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Which Type of Car Wash Soap Is Best? We Wade through the Suds to Find Out

a person painting a table
Tested: Best Carwash SoapsGannon Burgett - Car and Driver


"Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through these links."

No spring car-cleaning adventure is complete without some good carwash soap. Pour it in a bucket, suds it up, and enjoy a warm Saturday morning—sounds great, right? Still, choosing which carwash soap you need can make or break your ride's shine.

While all carwashes claim to be different, special, or otherwise better than the rest, at the end of the day, car soap has one job to do: clean the car. Which brand or type you prefer is largely subjective, and besides, an informal office poll made it clear to us that most car lovers buy the brands we know and love, regardless of the marketing jargon thrown our way.

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So when you run to the store to grab a new bottle, which kind of car soap should you buy? That's what we set out to find in this test of the best carwash soaps.

Looking for more car cleaning and detailing? The Gear Team has tested a number of car cleaning products, including best car vacuums, best car glass cleaners, and best car upholstery cleaners.


Our Quest for the Best Car Wash Soap

For professional insight into the world of car washing, we reached out to detailer and YouTube personality Larry Kosilla, founder of AMMO NYC. "I've been obsessed with cleaning cars and fanatical about them for a very long time," he says.

It quickly became apparent while researching and preparing for this test that objectively comparing 15 to 20 different carwash soaps and their various types and iterations was unrealistic—the choices are so vast and varied, and preferences so subjective to the user, that we'd effectively be comparing apples to oranges. Instead, we broke car soaps down into four main subsections.

Types of Car Wash Soap

Many of today's carwash soaps go beyond simple cleanser. After considering dozens of car-washing products, our research showed that the majority of car soaps these days fall into one of four main types:

  • Regular carwash soap

  • Carwash soap with wax

  • Hybrid carwash soap

  • Ceramic carwash soap

Each type has its abilities and drawbacks, and all have their pros and cons. With so many claims and promises, just scoping the shelves can be overwhelming. Comparing them? Downright impossible.

So instead of resolutely pronouncing that "this soap works better than that one" or objectively naming one "the best," we're here to help explain and differentiate between each of these four main types of carwashing soap.

Things to Consider When Buying Car Wash Soap

There are lots of factors to consider when buying carwash, but the number-one issue, according to Kosilla, is "What are you trying to clean?" There are soaps for almost every component and material on your car. For this comparison, we'll stick to general carwash soaps, not component cleaners. Here's what to look for.

pH Balance: In general, look for a soap that's pH-balanced to ensure it cleans the whole car without damaging wax, paintwork, or components. Depending on where you live and how you drive, though, there may be other pH considerations.

"If you're in Alaska where you have lots of road salt," says Kosilla, "you might want to get something that has a lower pH, to attack the minerals and remove the salts from the surface, just like you would on your hair. If you're in Florida and the roads have tar and it's a hundred thousand degrees or whatever, you're going to want a high-pH-based soap." But these are extremes; for the most part, Kosilla says, a neutral pH balance is your best bet. "pH neutral soaps are the safest and are not going to do anything drastic to the paint or whatever is covering the paint," says Kosilla.

Concentration/Value: A more concentrated soap will last longer and potentially offer better value for money, depending on the price-per-ounce and dilution requirements. Use some basic math to check how much product is required for each wash to determine the rough per-wash price.

Compatibility with Washing Tools: Take into consideration the tools you have on hand and your personal preference for washing your car. Some soaps are specially formulated for use with foam guns or cannons, while others are best applied by hand.

Environmental Impact: Many brands now offer eco-friendly options with fewer compromises on cleaning power and functionality. Look for biodegradable formulas to be environmentally conscious.

Finish and Protection: Besides cleaning, consider what additional benefits the soap offers, such as added wax for protection or ingredients that enhance shine.

Additives: Counterintuitively, if you plan to add a wax or ceramic coating after your carwash, it might make more sense to buy regular car soap to get your car completely clean before you spiff it up with other products. Otherwise, you'll end up applying additional wax or ceramic coating on top of the stuff that's already in the soap.

Washing Method: As Kosilla noted, carwashing "is so much more important than the actual product. We can argue about the products all day long," Larry admits, "but if you have the best product in the world and have a horrible method, the soap doesn't matter."

To avoid spreading contaminants, you'll want to make sure you're minimizing the risk of grinding dirt and debris into the car. As such, you'll want to use one of two washing methods: the two-bucket method or utilize a grit guard. The two-bucket method utilizes one bucket for your soap solution and one for rinsing your wash mitt. A grit guard fits at the bottom of a bucket to help trap contaminants that may scratch your ride's paint.

At the end of the day, Kosilla admits the distinctions between carwash soaps are often cosmetic rather than chemical. "For the average person that just wants to wash their regular car that they use for regular things, all carwashes are more or less in the same ballpark—what you're changing is some lubrication. Definitely fragrance, definitely colors and things. And obviously the biggest one of all is price," he says.

"Everybody's focused on what's the cheapest," Kosilla says, "but when people are focused on price only, that's what they're going to get."


How We Tested Car Wash Soap

Rather than pit all these types of carwash soaps with varying additives, ingredients, and purposes against each other to try and determine "the best," we decided instead to compare each type of carwash soap to evaluate the merits and drawbacks of each: one brand, four types of soap, four products.

Because Mothers Polish offers a carwash soap in each type—and, for the record, is not an advertiser with Hearst Autos—we chose that brand's soaps for this comparison. For kicks, we even tested common dish soap. After all, we know some of you out there still do it. (Spoiler alert: don't.)

We started by mixing soap and water as per the directions on each respective bottle, then washed one car panel per type using a classic bucket-and-mitt wash method with a grit guard. We dumped and rinsed our bucket between each wash.

As we washed each car, we noted the following parameters:

  • Differences between each types

  • Texture

  • Cleaning power

  • Amount of suds

Because we knew it would be impossible and unrealistic to compare 16 different carwashes to one another objectively, for this test we really set out to compare the four types of soaps to see if any differences were truly discernible. We also wanted to determine if any of them clearly stood above the rest.

Read on to learn the key characteristics of each type of soap, the features it offers (or claims to), and how you can choose the best carwash soap to help you clean like a pro.

Note: The products listed under each soap type are merely examples of each. We used Mothers' products as our baseline; the other car soaps are merely Gear Team recommendations.

a man and woman washing a car
Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver

Regular Carwash Soap

Let's start with the most basic, and typically cheapest, type of carwash soap. It's old school—lacking any sort of wax or ceramic additives that claim to be "new and improved." Just simple, sudsy goodness that won't break the bank. But how did it hold up against the new kids on the block?

Pretty darn well, as it turns out. Ironically, simple car soap might not be your idea of the "best" type of carwash soap, but it's usually among the go-to for detailers and professional car-care folks. Of course, the one downside to using pure car soap is a lack of protectants. This does cause the entire car-washing process to become longer, but pros know this is a good thing.

Because this kind of soap doesn't leave any additives behind, you can apply the wax or coating of your choice—which is nearly always better than the stuff included in soaps.

If this sounds like you, look into simple, no-frills, regular carwash soap. But if time is a concern when it comes to washing and waxing your ride, consider a carwash soap with additives.

two buckets of popcorn on the side of a street
Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver

Mothers 3X Triple Action Foam Wash

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K44KJ1X?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Mothers 3X Triple Action Foam Wash</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$24.35</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Meguiar's Gold Class Car Wash

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0009IQXFO?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Meguiar's Gold Class Car Wash</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$11.30</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Chemical Guys Mr. Pink Super Suds Shampoo Surface Cleaner

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AFBXQNC?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Chemical Guys Mr. Pink Super Suds Shampoo Surface Cleaner</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$9.99</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Adam's Mega Foam

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07SPY1CLW?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Adam's Mega Foam</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$16.99</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Shop Now

Adam's Mega Foam

amazon.com

$16.99

Amazon

Car Soap + Wax

Car soap and wax combos toe the line elegantly between price and efficiency. If you aren't concerned so much with having a perfect shine and simply want a clean look that also repels water and gunk, this is the stuff to get.

During our testing, the suds and water felt waxy—which actually dried our hands out a bit. The viscosity of this soap type is thicker and almost honey-like, so expect to mix it in with the water a bit more than you would with regular carwash soap.

As for the efficacy of these wax soaps, Kosilla says they offer extra protection and the added benefit of quicker drying. Once applied to the car and rinsed off, the water will bead off faster thanks to the wax additives. We detected only a very slight waxy finish on the paint afterward, far less than we expected to feel.

It's important to remember that while these carwash soaps claim to include "wax," whatever's here will never be as good as separate car-wax application. Keeping that in mind, it's better than nothing—so if you're short on time but want a waxy shine, grab some carwash soap + wax.

a car with a snow covered hood
Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver

Mothers California Gold Carnauba Wash & Wax

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004N5WHE0?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Mothers California Gold Carnauba Wash & Wax</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$13.99</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Meguiar's Ultimate Wash & Wax

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07RB2ZYMS?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Meguiar's Ultimate Wash & Wax</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$33.47</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Chemical Guys Extreme Bodywash + Wax

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XTKPTTJ?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Chemical Guys Extreme Bodywash + Wax</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$9.99</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

3D Wash N Wax

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0007RVLDG?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>3D Wash N Wax </p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$14.99</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Shop Now

3D Wash N Wax

amazon.com

$14.99

Amazon

Hybrid Car Wash Soap

Enter the new age: hybrid car soap is simply the more refined, "better" wash-and-wax soap. Or is it? While Kosilla is dubious of pure ceramic soaps, he says regarding hybrid soaps, "On the flip side, if you want to have wax in there... I think those actually do work."

To call their product "ceramic," manufacturers typically add SiO2 (silicon dioxide) to the soap for a claimed higher cleaning and protection level.

We did not find as big of a difference between the hybrid and soap + wax products as manufacturers' marketing jargon might suggest. Hybrid soap is definitely thinner and less sudsy, but we didn't notice a huge improvement in drying time. Its selling point is paint and finish protection, so it's a nice way to add a bit of that without shelling hundreds for a full ceramic coating. Hybrid car soap also falls into the time-saver category. If you're pressed for time, why not do both steps at once?

If you're ready to step into the hybrid carwash soap game, they're only a few bucks more expensive, so it can't hurt to give it a try.

a person holding a bouquet of flowers
Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver

Mothers Ultimate Hybrid Bead Booster Car Wash

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09T5Z1W5R?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Mothers Ultimate Hybrid Bead Booster Car Wash</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$17.50</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Meguiar's Hybrid Ceramic Wash & Wax

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CLY5G17N?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Meguiar's Hybrid Ceramic Wash & Wax</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$14.97</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Turtle Wax Hybrid Ceramic Wash & Wax

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07XYQNZ2R?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Turtle Wax Hybrid Ceramic Wash & Wax</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$18.97</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Meguiar's Hybrid Ceramic Wash & Wax 2-Liquid System

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08PQ1B1K5?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Meguiar's Hybrid Ceramic Wash & Wax 2-Liquid System</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$26.07</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Ceramic Car Wash Soap

With the word "ceramic" being all the rage in the car detailing world these days, we were excited to get our hands on ceramic soap to see what it could do.

The main selling point for ceramic carwash soap is increased cleaning power and a layer of protection for your ride's paint and finish. Additionally, ceramic carwash soap is recommended as the go-to for vehicles that already have a ceramic coating applied, as it purportedly revitalizes that coating.

As expected, ceramic carwash soap accelerated the drying process impressively, as shown in the picture above (the left door panel is the hybrid soap, and the right door panel is the ceramic soap). Even if your car does not have a ceramic coating applied (our test vehicles did not), ceramic soap claims to leave a light layer of protection behind. We can't comment on the protection level yet, but we'll keep an eye on it to see if we notice a difference. Don't be afraid to apply your wax of choice after using ceramic soap, either.

While not dismissive of it, Kosilla admits he isn't sold on ceramic carwash soap. "If you do it over and over, you're definitely putting a barrier on," he says. "But I haven't found strong evidence to suggest that that is actually adding protection."

It's definitely more expensive than the other types of carwash soap we tested—but the claimed protection and quicker drying time are nice perks. If you're particularly fastidious about your ride's paint, ceramic carwash soap may be the answer.

a red car drying off
Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver

Mothers CMX Ceramic Wash & Coat

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07YSX4HCL?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Mothers CMX Ceramic Wash & Coat</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$12.22</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Adam's Polishes Graphene Shampoo

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08X4YZSFN?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Adam's Polishes Graphene Shampoo</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$16.99</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Chemical Guys Hydro Suds Ceramic Car Wash Soap

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07Q2HST9N?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Chemical Guys Hydro Suds Ceramic Car Wash Soap</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$19.97</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Ethos Ceramic Shampoo

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07H1LTQX8?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10048.g.60094460%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Ethos Ceramic Shampoo</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$16.99</p><span class="copyright">Amazon</span>

Our Verdict on Car Wash Soaps

So what's the deal? Which type of carwash soap should you buy? Like many things in life, the answer is, perhaps frustratingly, "it depends." That's the main reason we chose to compare soap types, rather than pit individual soaps against one another. Here's the breakdown:

Normal Car Wash Soap

  • Pros: Budget-friendly; allows you to apply whatever wax you prefer

  • Cons: Lacks paint protection

Car Wash Soap + Wax

  • Pros: A great time saver—just wash and dry; also budget-friendly

  • Cons: Wax additives won't be as good as a separate wax

Hybrid Car Wash Soap

  • Pros: SiO2 adds a bit of protection to your ride's paint and finish; an easy one-step process with the wax additives

  • Cons: Wax additives still won't be as good as separate wax; more costly

Ceramic Car Wash Soap

  • Pros: Better paint protection; allows you to apply wax of choice; revitalizes existing ceramic coating

  • Cons: Pricey; little to no suds

You might see people using dish soap to wash their cars. We advise against it. Dish soap is usually quite rough, and using it adds the risk of damaging your car's finish if it's left on too long. In our testing, car-formulated soap cleaned better than dish soap anyway.

In a nutshell, if you prefer to take your time washing your ride, buy either the standalone carwash soap or ceramic soap. If time is of the essence, soap + wax or hybrid soap is the way to go. Happy sudsing!

a person squatting down next to a can of soda
Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver

How We Tested Car Wash Soap

With this test, we wanted to compare the four main types of carwash soap and note any differences. To achieve this, we ordered one soap of each type from Mothers and used one on each panel of tester Katherine's beloved Prius.

We stuck with the classic bucket-and-mitt method using a grit guard. We diluted the soap according to the directions on the bottle and washed the car with a clean, new mitt. While we did, we observed the texture of the soap on our hands. We also recorded the amount of suds and how quickly they developed.

We then noted overall cleaning power, looking at how well each soap removed grime and dirt. Finally, we took a look at the differences we noticed between the four types, such as drying speed and hand-feel after the car was dry.

a person cleaning a car
Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver

FAQs

What is car wash soap?

Carwash soap is specifically formulated to clean the exterior of vehicles without damaging the paint or protective coatings. They come in an array of formulations, including versions with carnauba wax or ceramic coatings integrated into the liquids.

Why do I need special ca rwash soap?

Household soaps or detergents can potentially strip away waxes or other coatings and damage your car's paint. Carwash soaps are designed to clean effectively while protecting your vehicle's finish with what is almost always a pH-neutral formula.

Can car wash soap be used on any type of vehicle?

Generally speaking, yes, most carwash soaps are safe for all vehicle types. But take into account any waxes or coatings you may already have on your vehicle.

How do I use car wash soap?

The method can vary slightly between products, but you'll typically dilute the soap in water and apply it using a wash mitt or sponge. Some formulations are also specifically designed to be used in conjunction with foam cannons.

How much does car wash soap cost?

Prices can vary from under $10 to over $50, depending on the brand, quality, and size. Soaps with added benefits, such as integrated carnauba wax, ceramic coatings, and other premium formulations will generally be priced higher due to the added manufacturing costs.

Why Trust Us

Hearst Autos combines the talent, resources, and expertise of three of the largest, most influential automotive publications in the world. The Gear Team has tested a wide variety of automotive products, parts, accessories, and gear, such as car window/windshield cleaners, pressure washers, and interior cleaners. We get our hands on each and every product we test. Most are purchased; some are supplied by manufacturers.

The Gear Team doesn't need to game algorithms for traffic or promote lousy products for clicks. We're more concerned with our reputation and the trust that our readers have in Autoweek, Car and Driver, and Road & Track to deliver honest opinions and expert evaluations.

Visit our Tested & Trusted page to see the very best in automotive gear. Read more about our product testing and evaluation process here.

a group of bottles and cans
Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver

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