Hit the local auto parts store, and you’ll be greeted by a wall of automotive detailing chemicals. It’s an intimidating sight. All those shelves of products, buckling under the weight of the cleaning chemicals stacked upon them, as giant jugs of car washing soaps and shampoos jostle with cans of waterless wash-and-wax for real estate.

But look closely, and you will discover that many of these products will dictate that they are the best at what they do. Phrases like: “World’s #1 – Wash and Wax Products” are but one of the many examples of marketing jargon you will encounter when canvassing a car cleaning aisle or an online storefront. 

Some of these labels claim all sorts of crazy shit too. Apparently the leading single purpose product for car cleaning now has the ability to give your Ferrari a shine that puts Charles Barkley’s forehead to shame. That’s on top of its penile enhancement properties, and its diamond-infused clear coat augmentation strengths.

Alright, so marketing BS of that caliber is a bit of a stretch, but you catch our drift…

But what constitutes a good automotive shampoo? Can high pH shampoo products damage a car’s clear coat? Are there any benefits to routinely using a car maintenance shampoo? What’s the difference between surface prep and ceramic coating maintenance soap? And do you really need to use a car shampoo in the first place?

All of these topics, and more, will be discussed in today’s article. As we dissect the entrails of the world’s most common car shampoos, and investigate what constitutes a balanced car wash soap. So let’s gets sudsy!

Routinely washing your automobile by hand with a quality car shampoo will help prolong the life of your clear coat, and provide superior surface shine.
Routinely washing your automobile by hand with a quality car shampoo will help prolong the life of your clear coat, and provide superior surface shine.

What in the Hell Does a Car Shampoo Actually Do?

Car washing shampoos are, in many ways, very similar to the stuff you scrub into your scalp. Not only do they remove dirt and debris, but they also contain vital ingredients that are intended to “rejuvenate” and protect.

From removing damaging diesel exhaust soot and corrosive road salt, to obliterating bug guts and cutting through bird crap and tree sap, the “maintenance car shampoos” of today continue to be a vehicle owner’s first line of defense in the war against clear coat contamination.

Then there’s the far more hardcore stuff. Car wash shampoos that are reserved for stripping away surface protectants like carnauba wax, and for the removal of clear coat oxidation via the use of a clay decontamination product.

This kind of car soap is typically referred to as a “prep shampoo.” While it may not be a part of your bi-weekly car cleaning routine, prep shampoo does play a crucial role when preparing for the application of surface protectants like nano ceramic coatings or paint protection films (PPF).

Quick Nerd Note: We’ve come a long way since the early days of car shampoos. Long gone are all of the ethyl cleaners, and the act of instilling harsh degreasing agents into car wash shampoos, only to discover that they have completely stripped your car’s clear coat.

Ethyl car shampoos were a big deal back in the day. All the way up until people realized that this stuff was causing their car's clear coat to disappear as well.
Ethyl car shampoos were a big deal back in the day. All the way up until people realized that this stuff was causing their car’s clear coat to disappear as well.

Why You Should You Give a Shit About Your Car Shampoo

In certain ways, not much has changed since the early days of the car wash. The majority of American automobile owners still prefer to take their chances by hitting the local automated car wash, fully unawares of the dangers these machines possess.

It’s a risky endeavor, but when it comes to car care, convenience continues to outweigh common sense, and every day, millions of drivers continue to fuck-up their clear coats in automatic car washes.

But I digress…

Giving a damn about the kind of car shampoo you use boils down to what sort of cleaning job you have in mind, the ingredients contained within said product, and perhaps most importantly, the strength of the chemicals contained therein.

There’s a reason why a splash of laundry detergent or dish soap turns your vehicle’s clear coat into a hazy hot mess. Hair shampoo isn’t the only thing that requires the right pH balance. So just know that throwing whatever household cleaning product that looks like it might cut the crud at your car is only going to result in a shit-ton of strife.

And while an all-in-one shampoo may sound tempting, you’ll find it to be the car cleaning equivalent of an all-season tire. It’s impossible to handle everything that the open road (or trail) throws at you, and therefore these products tend to be more of a compromise than a winning combo.

Which leads us to the advent of purpose-built, application specific car shampoos, and the current generation of automotive detailing products…

Just like the shampoo sitting in your shower, automotive shampoos and car wash soaps have their own unique pH levels. The trick is knowing when and where to use a higher pH shampoo, and when to roll with the milder mix.
Just like the shampoo sitting in your shower, automotive shampoos and car wash soaps have their own unique pH levels. The trick is knowing when and where to use a higher pH shampoo, and when to roll with the milder mix.

Quick Nerd Note: Customers are always asking us if automotive shampoos and car wash soaps are the same thing. It’s the exact same stuff, it just varies in title depending upon who is in charge of marketing, and what area of the globe you hail from. Americans tend to prefer the term car shampoo, whereas Europeans, and our friends down in Australia favor the car wash soap nomenclature.

The car cleaning aisle at the local auto parts store can be an intimidating sight, especially when you have zero clue as to which car shampoo is going to work best.
The car cleaning aisle at the local auto parts store can be an intimidating sight, especially when you have zero clue as to which car shampoo is going to work best.

What Kind of Automotive Shampoo Should I Buy?

Hop online, and you will find that there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of car wash shampoos on the market, each claiming to be better than the next competing product.

Adding further confusion to the frothy fray, is the fact that many of these car cleaning products are marketed as being uniquely formulated to tackle a particular task.

From foam-gun specific soaps, and wash-and-wax formulas, to surface prep shampoos and paint protection friendly routine maintenance cleaners, the number of car wash chemical options is overwhelming.

So what’s the difference between these “purpose-built” car shampoos, if any? Let’s find out…

Wash-and-Wax Formulas

This is arguably the most commonplace car wash shampoo on the market today. Promoted as a “2-in-1” alternative to washing and waxing, this sort of soap serves as both a contaminant remover and a wax-and-shine finishing solution.

The issue with wash-and-wax shampoos, is that while they may do a respectable job of cleaning, the thin layer of wax left in their wake tends to encourage streaking, and it doesn’t do shit for protecting a surface from scratches and contaminants.

Iron Removing and Wheel Cleaning Car Wash Soaps

While spray-on formulas are the most common kind of wheel cleaner, car shampoo manufacturers have also begun to hone-in on this market. Specially engineered to aid in the lifting and removal of things like metal-rich brake dust, road grime, and other forms of ferrous material, iron removing soaps are a must if your ride rocks high-performance brakes or sees track time.

Quick Tip: If you need to make an extra potent clay lubricant, mix some iron removing car wash soap with a dash of water. Once combined with an iron decontamination clay media product, you can pretty much guarantee that no grime will be left behind.

A thorough hand washing with a foamy car shampoo, followed by a rinse and a microfiber towel wipe-down should always be the first steps taken when removing contaminants from a car's exterior.
A thorough hand washing with a foamy car shampoo, followed by a rinse and a microfiber towel wipe-down should always be the first steps taken when removing contaminants from a car’s exterior.

Ultra Foaming Car Shampoos

Any car shampoo that’s marketed as being “super sudsy,” or “extra foamy,” is more than likely intended to be used with a foam cannon, or a foam gun. Despite requiring electricity, a pressure washer, and a safe place to spray, this “touchless” approach has seen a massive spike in popularity in recent years.

While it may not be for everyone, we get a feeling that this car cleaning craze will only grow in popularity as time goes on. So research your options, and if you have the right space, go ahead and spray away! Foam cannons and foam guns are a ton of fun once you get the hang of it.

Quick Tip: If you have purchased a ceramic coating because you want that “water bead effect,” DO NOT use a shampoo that contains polymer-based gloss enhancers. The film this stuff leaves behind adds shine, but it also masks anything below it. This severely hampers a ceramic coating‘s hydrophobic beading capabilities, and causes a lot of people to assume that their ceramic coating has just been “washed away.”

“Ceramic-Infused” Car Shampoos

As for all of the “ceramic-infused” cleaning chemicals that have flooded the market in recent years, let’s just say that if this were a butcher shop, these products would be the canned ham sitting on the bottom shelf.

Is it technically what it claims to be on the label? Sure. Pricing wise, is it surprisingly affordable? Absolutely. Does it offer the same level of quality and customer satisfaction as the real deal? Hell no.

The reason why this stuff doesn’t work very well, is because ceramic protection products rely heavily upon the amount of silica (SiO2) that’s been suspended within a solution. This not only helps the product protect the surface it has coated, but it also creates that rich, ultra-glossy shine we all love.

Unfortunately, many of the “ceramic” car shampoos on the market either have extremely low SiO2 levels, or are formulated around other hybridized ingredients.

Time and time again we have heard reports of customers using a ceramic-infused shampoo, only to discover that it’s ability to clean far surpasses its label’s claim that it will repel contaminants and stop surface scratches from forming. So while the shine it provides may look nice, that 2-in-1 ceramic shampoo is probably going to fail faster than Billy Madison at a spelling bee competition.

The use of a ceramic coating oriented prep shampoo should always be the first step in the pre-install preparation phase. This will help lift any caked-on contaminants, and cut through that crappy wax that failed after just two weeks.
The use of a ceramic coating oriented prep shampoo should always be the first step in the pre-install preparation phase. This will help lift any caked-on contaminants, and cut through that crappy wax that failed after just two weeks.

Surface Prep Car Shampoos

When it comes to automotive surface prep shampoos, exercising caution, knowing precisely when to use them, and buying the right soap is the name of the game. Like an alkaline-rich, pH enhanced shampoo, this cleaning chemical hovers somewhere between a bug-and-tar removing degreaser, and a super sudsy auto soap.

Ceramic coating prep shampoos are particularly good at deep cleaning, and therefore should never be used as a part of your bi-weekly car wash routine. And while the average surface prep shampoo won’t chew-up your car’s clear coat, it will remove almost any surface protectant south of a 9H-rated nano ceramic coating or a graphene-infused protective product.

It may take a few scrubbing sessions, and maybe a little clay bar action, but a ceramic prep shampoo’s ability to cut through the crap and return a surface to its original form makes it one of the most powerful weapons in a DIY detailer’s arsenal.

Rocking a pH level that hovers in the 9-10 range, surface prep shampoos are the ultimate solution for anyone looking to strip away wax, paint sealant, or deeply embedded contaminants from a vehicle. When used correctly, a well-balanced surface prep shampoo will not only leave a an ultra-clean exterior behind, but it will also create the ideal canvas for applying a fresh paint protection product.

Quick Nerd Note: When it comes to scrubbing vehicles that have been “wrapped” with some form of surface protectant product, the car shampoo you choose could spell the difference between squeaky clean and profuse profanity. There’s a reason why many of the world’s largest paint protection film (PPF) companies suggest using a pH neutral car wash soap, or even an ultra sensitive baby shampoo.

A high-grade, ceramic coating friendly automotive shampoo that's been formulated around routine cleaning will always deliver the best, and safest car wash results.
A high-grade, ceramic coating friendly automotive shampoo that’s been formulated around routine cleaning will always deliver the best, and safest car wash results.

Routine Maintenance Car Shampoos

As opposed to the soapy solutions listed above, which are all specifically formulated to tackle a certain task, maintenance car shampoos are built to safely and thoroughly clean any exterior surface.

A well-balanced maintenance car shampoo should be formulated so that its pH potency is on a level where it can deep clean a filthy vehicle, all while still playing nice with any paint protection products that might have been previously applied.

A maintenance car wash shampoo should never contain things like natural or synthetic waxes, as this stuff hampers a nano ceramic coating’s hydrophobic effects. It is this water-shedding hydrophobic effect that also gives ceramic coatings their unique ability to repel airborne contaminants. So applying a shampoo with wax in it will only provide things like water spots, tree sap, bird crap, road salt, and other surface contaminants an environment where they can flourish.

Quick Nerd Note: One of the reasons why many people opt for an extremely sudsy car shampoo, is because it will expand and penetrate all of those tight crevices on the outside of the automobile. Super foamy car shampoos also create an extremely slippery surface, thus reducing the risk of spider webbing surface scratches.

Selecting the right car shampoo for the right job is pretty important, especially if you plan on installing or protecting a nano ceramic coating.
Selecting the right car shampoo for the right job is pretty important, especially if you plan on installing or protecting a nano ceramic coating.

Parting Shots

Although not all car wash soaps and automotive shampoos are created equal, they do serve the same sudsy purpose: To clean a vehicle’s exterior, and leave behind a rich shine.

What people fail to understand, is that properly washing a car requires more than just a bunch of elbow grease and a garden hose. This cleaning routine has just as much to do with knowing when to use a specific kind of automotive shampoo, as it does with scrubbing surfaces with a clean microfiber towel and a big-ass bucket of suds.

So shop wisely, always opt for a highly reviewed car shampoo product from a reputable brand, and when in doubt follow the manufacturer’s application suggestions. Your clear coat’s longevity just may depend upon it!

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