Is It Worse For Your Car To Leave It Salty Or Wash It In Freezing Temperatures?

Image: Bradley Brownell
Image: Bradley Brownell

Mid-January in America’s rust belt always looks pretty much the same: The sky is grey with clouds, the roads are grey with a disgusting slurry of slushy goop, and our cars turn grey with a light coat of salt. If you don’t want to doom your car to a premature visit to the junkyard in the sky, you can’t let salt sit for too long. But you’re also not supposed to wash your car when it’s below freezing. Last week, it was two degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, and I just couldn’t take it anymore, I had to wash my car. Was that the right choice?

The Harm Of Rust

It doesn’t take much looking around to see the long-term ills of driving on salty roads, like the early-2000s Buick LeSabre with rot holes through the door bottoms or the ‘90s Ram 1500 bed sides hanging on by hope alone. Anyone with a good head on their shoulders knows that the best method of keeping a car in decent shape on rust-inducing roads is to wash it frequently. Most experts say you need a wash every 10 days or so to keep your car fresh and semi-salt-free.


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Salt slowly eats away at your car, to the point that you’re potentially one corroded brake line away from an involuntary manslaughter charge. So you’re better off taking the time and effort to effectively wash the salt off of your car whenever possible. Even if salt is a bit more dormant in colder temperatures, it’s still better to get it gone than to leave it sitting around. If you prefer to treat your car as if you’ve taken the Hippocratic oath with it — First, do no harm — what’s the best path forward?

If you’re looking at a thermometer reading something below 10, don’t fret too much. Y0u can still wash your car, just remember to bring a towel and some silicone lubricant, and you’ll be right as rain. Allow me to explain.

The biggest issue with washing your car when it is cold is the risk of freezing, which can potentially cause damage to your door seals, freeze your fuel door shut, and make your rear view mirrors difficult to see out of. There are a few things you can do to prevent damage from a cold wash, and if you follow these, it’s a totally harmless practice.

Personally, I prefer to look for a do-it-yourself car wash, but just remember to bundle up. If I need to wash my car every ten days in the winter, I don’t want to pay the exorbitant drive-through wash prices. Instead of $12 to get a half-assed rinse at the gas station, I’ll drop two dollars in quarters into the machine and get to blast the salt off myself! Over the course of a month, I’ve saved $30. This also gives you the opportunity to spray underneath the car to try to keep your brake and fuel lines corrosion free.

Once you’ve spent your five minutes of high-pressure detergent and water, take a few extra minutes in the wash bay to get everything right before driving off. Use the towel you brought to dry off your exterior mirrors, and brush out your door jambs and fuel door. That way they don’t decide to freeze shut on you or prevent your rear vision from being crystal clear. In fact, just as a precaution, maybe fill up your tank before getting the car washed so you have plenty of miles to go without worrying about it.

After all of that is dry, spray some of that silicone lubricant onto the towel and rub it in to the door seals. This will help keep the rubber seals from drying out, and has an added benefit of being hydrophobic. Your seals won’t get stiff, and they won’t freeze the door shut. Bonus!

If you’re going to be parking outside and you’re particularly worried about frozen doors, it’s best to get your car wash in at the start of your errand run. That way the heat from your car will keep any excess water a liquid and there’s plenty of opportunity for it to fall out. If you park in a warm garage, save the wash for the end of your journey, as it’ll be cleaner for longer.

Which Is Worse?

There isn’t really much long-term damage done to your car when you wash it in the cold. If you’re properly caring for your car and giving it a quick wipe down after a cold-weather wash, the doors won’t freeze shut, and you won’t have any visibility issues.

Rust is the enemy here, folks. We shall not be content with a defensive war. We have our duty to our car. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in the car wash, we shall fight on the highways and byways, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the parking lots, we shall defend our car, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this vehicle or a large part of it were rusting and rotten, then our bodyshop beyond the borders of our town, armed and guarded by welder and patch panels, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the winter beater, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

What’s The Best Method To Protect My Car?

Washing your car regularly in the winter is a good step toward keeping it from succumbing to rot. But there is more you can do to help your car get through the winter.

This is probably pretty hypocritical of me to say, because I absolutely loathe cleaning my cars. Be that as it may, the best method to keep your car nice is to give it an in-depth clean twice per year, once before winter begins, and once after winter has ended.

The pre-winter rundown should include a deep clean of the paint and a protective layer of wax, as well as an underbody scrub. You can spray on a thick layer of rust-proofing oil in October or whatever, and it’ll help keep your suspension components and fluid lines free of corrosion. This is a good opportunity to put in some winter floor mats, as well, because a lot of floor pan rot comes from the salt you track into your car in the soles of your shoes.

A good post-winter deep-clean will help get all of the remaining salt brine out of your car. This is another opportunity to scrub the underside of your car to help prevent rust holes.

Getting your car ceramic coated isn’t a bad idea, either. It’s not a foolproof way to prevent rust, but it certainly helps. Chips in your car’s paint can be breeding grounds for rust and blossom into full-on rot. It’s definitely an expensive step, though, so you should figure this out for yourself.

So there you have it. If you absolutely must wash your car in sub-freezing temperatures, you’re probably okay to do so; it just requires a few extra steps. If you have an opportunity to wait until the weather clears up, you can do that, too.

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