Best Car Shampoos: Protect Your Paint and Boost the Shine
Ensure your vehicle is its cleanest with car shampoo
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BY Ray Prince / LAST UPDATED ON September 2, 2021
Your vehicle is, unfortunately, a magnet for dirt, dust, road debris, bird droppings, mud, salt, and just grime in general. You have two ways of keeping it spotless: Hermetically seal it and keep it stashed in a secret garage, completely undriven forever, or invest in a car shampoo with the correct formulation and ingredients. Below we show you the best way to do the second one because it’s a slightly more reasonable approach.
Nowadays, car wash shampoos and soaps do not fall into one catch-all category. There are different types and formulations, such as surface degreasers, wash/wax formulations, super foaming, and specialized shampoos for vinyl, wheels, ceramic, and other specialized parts and materials.
In this guide, we cover general-purpose car wash shampoos. These consist of pH-balanced and heavy foaming car shampoos that are safe for use on all materials, including glass, metal, and rubber.
Keep reading to learn about the best car shampoos, including our top recommendations, benefits of car shampoos, best practices, and answers to people's most frequently asked questions.
This shampoo doesn’t strip the car of its waxes and sealant coats.
- Can be used in direct sunlight without spotting or staining
- Should rinse clean with no residue
- Safe on almost all automotive exterior parts, including trim and rubber
- Might spot when rinsed with a pressure washer
- Might stain a chrome trim
- Doesn't give the best shine on windows
This shampoo has a bubble gum fragrance and is pH balanced to prevent streaks. It won't strip away wax or sealants.
- Comes in a large 48-ounce container, so it will last a while
- It's designed to be used with a mitt and bucket or with a foam cannon
- Affordable, smells nice
- It dries quickly in hotter climates,
- May not include the wash mitt as the description indicates
This shampoo cleans and conditions your vehicle with just one wash. It comes in a one-gallon bottle, and an ounce can be diluted with a gallon of water.
- Won’t strip wax or any other coatings on your car
- Effectively removes dirt and gives your paint a radiant look in one cleaning session
- Lubricates the surface to help keep dirt and debris at bay
- Might leave a residue when used in a pressure washer
- Leaves spot marks when used under direct sunlight
Why Trust Us
Our reviews are driven by a combination of hands-on testing, expert input, “wisdom of the crowd” assessments from actual buyers, and our own expertise. We always aim to offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.
Best Car Shampoos Reviews & Recommendations
How We Selected the Products
Our product selections, rankings, and awards for this story are based on research. While we haven’t conducted real-world testing on all of these products yet, we’ve looked at consumer testimonials and data, tutorials, and general discussions on social media and in forums. We also consider price and specifications in the context of the segment. And, of course, we rely on our institutional knowledge of the automotive landscape to weed out weak products.
Types of Car Shampoos
Here are the different kinds of car shampoos available, with the main difference between the application and pH rating.
Wash and Wax Shampoos
Traditional wax and wash shampoos consist of the most popular type of car shampoo. These consist of straight, pH-balanced formulations that are safe on all types of materials from metal and glass to chrome and rubber, given its status as a "catch-all." These work to lift dirt and debris from your vehicle.
Waterless Car Shampoo
Waterless car shampoo uses high lubricity sprays that mimic foaming action to lift and rinse dirt and debris particles off of your paintwork. Unlike foaming and sudsing, waterless formulas are sprayed to the surface and rinsed off. This type of car shampoo generally falls under a frequent maintenance schedule for light cleaning only, preferred for people who have no easy access to driveways or who live in apartment buildings.
What to Consider when Buying Car Shampoo
Car shampoos come in several formulations, including conventional shampoos, wash-and-wax, super foaming, iron removal/wheel cleaning, ceramic shampoos, and specialty shampoos that focus on one key area e.g. vinyl or PPF treatments. Wash-and-wax car shampoos are 2-for-1 deals that offer a pH-balanced formula safe on all types of materials.
One of the most popular car shampoo ingredients is natural carnauba wax. Derived from northern Brazilian palm trees, this wax offers water beading and UV resistance properties along with a glossier shine than traditional car wash shampoos. Its properties produce a "floating effect" by allowing surfactants to lift dirt and debris from your paintwork for easier rinsing.
Others focus on key areas and typically consist of higher pH levels (e.g. 9 or 10) to coincide with a more aggressive clean of stripping wax and sealant from paintwork. Others do better at removing embedded brake dust and bonded contaminants.
pH refers to a solution's level of acidity or alkalinity. Formulations too close to either end of the spectrum could ruin your paintwork. Opt for a pH-neutral wash and wax formula and pH-specific specialty car shampoos, such as those used for iron or wheel cleaning.
Founded in 1968, Chemical Guys manufactures virtually every automotive care product under the sun, including car polishes, trim restorers, ceramic waxes, and car washes. The brand is also known for its packed, 685K subscriber Youtube channel full of resource guides, best practices, and brand storieS, all narrated by knowledgeable and engaging hosts. We highly recommend the Chemical Guys Mr. Pink Super Suds Car Shampoo.
Starting with the debut of its aluminum polish more than 40 years ago, Mothers has become an automotive care juggernaut, now the proud owners of more than 100 car detailing products that are sold around the world. Our favorite Mothers product is the Mothers California Gold Carnauba Wash & Wax.
Although better known for the latest in wiper blade technology, Rain-X has branched out nicely into automotive car products., including headlight restoration, anti-fog treatments, and car waxes. Our favorite Rain-X car shampoo is the Rain-X Wash and Wax and the Rain-X Spot Free Car.
Started in 1944, Turtle Wax is one of the most respected car shampoo brands in the United States. They are responsible for the first-ever liquid auto polish, the first premium car polish (Plastone), and the Minute Wax® silicone-based spray wax, the first car care product marketed towards women. It now sells products in more than 90 countries. Our favorite Turtle Wax product is the Turtle Wax ICE Snow Foam Car Wash.
- Before using the shampoo, start by rinsing your car thoroughly to remove loose debris that can scratch your car when you begin using a washing mitt. Wash your car from top to bottom, and clean the wheels last.
- Even if your shampoo contains wax, it’s best to wax it with dedicated car wax for better protection from the elements. Car wax can prevent damages to the paintwork caused by exposure to direct sunlight or acid rain.
- If you are looking to save money, use a concentrated shampoo that requires only a little solution to be added to a large amount of water. Using waterless shampoos means that you will spend more money in the long run since you have to replace them faster.
- Wash your vehicle as frequently as possible to prolong the paintwork. Also, clean bird droppings as soon as you can so that it doesn’t stick to the paint.
Benefits of Car Shampoos
- Remove dirt and contaminants. Road grime, dust, salt, bug stains, and bird droppings are just a few of the contaminants that pile on your vehicle after driving. Most car shampoos are designed to lift the contaminants that are stuck on your paintwork without damaging it.
- Gently clean your vehicle. Washing a car with shampoo is simple and can be a fun exercise if you have the time to give it a thorough wash. You will take better care of your paintwork and can focus on the stained areas. Taking it through an automated car wash is fast, but you may end up with spots or streaks on your vehicle from the spinning brushes.
Car Shampoo Pricing
- Under $20: Car shampoos are mostly priced according to the bottle’s size, so expect to find mostly 16 to 32 ounces shampoos within this price range. You can get both concentrated and waterless shampoos that even have waxing agents in the formulation.
- $20 and up: This higher price range is mostly for one-gallon bottles and complete car wash kits. You can also find high-quality cleaners that add a super-slick shine to your vehicle and offer long-lasting protection.
- Protection Level. On top of cleaning your vehicle, ensure that the cleaner can offer prolonged protection from dirt, water spots, and other contaminants that make your paintwork look unappealing. You can get this by choosing a shampoo that forms a thin barrier against contaminants so that they can slide off or can be easily wiped away with a wet cloth.
- Container Design. If you are going for a waterless shampoo, ensure that it comes in a spray bottle for easy application. If you choose a concentrated shampoo, ensure that you are comfortable with the bottle’s design; it should allow you to easily tilt it into a measuring cup.
- Scent. The last thing you want is a strong smell that lingers on your vehicle for weeks. Therefore, choose a cleaner with a smell that you like. The shampoos on the market have different scents such as citrus, lemon, or cherries.
Q: What is the best shampoo for cars?
Getting the best shampoo depends on what you are looking for in a cleaner, but any one of the car shampoos on our review could work for you. However, Chemical Guys Mr. Pink Super Suds Car Shampoo stood out for us as a gentle yet effective cleanser.
Q: What can I use instead of car shampoo?
We don’t recommend using conventional home detergents to wash your car since most feature grease-removing ingredients that can damage your paintwork. Car shampoo is the safest way to clean your vehicle.
Q: How much is the most expensive car shampoo?
Expensive shampoos are usually priced between $20 to $50, and that’s because they come as car wash kits or large one-gallon bottles. It’s possible to get the same product for a more affordable price but in a smaller size of up to 32 ounces.
Q: How can I use the car shampoo?
If it’s a concentrated shampoo, you need to dilute it in a bucket of water and use a car washing tool such as a wash mitt to scrub off dirt particles. Then you have to rinse the solution with clean water thoroughly. Waterless shampoos only need to be sprayed on the surface and wiped off.
Q: What is a waterless car wash?
A waterless car wash uses little to no water, an excellent choice for people without access to a driveway or who live in apartment builders where a hose is not immediately reachable. They usually use a spray-on solution with high lubricity chemicals, best for light work only. Many users have cited its positive environmental impact, saving up to 45 gallons of water used by traditional car washes.
Q: How do I choose a car shampoo?
Some of the criteria that go into choosing a car shampoo include formulation (specialized versus conventional car soaps versus 2-in-1 wash and wax solutions), ingredients (e.g. natural carnauba wax for water beading and UV resistance), lubrication, biodegradability, and application type (foam vs. waterless). Note, traditional wax and wash shampoos carry pH-balanced formulas that are safe on all kinds of materials. These are the most common types of car shampoo.
We chose Chemical Guys Mr. Pink Super Suds Car Shampoo as our top pick because it’s safe for all exterior and interior parts of your vehicle. It’s also a great car shampoo for weekly car maintenance. The Turtle Wax ICE Snow Foam Car Wash is worth considering if you are looking for an affordable car shampoo that can last through several car washes.
Why Trust Us
The Drive seeks to be the internet’s premier destination for news, features, reviews and guides about modern automotive culture.
Founded as the /DRIVE YouTube channel before growing into a full-fledged online publication in 2015, The Drive brings you the best of what’s new in the world of speed, from gear reviews to the latest industry coverage—all from a veteran team of writers and editors with many decades of combined hands-on experience. Our reviews are driven by a combination of hands-on testing, expert input, “wisdom of the crowd” assessments from actual buyers, and our own expertise. We always aim to offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.