Do you have an old tin of car wax, or a bottle of car-wash concentrate that’s more than a few years old? Don’t use it; they likely contain so-called volatile organic compounds (VOC), which are dangerous for health and the environment. They've been tightly regulated by California and have been reduced steadily over the years.
Among the other products to watch out for are brake-dust-removing wheel cleaners, which have changed significantly in formulation in recent years to cut the presence of VOCs.
According to Dmitri Stanich of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the regulations have greatly reduced VOCs, along with some other hazardous ingredients in car-care products, for more than a decade, but the restrictions were phased in for some products before others.
How old is too old? No clear cutoff
As part of the original California legislation, CARB couldn’t force new laws that would reduce the performance of products that use VOCs, but car-care companies have been forced to gradually adapt and change formulations—a difference that fortunately, in most cases, has been nationwide. There's no hard and fast statement that would sum up when and where the changes had gone into effect.
“Companies really can’t make one product for California and one for the rest of the country,” explained Barry Meguiar, president and CEO of Meguiar’s, a car-care products company, so the state has driven national change in car-care products and made a lot of formerly common products or ingredients—in the case of VOCs, both damaging to the environment and causing acute and chronic health affects—obsolete, if not illegal.
CARB has already reduced VOC emissions by 6.1 tons per day from general purpose cleaners and degreasers (some automotive) and a whopping 24.3 tons per day alone by reformulating windshield washer fluids. The latter is another one that you’d best not use if you have an old bottle in the garage. Older air fresheners and aerosol spray paints are another offender.
Meguiar's New Paint Collection
Meguiar assures that all of his company’s products, along with those from most other nationwide brands, are well under the limit for VOCs today, yet especially in Florida and the Southeast some regional car waxes exist that have well over the legal limit and couldn’t be sold—or technically used—in California.
Throughout California and most of the country, the use of non-biodegradable car-wash solutions is now illegal. Meguiar warns that a lot of the solvents that used to be used in car-wash solutions are known health hazards; these solutions are still available in some states and used by mobile detailers, who then typically wash it down your driveway drain.
Look locally for proper disposal
Stanich suggests visiting your city’s Web site and looking for information on waste disposal by type of product. Even outside of California and more environmentally active regions, Stanich says that “it’s in their best interest” to keep harmful pollutants away from the landfill and away out of the local air and groundwater. In some states, cities might collect a small disposal fee.
The best remedy to these potential health and environmental risks is to get educated on proper car-car practices and go either to a professional detailing shop or care for your vehicle yourself using car-care products that say CARB-certified or CARB-compliant on the label.
So if you have that older container of car-care product, you’d best not open the container, let it touch your hands, or take a sniff. If in doubt, you’ll do everyone a favor by going out and getting some new stuff.