber towel, leaf blower, or car dryer in most cases instead.

Can you let a car air dry after washing it?

You should never let a car air dry after washing because it will leave water spots which can cause permanent damage to your car’s paint if left on the surface for too long.

I’ve written a full article on the risks of leaving water to sit on your car after washing it, so check it out if you want to learn more.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been through quite a bit in this article, so I though it’d be a good idea to round it off with some of the take-home messages to ensure you’re drying your car safely.

  • Use either a microfiber towel, car dryer/air-filtered leaf blower to dry your car without scratching it, or use both in combination.
  • Remove as much water as possible by hosing down with light-pressure after rinsing.
  • Ensure the microfiber towel is clean before using.
  • Dampen the microfiber to pick up more water and use a drying aid to add lubrication and reduce the risk of scratches.

Check out this complete guide to washing your car without causing scratches.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Take a look around the rest of the website to learn more about making your car look its best.

Heather

I first became interested in car detailing around 3 years ago and learnt all the main techniques on my very first car. I spend a lot of time detailing my current car, and trying to keep my family's cars looking presentable too!

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