Best Car Wash Soaps: The Right Suds For Your Car
Car washing doesn’t have to be a chore with these top car wash soaps
The Review Team
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PUBLISHED ON April 17, 2019
There are two kinds of car owners: those who use automated car washes and those who wash their vehicles themselves. If you’re someone who wants to keep their ride clean, keep reading. We’ve got the facts and recommendations you need to choose a better car wash soap for a cleaner ride. Because if you want a clean car, sometimes you have to wash it yourself.
- Best OverallMother’s California Gold Carnauba Wash & WaxSummarySummaryIf you’re a fan of carnauba wax, Mother’s wash and wax will fit your needs. The product lifts dirt away while leaving a waxy finish to protect your paint.ProsProsMother’s gives a nod to nature with this biodegradable wash and wax product, which is pH-balanced to clean your car without risk of damaging your car’s paint job.ConsConsThis product provides the best results as a solution between regular waxing. So if that’s not part of your routine, you might need a stronger formula to remove stubborn contaminants.
- Best ValueArmor All Ultra Shine Wash & WaxSummarySummaryHere’s a solution that will cost you less than a self-serve or automated car wash. Accomplish two things at once with this wash and wax formula.ProsProsA potent mix of powerful cleansers and lubricants, this soap and wax combination is both efficient and affordable. You won’t have to worry about scratching your car either.ConsConsWhile the wax left behind from this product is better than no protection at all, we recommend investing in a separate waxing solution for best results.
- Honorable MentionChemical Guys Bug + Tar RemoverSummarySummaryFor the dirtiest cars, Chemical Guys created a simple solution that doesn’t require a lot of elbow grease. Easily remove common contaminants with this car wash soap.ProsProsThis heavy-duty car wash soap saves time and effort, even if your car only needs a rinse. Even as it goes on tough, it won’t leave swirl marks or scratches.ConsConsThe toughest tar, tree sap, bugs, and other types of contaminants require more than this car wash soap, especially white vehicles.
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All of our reviews are based on market research, expert input, and practical experience with each product we include. This way, we offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.
Benefits of Car Wash Soap
- Wash your car yourself. They say if you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself. Many people consider automated car washes to produce lackluster results, so they instead invest in car washing supplies themselves. It’s actually more affordable than you might think, as you’ll see if you keep reading this buying guide.
- Cheaper than self-serve or automated car washes. Whether you like to rinse and suds your own vehicle or enjoy taking your car to the “beauty shop,” sometimes the price of car washes can add up. If you invest in car wash products you can use at home (if you have the capability), you could be saving more each month.
- Best for black vehicles. White and black cars show every speck of surface dirt and road grime. Black cars show every scratch. To avoid hiring a car paint specialist to correct your black paint every week, consider washing it yourself. There are a variety of products out there geared towards black vehicles.
- Year-round car-washing solution. Depending on what climate you live in, car washes may not be open all year long. If you need to wash your car and can’t pull into a self-serve location, having car wash supplies at your fingertips helps. Just make sure you find a sheltered space to wash your vehicle if that’s the case.
- Prep your vehicle for sale/trade. Most of us shop with our eyes first and our bank accounts second. If you’re looking to get more for your vehicle, consider giving it a good once-over inside and out. Your car will look much nicer to potential buyers and it’s a cheap upgrade if you’re on a budget.
Types of Car Wash Soap
Walk into most auto parts stores and you’ll see a shelf loaded with concentrated car wash soaps. You might not have known that you could dilute them, but you’ll be able to select your favorite from a variety of brands. Some promise a waxy finish, while others are tough on contaminants and debris. Concentrated soap is the most common form of car wash.
Wash and Wax
Some car shampoos leave a waxy residue that will shield your paint from damage for a couple of days, or some up to a few weeks. The formula not only cleans your paint but also provides a protective layer of wax. Car wash soaps that contain wax are a smart move if you live in hotter climates where the sun shines a lot. They can’t compare to full-strength car wax applications but are better than nothing.
If you live under water restrictions, choosing a waterless car wash might be the perfect solution for your dirty vehicle. Waterless car wash soaps are priced similarly to traditional ones and provide comparable results as well. Many of the manufacturers we mention in this article also offer a waterless car wash alternative, so check out these types of products if you’re looking to save water.
If you know anything about car care, you know the name Meguiar’s. In business since 1901, Meguiar’s is headquartered in California. If you’re looking for that birthday or Christmas present, check out the Complete Car Care Kit. It’s everything you need to take care of your vehicle.
One of the up-and-coming brands making a name for themselves, Chemical Guys has actually been in business for over 40 years. It's After Wash Shine While You Dry solution can be used on cars, trucks, RVs, boats, etc.
Armor All is another household name for car care products. Operating since 1966, its headquarters are in Missouri. The Armor All Complete Car Care Kit might even be on your car lover’s wish list, so check it out.
Based in Texas, Rain-X has been in the industry for over 40 years. If carnauba wax is your thing, check out its High Foaming Wash & Wax with Carnauba Wax Beads. Like all Rain-X products, it will bead up any moisture that finds its way onto your vehicle.
Mother’s is a California-based company that has been in business nearly as long as many other popular brands in the industry. Feeling overwhelmed at the choices for car-washing mitts? Give the Mother’s Microfiber Chenille Wash Mitt a look, especially if you own a black vehicle.
Car Wash Soap Pricing
- $7-$10: Auto parts stores typically stock car wash soaps in this price range. Most of them are concentrated formulas that can be diluted in a ratio of one capful of soap to one gallon of water. You should be able to find wash and wax formulas for this price as well. Products will typically come in 16-ounce sizes.
- $11-$15: If you’re looking for more bang for your buck, you should consider concentrates of higher-priced brands above the $10 mark. Sizes typically range anywhere from 16 to 64 ounces, depending on which brand and formula you choose.
- $20-$40: Buying car wash shampoo in bulk will fall in this price range. Many well-known brands will offer around 128 ounces of car wash soap for this price. If you’re someone who owns a handful of cars and washes them frequently, spending about this much up-front may save you in the long-run.
- $45+: For around $50, you should be able to find car wash kits with concentrates included, as well as washing mitts, microfiber cloths, and other car-washing accessories. Many of the kits offered will get you started by providing most of the materials you need.
Most car wash soaps are going to be concentrated, but choosing ones that are will stretch your dollars longer without affecting your car-washing results. It also means that you can increase or decrease the dilution ratio as you see fit, depending on how dirty your car is and the size of the vehicle you’re cleaning.
Foaming Action and Lubricity
Ask any professional detailer and they’ll tell you that washing your vehicle properly is all about suspending the contaminants on your vehicle to safely remove them without scratching the paint finish. Foaming bubbles that provide natural lubricity are a common solution. The idea is to lift the debris off your paint and transfer it via a liquid layer across and away from the surface. This is especially true for dark-colored/black vehicles.
Choosing a car wash soap that includes a waxing agent in the formula will save you time in the long run. Though the wax included is not enough to rely on, it will still provide a protective layer that will delay your paint from oxidizing. In fact, waxing your car after using a wash and wax car wash soap will just increase the effectiveness of the wax and won’t necessarily hurt your vehicle’s paint.
Car wash soaps should be designed to make the car-washing process simple and straightforward. You shouldn’t have to worry about avoiding certain paint colors or exterior materials common on modern vehicles. Specially-formulated products can be helpful; however, washing your vehicle shouldn’t take much more effort than washing dishes. No specialty tools or methods should be required.
Scrubbing a car requires getting close to the vehicle, and if you don’t like the smell of the car wash soap you purchased, it can turn a simple task into a hassle. Take a whiff of the car wash soap before you buy it. Many are lightly scented to distinguish themselves from the competition. The smell won’t stay on your vehicle and won’t affect the car wash soap’s ability to clean your vehicle.
- Whole Vehicle Formulation: There’s no getting away from washing the entire exterior of your vehicle, so choose a car wash soap that won’t damage materials such as rubber, plastic, glass, metal, or any other components that will get wet. Most car wash products on the shelf are safe for these types of materials—that weather the elements anyways—but it’s a good idea to be cognizant of what’s in your car wash soap.
- Additional Materials: It’s possible to wash your car with your bare hands, but we don’t recommend it. There are many products out there you can use to clean your vehicle, whether you have a large truck or a compact sedan. From washing mitts to wheel-cleaning devices, you can pick up the additional materials you need to achieve a clean vehicle without spending too much.
- Drying Methods: The way you dry your newly-washed vehicle is just as important as how you wash it. Leaving the water on the paint can cause hard water spots to appear. Using an air compressor to dry your vehicle is the most efficient method, but you can also use a chamois or even soft towels. The important thing to remember is not to ground any leftover contaminants into the paint you just washed.
- Finishing Touches: Washing your car is the bare necessity when it comes to maintaining the exterior of your vehicle. Consider waxing your vehicle afterward to keep the paint from oxidizing quickly. Clean your windows for a better view of your surroundings. Vacuum your seats and flooring to prevent stains and excessive wear. The better care you give your car, the longer it will last.
Best Car Wash Soap Reviews & Recommendations 2019
Best Overall: Mother’s California Gold Carnauba Wash & Wax
There are two sides to the carnauba wax debate, but any wax on your vehicle is better than none. Washing and waxing your vehicle at the same time is a great way to efficiently clean your vehicle, which is one of the main reasons we chose this product from Mother’s. That, and the brand is known for putting out quality products that make a big difference when it comes time to compare the before and after.
Priced affordably, Mother’s Carnauba Wash & Wax can be diluted to your personal specifications and provides a clean surface after it’s wiped away. The product is safe to use on all exterior surfaces, even your wheels, and tires. There are a variety of other Mother’s products you can pair with this wash and wax, but even alone it is a great way to protect your investment. For example, the car soap has a pH-balanced and biodegradable formula so you won’t have to worry about flushing it down the drain. It also leaves behind a streak-free finish.
Because Mother’s provides a washing and waxing formula, both processes aren’t necessarily going to be at their most efficient. Washing a car scrubs everything you don’t want off the paint’s surface while waxing seals in everything beneath it. That means you’ll likely want to pair this product with a regular waxing routine for optimal results. With some trial and error, any driver can easily use Mother’s California Gold Carnauba Wash & Wax.
Best Value: Armor All Ultra Shine Wash & Wax
Who said washing your car had to be not only a chore but also expensive? Armor All provides the weekend car-cleaning warrior with an affordable solution to keeping your sweet ride looking sharp, even if it means you spend a few bucks and a half-hour at the local self-serve car wash every week.
We chose the Armor All Ultra Shine Wash & Wax not only for the price but also the results. This time-saving formula cleans your vehicle while leaving a protective wax layer meant to repel contaminants and harsh water stains, if only for a short amount of time. Even though you’re left with a shiny finish on your vehicle’s paint, this product won’t damage the clear coat and is specially formulated to suspend contaminants to remove them safely.
The main drawback of the Armor All wash and waxing product is that you shouldn’t rely on it to protect your paint as a regular waxing would. You have to remember that the product is cleaning your car at the same time that it is providing wax protection, so coverage is going to be thin at best. If you live in a sunny climate, you should definitely use more than just this product to protect your paint from those harmful rays. That being said, Armor All makes it easy for just about anyone to use this car wash soap.
Honorable Mention: Chemical Guys Bug + Tar Remover
There’s a saying that goes something like, “less is more,” but when it comes to washing your car, having more cleaning power at hand is best. Relying on strong products to get the job done right is just one reason why we chose Chemical Guys Bug + Tar Remover as our best overall pick.
This concentrated formula dilutes as one capful of solution per gallon of water. While that’s typical of most car wash products, it’s not necessarily the same story for heavy-duty cleaners. That means you can easily use the same amount of car wash soap as another product but get relatively better results with the extra-strength formula. Place a few drops in a spray bottle full of water and you’ve got yourself a bug-removing, spot-treatment solution. Because the formula is water-based, you won’t have to worry about your vehicle’s paint, either.
However, because it is only a water-based solution, you may need to seek out stronger solutions for stubborn contaminants that just won’t budge. If you own a white vehicle, you’ll definitely want to consider investing in a clay bar. All the same, this versatile product can be used on all types of paints and surfaces so anyone with a few hours or even minutes to kill will find it easy to use.
- The best process of washing your vehicle begins with thorough rinsing, then a thorough wash, and then another rinse. Depending on how much debris is caked on your vehicle, you might need to repeat the rinse-wash-rinse cycle a few times. Rinsing first helps suspend the contaminants that you’ll wash away in the next step.
- Change the dilution ratio based on how dirty your vehicle is. The standard dilution ratio is one capful of car wash soap dumped into a gallon of hot water. Agitate the water once you’ve mixed in the car wash soap and then dunk your wash mitt or sponge into the water to apply it to the car.
- Work from the top of your vehicle down as you wash. Clean your wheels and tires last. Change the water in your bucket frequently if it becomes saturated with debris. Replace your sponge or wash mitts immediately if they pick up pebbles or other materials that might scratch your paint.
- Plan to wash your vehicle at least once a month. You should wash it more often in the winter months when ice-preventing chemicals are sprayed on the roads. These harsh chemicals can do a lot of damage to your vehicle’s paint if left on the surface for a period of time.
- Wash your vehicle in a shaded spot. Be careful not to spray/dump cold water on a hot car, especially the windshield. Excessive heat will increase the evaporation process, forcing you to use more water and car wash soap. Black cars that are washed in direct sunlight have an increased risk of swirl marks.
- Purchase a wool mitt and similar cleaning and drying materials to devote to your vehicle(s). Be sure to wash your materials after each car-washing session and store in a place where they won’t pick up dirt or dust. Replace these materials after they begin to lose their effectiveness to prevent damaging your vehicle.
- Wash out your door jambs and rubber floor mats when you wash your vehicle. Dirt and debris will collect in the door jambs and around the rear trunk/hatch/tailgate and continue to degrade the surrounding materials. Consider rinsing out your engine bay as well, but be careful to use a low-pressure spray nozzle to avoid damaging components.
- White vehicles tend to show stubborn contaminants much more than other colors. If you own a white vehicle, consider purchasing a clay bar to use at least once, if not twice, a year. The clay bar will remove the contaminants for a like-new finish. Follow up your clay-barring with a coat of wax to seal the paint’s pores.
- Ideally, you want to wax your vehicle after you wash it. Make sure to remove as much dirt and debris as possible from the paint before you wax. That includes tar, sap, bugs, and anything else that would damage the paint if left alone. Hand waxing is a simple process that makes a huge difference.
Q: What’s wrong with using regular dish soap to wash my car?
A: Think about the surface of both tableware and your vehicle’s paint. Plates and cups are meant to hold up to food and utensils, while the paint on your car withstands the elements. Dish soap is meant to remove food particles. Car wash soap is formulated to remove everything from dirt and bugs to tree sap and tar. In fact, the dish soap may dry out certain exterior parts of your vehicle, while car wash soap won’t.
Q: How often should I wash my car?
A: There’s a happy medium between washing your car every day and once in its lifetime. We recommend you wash your vehicle at least once a month. Pay attention to what is on the road and how your vehicle’s paint looks. Inspect it every so often for contaminants. Even rinsing your vehicle off without washing it can do a lot to keep contaminants from doing any lasting damage.
Q: Does car wash soap expire?
A: The best way to tell if car wash soap isn’t working is to test it on the undercarriage of your vehicle, somewhere perhaps on the running boards or rear bumper. If the car wash soap is more than a few years old, we recommend just replacing it. You can typically find a good car wash soap for as much as it costs to eat out.
Q: Can I use car wash soap on my boat?
A: Yes. While there are specially-formulated marine soaps out there that are targeted towards the debris and contaminants that boats encounter, car wash soap can be used to clean boats as well. Depending on where you purchased the boat, speak to a representative or call the manufacturer directly. They will be able to give you a better answer as to what products are best for your specific craft.
Q: Are there special car wash soaps for darker/black cars?
A: Yes and no. Really, washing a black car is the same basic principle as washing any other colored car, you just have to be aware of what you’re doing. Even the smallest pebble can create a multitude of scratches if it’s dragged across the paint. If you’re worried about washing your black car, speak to a local detail shop or your nearest dealership. They can offer tips or even perform the service for you.
Q: Can I use car wash soap at a self-serve car wash?
A: Most self-serve car wash stations will let you choose a soap brush option, but if you prefer to use your own car wash soap, just bring your supplies along with you. You can use the rinse feature and then just have your bucket of soapy water ready to go. Some car washes may watch what drains into their sewer system, however, so be aware of any restrictions that might be in place.
Q: What’s the difference between car wash soap and waterless car wash?
A: Contrary to what you might think, waterless car wash soap does actually require some amount of water. It’s really meant for those car owners who live in areas where water use is restricted or monitored. Rather than using a bucket and a washing mitt, waterless car washes typically come in a spray bottle or an aerosol can that you use to directly apply the wash to the vehicle’s surface.
The Mother’s California Gold Carnauba Wash & Wax won our best pick for car wash soap based on its winning combination of heavy-duty formula and scratch-free finish.
You can’t go wrong with the Armor All Ultra Shine Wash & Wax if you’re washing on a budget. Dilute a capful in a gallon of hot water and you’re all set to start washing.