Comparing All Car Shampoo Alternatives

Untreated cars on the road are quite common. Sometimes this happens because detailers don’t want to utilize a special car shampoo during a wash. Instead, drivers resort to the help of household chemicals and products. In this article, you will find a detailed comparison and description of car shampoo alternatives.

This table best describes the relationship among car shampoo alternatives:

Car ShampooHair shampooDish SoapVinegar, Baking Soda, SolventsDistilled WaterLaundry Detergent
Paint SafetyA+CDFAD
Cleaning AbilitiesA+CCFFB
Overall ScoreACC – EDC

Let’s have a closer look at each of the car shampoo alternatives to gain a better understanding.

Hair Shampoo

“When I bathe, it creates a lot of foam, so maybe it works on my car, too.” This is roughly the logic most drivers follow when they mercilessly expose their car paint to an aggressive shampoo like Head & Shoulders, Garnier, Pantene, or any other brand. 

Hair shampoo is good for a quick rinse. Yet it has no protective effect. The main difference between regular shampoo and car shampoo is chemicals. Hair shampoo manufacturers could hardly take car washing into account.

The effect of hair shampoo on paint can be compared to the effect of the sun on human skin. Your skin has no problem with a few hours in the blazing sun, but if you increase that to 7-8 hours (in other words, increase the intensity or length of exposure), nothing good will come of it. Instead of a light, subtle tan, you’ll get a sunburn. The same process happens with paintwork. 

If you use shampoo as a pre-wash, you should dilute it. Water makes it less paint-hostile. This way, you will have a mild effect on the coating (unlikely to harm the paint). However, if you use hand-washing shampoo (the two-bucket method), the damage done will exceed your wildest expectations. When diluting the shampoo in the water, start thinking about the color you are going to paint the car next time because it’s very likely that the paint will be ruined by the slightest mistake.

The main problem with hair shampoo as well as with all other car shampoo alternatives is the lack of lubricating ingredients. This means that as soon as you touch the paint with a microfiber mitt (or a sponge to make matter worse) and apply manual force to the paint, scratches are guaranteed to occur.

The dirt on the car will act like sandpaper and scratch the delicate clear coat.

Compared to other alternatives, hair shampoo actually has some lubricating effects, so it is not as bad as dish soap or even baking powder. Nevertheless, avoid hair shampoo at all costs if you care about your car.

Dish Soap

Dawn, Gain, Palmolive  — all of that are good to wash dishes but not cars. Being overly aggressive, dish soaps are hazardous for paint. 

To avoid damage to the paint, a neutral or slightly alkaline detergent must be used. Car shampoos have an average alkaline level ranging from neutral (7pH) to alkaline (approx. 7.5 to 8pH). And the pH in prominent dishwashing detergents can be as high as 9.3pH. 

The only sensible way to use dish soap is to prewash it. If you dilute the chemical with water, it will become less caustic, which will allow it to be used safely. However, in this case, the effectiveness of the wash will suffer greatly. Diluted chemicals can only cope with fresh and shallow stains and dirt.

This article about dish soap is Klondike. Check it out if you want to know what makes dish soap so lame.

Again, the major problem is that dish soap has no lubricating effects unlike car shampoo. Dish soap was engineered to remove possibly health-threatening bacteria from used dishes. It also works best with a rough sponge and hot water.

When washing a car, it is not about removing bacteria. It is about removing the most amount of dirt the safest way possible. Hot water, lots of manual force, and rough sponges are not helpful with this goal.

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Vinegar, Baking Soda, Solvents

Such time-tested cleaners as vinegar, baking soda, acetone, ammonium, etc. are widely used in household applications. Any housewife knows that it’s enough to mix vinegar with water and add a little citric acid to make glass shine. But is that fair for your car? 

Acetone or other organic solvents act as a massive bombardment. By using them, you’re rooting out all the particles on the surface. Although the solvent is quite good at removing contaminants, the body parts  — rubber or silicone seals, chrome elements, plastic  — are spoiled along with them. Among other things, acetone and its analogs cause damage to health.

There is also a category of people who upgrade the active car foam themselves, buying chemicals and mixing them in the required proportion. As a rule, shampoo or dishwashing detergent is used as a base, and the following is added to it:

  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Sodium sulfonate
  • Fragrances and coloring agents
  • Anti-corrosive additives

At first glance, it may seem that such a solution is a good way out. But you’re unlikely to conduct laboratory tests at home. The application is simply dicey. Risks are present both for the experimenter  — burns, poisoning, and for the car  —  the destruction of varnish, fading of paint, accelerated corrosion.

Using solvents, baking soda and vinegar is the most effective way to part with the paint once and for all. If you haven’t already made your farewell speech, it makes sense to use a different way to wash.

Distilled Water 

Washing with water is one of the oldest and most proven ways to clean your car. Many years ago, when store shelves were not full of car care products, people simply poured the car from a bucket and wiped it with a rag. But plain water has a hefty disadvantage: it leaves stains on the car when it dries. These stains are nothing more than residual minerals.

Moreover, water itself is not lubricating the paint, so touching it with a microfiber cloth or any other cloth will result in scratches.

To avoid staining your car, use distilled water. This kind of wash is safe for the paint, although it’s not very effective. If your car has seen a lot of dirt, you may prefer another method. But if you are dealing with a small layer of dirt or a maintenance wash, then distilled water can help.

Washing with water involves a garden hose or pressure washer. To wash your car safely with distilled water, lower the pressure level to 800 to 1000 PSI. This water pressure will wash away surface dirt without damaging the paint.

Laundry Detergent

High-action speed, dissolving stains of different complexity without any mechanical friction; permeability to hard-to-reach locations  — these are the features of laundry detergent. However, there is one huge, overweighting NO: damage to the paint.

The most important component of the laundry detergent is the alkaline agent. Manufacturers are quite careful when it comes to adding this element. This is due to a simple formula: the more alkaline (pH), the stronger the effect.

But too much is guaranteed to damage the paint and the chrome on the body parts. The pH of the laundry detergent is usually hazardous to the clearcoat. On average, it ranges from 7 to 10 (with an average of 9) for most laundry detergents.

Most car cleaning products on the other hand have a ph level of around 7 which is considered neutral.


Dish soap, laundry detergent, and distilled water can be used under specific circumstances. They are relatively effective, yet bring too much risk. Even the slightest mistake may cause paint scratches, fading, etc. 

Vinegar, baking soda, and other solvents are unacceptable. They act aggressively and demolish any paintwork.

The composition of car shampoos is based on surface-active substances that soften the structure of the dirt and separate it from the surfaces without damaging the paintwork. In addition to the active ingredients, some chelators remove the predominant majority of the hardness salts, thereby supporting the main component. Another purpose of the chelators is to minimize the surface tension of the dirt layer, due to which the working fluid easily cuts any crevices and pores. Therefore, the best option for washing your car is car shampoo.

Can I Use Dish Soap To Wash My Car? 

Your car will not disappear, explode or evaporate if you use soap. However, dishwashing detergents like Dawn can cause irreparable damage to the paint.  Especially if you systematically wash your car with them. The damage shows after a few washes and will get worse over time.

If you do not want to become an owner of a car with faded, peeling, and scratched paint, it is better to use professional car shampoos. Their composition is as active substances for deep washing as a variety of polishing agents, polymers, preservatives, fragrances, and so on. Washing with shampoo is not only pragmatic but also aesthetic. Here is a small list of possible effects of dish soap:

  • Chemicals stick to a surface much better
  • Stains and streaks may remain after washing
  • Reacts with the lacquer coating, worsening its condition
  • Continual use of rough dish wash chemicals can damage the paintwork
  • The straightest way to get corrosion
  • Improper washing often leaves a large amount of moisture which can damage electrical wiring and speed up the formation of rust

Read more about the harms of dish soap in this article, it will turn you into a fan of car shampoo.

What Can I Use To Wash My Car If I Do Not Have Car Shampoo? 

Dish soap, laundry detergent, vinegar, baking soda, distilled water, hair shampoo, or even ammonium if you don’t care about the paintwork. Distilled water and hair shampoo are safer than other methods. But that doesn’t make them effective.

Always remember: there is no reliable car shampoo replacement in terms of paint protection and effectiveness.

If car shampoo is not available, it is best to give the car a high-pressure water rinse and not use any manual force or washing technique at all. This is not nearly as effective as washing the car properly by hand and with car shampoo, but it will also not damage the paint.

Key Takeaways

  • Vinegar, baking soda, and other solvent destroy the paint completely
  • Distilled water is a paint-safe washing method
  • Most laundry detergents have 9pH, which is bad for paint
  • Diluting dish soap lessens paint damage
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge