6 Simple Reasons Why You Should Use Car Shampoo

This is in-depth research about car shampoo for car detailing.

I explain why you may want to use professional car soap whenever possible, what ingredients make car shampoo much more effective than detergents, which shampoos can contribute your specific needs.

These are the top 6 reasons that will make you an absolute fan of car shampoos:

  • Prepares a Car For Smooth Detailing
  • Contributes to Paintwork Protection 
  • More Effective Than Household Liquids
  • Contain Special Additives
  • Shampoos Are Very Versatile
  • Enhances Your Wax & Sealants

Car Shampoo Prepares Your Car for a Smooth Detailing

Automotive shampoo prevents oxidation, degreases your car, and removes all contaminants, making it perfect to prepare your car for detailing.

Washing your car is an integral part of the detailing process. No matter what you have in mind: a little polishing or a complete repainting of the car.

Either way, you will first have to prepare the car for the procedures to come. To make the process effective, use a professional shampoo.

It contains many ingredients that clean off the dirt, creating optimal conditions for applying an additional coat or surface treatment. Imagine your phone has a dirty screen, and you stick a protective film on top.

It will bubble up, fog up, or worse, get dull. The same applies to your car. 

The best way to prepare the car for detailing is to use a special shampoo with rinsing properties. You may want to use one of these options:

  1. Snow Foam Shampoos. A gentle and relatively safe kind of shampoo, which will cope with grease and stubborn soils (but will not cope with heavy road grime). Snow foam’s main feature is a high degree of penetration and “lifting” up the dirt, without the risk of scratching the paint. 
  2. Alkaline Based Shampoos. Usually, these are relatively aggressive formulas (although there are both gentle products and heavy-duty cleaners) you should use to remove caked-on road grime. If you are often on the road or live in a big city, then alkaline shampoo is a good choice for your car. However, I don’t recommend starting with this method. Most alkaline based shampoos consist of strong solvents and acids (citric acid)  that can harm your paint if not used correctly. Save this method as a trump card up your sleeve.

Useful tip: I do not recommend using shampoos with waxes, or polymers (e.g. 2 in 1 wash & wax, or shampoos with glaze effect) to prepare your car for detailing.

People recommend lots of different car shampoo alternatives. I took the time to rank all of them and write a detailed article about it. Make sure to check it out here.

Sonax Actifoam

Sonax Actifoam is my absolute favorite car shampoo of all time. It is super effective, protects your paint, can be used as a snow foam, and much more.

Click the link below to get some Sonax Actifoam!

Car Shampoo Contributes to Paintwork Protection 

If you want to add more protection to your bare paint, I suggest using professional pH-neutral shampoos without abrasives.

They often contain waxes and/or polymers, which act as a lubricant to prevent deep scratches.

A few foaming agents on the product’s back label would only be a plus. Normally, you want to get products marked as “maintenance shampoos”.

Modern automotive shampoos are also suitable for coated (wax, sealant) or wrapped (PPF, vinyl) cars. If you have recently used a natural wax or installed vinyl wrap, no problem. 

Shampoos differ mainly in their aggressiveness. Instead of more aggressive shampoos, it is better to use formulations with a neutral pH, which will keep the natural wax applied or the longer-lasting synthetic sealant.

It is also desirable that the shampoo includes silicone (as it lubricates the paintwork). The extra glazing effect is desirable, as it will cover your wax with a thin protective layer as well as buffing the appearance of a car. 

Treat ceramic coating as wax or sealant (neutral pH). The only rule is to avoid shampoos infused with “ceramic”. They have controversial reviews.

If you use PPF or Vinyl as protection, you should use a neutral pH shampoo that does not contain naphtha or kerosene (at most you can use products with less than 5% of those chemicals).

Most manufacturers will only warranty your PPF if you use the manufacturer’s recommended products (they are only responsible for proven products that work well with their protection film).

Note: dish soap or laundry detergent will drastically diminish/completely destroy any coating or wrap.


I wrote a well-researched and in-depth article about washing a car with detergents like dish soap. Here you can read all about why you should not do it!

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Car Shampoo is More Effective Than Household Liquids

The professional shampoo is safe for the car, while homemade and handcrafted liquids can be dangerous (although not always, but still better not to risk it anyway). 

Here is a short comparison of automotive shampoos and homemade soaps (or detergents):

Car ShampooHomemade Soap \ Detergents 
Paint-safeCauses clearcoat oxidation
Removes only soils and dirtTotally strips the surface
Aerated, high-quality foamWeak-lubricated, low-quality foam
Specifically engineered to treat, natural waxes, and synthetic sealantsDegreases natural waxes and synthetic sealants in no time
Protects PPF and Vinyl from UVCan ruin your PPF (and void your PPF warranty as well)
Quick Comparison of Car Shampoo & Homemade Soap (or detergent)

If I were to put all the searches for professional car shampoo into one single question, it would be: “how do I replace professional shampoo on my own?”

People often wonder what improvised remedies can replace professional shampoo. The answers are different… one uses dish soap (dawn, dial, etc.), some use laundry detergents, and others try to make a solution themselves using the chemicals available.

You probably understand that commercial chemicals are much better than those you can find at your house.

But what ingredients make car shampoo so unique and worthy? Here are the most popular ones:

Sodium Chloride

Chemical way to call salt. Sodium chloride provides two major functions:

  1. Creates a foamy structure. An Irish-beer-like sudsy textured chemical can treat even caked-on grease, oils, etc.
  2. Prevents dehydration of froth. The long-lasting foam is brilliant at pulling down bulky dirt from your vehicle. 

You may think “Well, I could use salt myself, why buy costly car soap?”

The difference is shampoos combine sodium chloride with other chemicals that create an effective way to fight dirt through complex intermolecular cooperation. While salt alone can cause corrosion (a.k.a rust).

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS)

Sulfates are basic, plain Jane surfactants that are doing a lot of cleaning. Kind of heavy-hitter in the world of shampoos.

This popular foaming agent is widely used in shampoos, cleaning, and some healthcare products such as toothpaste. Remember how you got shampoo in your eyes? instant irritation and redness is caused by SLS.

The only difference between your toothpaste and commercial soap chemicals is the amount of SLS used. Higher sodium sulfate concentrations are used for preparational shampoos to leave no trace of older wax layers.

Coco Diethanolamide

A powerful foaming agent that provides a cream-like texture in shampoos, soaps, and conditioners. Basically, it’s a mixture of some chemicals with special acids from coconut oils.

This is a narrow-profiled agent that is hard to get. You may think that detergent also gives you a lot of foam. Right, but… 

High-quality shampoo foam consists of so-called micelles. These are things that are encapsulating the dirt.

Micelles have a positive and negative end. The positive ends form around the contaminants while negative ends face out and protect things from getting to it. Foaming agents are crucial because they create a critical micelle concentration.

When you wash the vehicle down, you are creating charge density change around micelles. So, they change size and shape until the foam crushes.

Detergents, on the other hand, create low-quality non-lubricated foam, which is hard to wash off. Detergent foam isn’t that bubbly as well, which makes it less cleansing (= more product required = more expenditures = bad for car washing).

Here is the scientific source I used to make a research.

Isopropyl Alcohol

A time-honored solvent that tackles impurities in no time at all.

This component is often included in cleansing shampoos, whose task is to remove residual waxes and other protective coatings containing greasy compounds such as glazes, sealants. 

Distilled Water

Distilled water is a liquid bereft of minerals. Remember last time you hit a local car wash? If you noticed white flecks, streaks, or stains in your paint, then water minerals were the problem.

Minerals from the water have the property of clinging to clearcoat. This negatively affects the color of your car, making the overall appearance duller.

Tap water (call it any water with minerals) is one of the reasons self-prepared cleaning remedies may harm your vehicle.

Useful tip: avoid shampoos with excessive phosphate levels, as they can damage your clearcoat.

Homemade liquids are not suitable for detailing. Dawn or Dial may be a perfect choice for a housewife but not for a detailing enthusiast.

Car Shampoo Contains Special Additives

There are different kinds of shampoos, which differ in composition and purpose: from products that give extra shine to the formulations that can prevent the formation of water spots. This variety of post-effects is achieved by using chemicals.

The surfactants (surface active agent) play a decisive role in the function of the shampoo. Surfactants are things that will bind a dirt molecule with a water molecule by linking them together. As the water disappears surfactant takes that dirt away.

Car soap manufacturers use over 5000 different surfactants to create effective cleaning solutions. A proper blend of surfactants is required to attack, emulsify, lubricate, and lift the things you are trying to decontaminate.

I’ve found some basic surfactant categories, so you understand how powerful shampoos are.

Anionic Surfactants 

Most shampoos contain anionic agents because of a wide range of soil-suspension properties as well as strong frothing ability.

Sulfates are a great example of anionic active agents.

Cationic Surfactants

Cationic active agents provide additional water repellent properties.

Additionally, the chemical properties of cationic surfactants inhibit the ability of debris to cling to the surface, which makes the washing and detailing easier.

Cationic agents are especially to fight organic soils. Combined with anionic agents they form reliable dual-action cleaners.

Nonionic Surfactants

Adaptability to hard water makes nonionic components very popular. However, its main purpose is to fight oily and greasy impurities.

This active ingredient is often included in so-called preparational shampoos. The primary task of which is to remove the residue of the old wax layer (part of which is an oily chemical compound).

Nonionic surfactants are also used for non-foamy detergents.

Amphoteric Surfactants

Amphoteric agents are able to exhibit different properties depending on external conditions. Its versatility contributes greatly to the unique and multipurpose shampoos used by newcomers.

These shampoos are a real gold mine for practical people.

On the one hand, you can reduce costs by not getting 5 separate single-purpose shampoos, and on the other hand, your car will look decent (although special products do their job better).

Car soaps may also contain cosmetic additives such as colorants and fragrant chemicals. Aesthetics is one of the three pillars of detailing, after all.

Shampoos Are Very Versatile

Based on composition, Shampoos can help you out with different tasks: from maintenance cleaning to water spot protection.

When it comes to automotive shampoos, they are highly engineered materials that are built specifically to go with the process for your vehicle.

The chemistry behind the shampoos can vary drastically.

There are lots of different additives, surfactant (surface-active-agent) blends, polymers, and resins to create a shampoo that deals with a specific task.

Wax Removal And Preparation Shampoos

Preparation shampoo is a degreaser (alkaline-based) with a pH level of 9 to 10 (some cleaners can have up to 14 pH).

Its main purpose is to remove wax or other stains that have become embedded in the surface of the machine.

You want to use a product like this before you detail the surface(waxing, compounding, polishing, etc). It is much more pleasant and effective to work with a clean surface.

Anti Iron & Wheel-cleaning Solutions

Most anti-iron shampoos come in a spray form that removes dirt from cleaners (you can also find products to combat brake grime and other materials).

They are designed to counteract iron oxide. Through chemical reactions, the shampoo allows you to decontaminate the car’s surface.

The main advantage here is that cleaning requires no mechanical action. Thus, reducing the risk of defects such as deep paint scratches.

As for wheels, there is a major misnomer with alkaline-based shampoos.

Some say it’s the best way to clean wheels, while others consider basic cleaners containing hydrofluoric acid. 

Foaming Shampoo

This product has high foaming properties. It is usually used in combination with a foam gun (a.k.a. cannon).

The foam is a gentle substance that cannot harm the paint. Soap chemicals are mixed with water and applied at high pressure to the surface of the machine.

It forms a highly effective cleaning layer. The method has become very popular.

Shampoos To Treat PPF and Vinyl 

Major manufacturers of paint protection films are developing special shampoos to make the protection of the machine even more effective.

These shampoos are usually neutral pH chemicals.

Their main task is to protect the surface from the sun’s rays. Particularly UV protection.

Ceramic Shampoos

The main task of ceramic infused shampoo is to add SiO2 to the coating. 

This is a slightly confusing type of product, which is not actually made of ceramic but of silicone.

Ceramic shampoos are used to protect your coating. They have a neutral pH (so as not to deplete the ceramic coating itself) and do not include waxing or polishing effects.

I don’t recommend using ceramic infused shampoo.

Car Shampoo Enhances Your Wax & Sealant

Using 2 in 1 Wax & Wash shampoos can enhance and protect the appearance of your car. These shampoos are adding gloss and boosting protection during the maintenance wash.

To get the best result, you want to pre-wash your car with snow foam shampoo to loosen up all the dirt and grime. 

What the snow foam is doing while it’s sitting on the paint is loosening up that dirt and grime.

When you jet wash it off, there is no need to rub the car with a wash mitt for an extra 5 or 10 minutes. Snow foam is a high mix ratio product.

I recommend mixing 1 part of foam with 5 parts of water (100 ml of foam + 500ml of water, for example). 

Note: Snow foam will not diminish your wax.

Generally, 2 in 1 shampoos are pH neutral and boast carnauba properties (some products combine carnauba with synthetic polymers) leading to boosted gloss and extra protection, all during your maintenance wash.

This product is great for busy people. A full waxing cycle takes quite a bit of time. Instead, you can wash the car with a 2-in-1 product and leave a small layer of wax.

Of course, this is temporary protection, which does not compare to full waxing, but it is better than nothing.

The thin layer of wax that will remain after applying such a shampoo can protect your paint from minor imperfections, fog, dew, and light rain.

Related Questions

How To Pick Up A Good Shampoo?

To get a great shampoo follow these tips:

  • The more lubrication – the better
  • Consider adequate pH level for your needs
  • Biodegradable shampoos are good
  • Know your purpose. There are 3 basic types of shampoos: general use, 2 in 1 wash & wax, or preparational \ strip. Knowing what you want helps to pick the proper solution

Can I Use Dish Wash Instead Of Shampoo?

As long as you accept scratches and deep paint damage favorably, you can use dish wash (or laundry detergent) to clean & detail a car.

Otherwise, I recommend using professional cleaning tools and chemicals. Mixing a proper shampoo with a foam gun (or two bucket method, wash mitt, and grit guard) can save your time, money, and efforts.

How Should I Use a Car Shampoo?

You can use the two bucket method or cannon\foam gun method. Both are good to go to clean a car. Here is short information.

The two-bucket method

One bucket is full of plain water (in which you wash the wash mitt), while the other is full of soapy water (with which you wash the car).

Foam gun method

Water along with the soap solution is pressurized through a hose. The main advantage of the method is that there is no direct contact with the paint (no rubbing or scrubbing)

Make sure to read about the difference between the Two Bucket Method vs Foam Gun Method in this article!

Key Takeaways

  • Shampoo can help with paint’s protection
  • Car shampoo is safe, dish wash is not
  • You can save PPF and vinyl using shampoo
  • Car shampoo is perfect to prepare a car for detailing
  • Neutral pH shampoo doesn’t remove wax or ceramic coating
  • Automotive shampoo emulsifies dirt, oils, and waxes to lift them up. So, you can remove grime without marring and swirls
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge