Car Wash Soap Alternatives: Best Household Soap to Wash a Car

Keeping your car nice and clean is important. No one wants to drive a car that looks dingy or dirty. This is why you need to take the time to wash your car as thoroughly as possible. You may not have car soap or shampoo handy, though.

When you don’t have any car shampoo to use, it can be tough to know what to do. Is it going to be okay to use regular household soap? If you don’t know, then you likely want to figure out if there is a simple alternative to car wash soap products that you have around your house somewhere. You don’t want to just use a type of soap without knowing if it is safe for your car.

What car wash soap alternatives can you use? Is household soap OK?

Today I am going to be going over various car wash soap alternatives. I’ll give you the basic information so that you can see the advantages and disadvantages of using these alternatives. You will come out with a much better understanding of what you should and should not be doing. It’s not too complicated to understand, but you should read on to get all of the information before proceeding with any alternative soaps.

Are the Alternatives Safe for My Car?

If you were to browse the internet in search of an answer to the question above, you’d probably be disappointed. After all, most experts agree that you definitely should not be using alternatives when washing your car

I will cover the individual alternatives shortly, but very broadly speaking, each product I’m about to list has its own chemical composition. The chances are that a product will damage your car exterior if it contains any of these chemicals:

  • Perchloroethylene (PERC)
  • Coco diethanolamine
  • Phosphate
  • Surfactants
  • Ammonia
  • Chlorine
  • Quarternary
  • Phosphate
  • Triclosan
  • Non-petroleum oil

Moreover, each of these chemicals is toxic for the environment, so you shouldn’t be using them for a major outside cleaning job.

So, does that mean that all of the alternatives are absolutely off the table? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. In order to properly answer that question, we have to delve into the alternatives and find out.

Car Wash Soap Alternatives: a Comprehensive 2020 List

Before we move on to the products themselves, I should stress that I listed them in the following order based on two key factors:

  1. Popularity based on search results (e.g., the number of hits for ‘Can I use dish soap to wash my car?’ and similar search queries)
  2. Personal experience (e.g., how many people have asked me about the solution or even suggested it to me over the years)

With that in mind, let’s get into the list.

Dish Soap

Dish soap, or rather dish liquid, is by far the most popular alternative that people use (or rather, think about using). In fact, I used to use it myself when I had my first car. It’s safe to say that it didn’t end well.

Dish washing liquid.

Now, don’t get me wrong, dish soap is an incredibly effective cleaner. Thanks to its chemical makeup, it’s meant to remove grease, grime, and dirt from utensils and dishes. And even some of the low-end products can do it as effectively as the industry heavyweights.

But therein lies the problem. The ingredients of dish soaps are powerful enough to harm your car’s finish. If you were to use dish soap regularly, chances are that your car will end up looking dim and losing its luster. In addition, the soap leaves behind a greasy residue that is incredibly difficult to remove later on. 

Of course, if you have absolutely no other option, then I suggest watering down the soap heavily. Moreover, once you’re done applying it to the car, rinse it off immediately. That way you don’t have to worry about the residue and your car’s paint job will retain its luster.

Also, if you happen to have an old car and don’t care about the finish, then feel free to use dish soap. But otherwise, I would not recommend it.

Hair Shampoo

Both hair shampoo and conditioner are popular among the DIY car wash crowd. And just like any other alternative, these products come with a set of caveats.

After testing some of the shampoos and conditioners myself, I can safely say that they definitely can wash your car. It won’t necessarily be spotless, but the hair products will get the job done.

Personally, I’d suggest getting any conditioner that contains lanolin. Lanolin, or wool fat, is actually an ingredient that the cosmetics industry uses regularly. It’s known to help with dry skin or hair issues, and thanks to its properties, it will remove grime from your car and give it a nice shine.

However, be absolutely sure that the shampoo or conditioner you’re using doesn’t contain any of the chemicals I listed earlier. Just like dish soap, hair shampoo can cause damage to your car’s finish.

Laundry Detergent

Laundry detergent is just as potent as dish soap. Its main purpose is to remove stains from fabric, and in order to do that, it has to contain powerful chemicals that dig deep into the fibers.

Washing car with  the laundry detergent.

You might notice a bit of a trend here. Every time an alternative to car wash soap is incredibly strong when it comes to its intended use, it’s probably going to be damaging to your car. Naturally, the same applies to laundry detergent. Not only will it have a negative effect on the finish, but it will leave a residue that’s hard to remove once it dries.

So, if you insist on using laundry detergent, simply follow the same piece of advice I provided when it comes to dish soap. In other words, dilute the detergent with as much water as possible and make sure to rinse it off quickly, before it gets a chance to dry. In addition, rinse every single inch of your car’s chassis; detergent has a nasty habit of getting into tight places and sticking around.

Hand Soap

I personally never understood why people even want to use hand soap to wash their cars. It is, by far, the least potent product on this list when it comes to removing hard stains. But more importantly, how would you apply it? Soaping up the car by hand is not only notoriously difficult, but also tedious and somewhat counterproductive; a few people mentioned dissolving it in a bucket of water, but that takes too much time and effort.

Of course, I am fully aware that liquid hand soap exists. However, you would need a lot of it in order to wash the car properly. And when you take the price into consideration, you might as well use that money to buy proper car wash soap.

Long story short, do not use hand soap to wash your car. It’s far too much work, and the product will only remove the most surface-level stains.

Baby Shampoo

Interestingly, a lot of people actually recommended baby shampoo to me back when I had my first car. Their reasoning wasn’t terrible, either; it’s not as potent as regular shampoo, the chemical makeup is lighter, and it has a pleasant, soothing scent.

And I do agree that using baby shampoo is safer than using regular shampoo or conditioner. In fact, if used well, this product is the perfect solution against bird droppings and similar types of stains.

However, just because baby shampoo is not that potent, it doesn’t mean it’s entirely safe. Leaving it on for too long can cause your car’s finish to fade. In addition, it leaves a residue that’s difficult to clean. But most importantly, it’s roughly as potent as regular soap; you will not be removing hard stains from your car any time soon.

So, how should you use baby shampoo? The procedure is simple — dilute it well and remove it as quickly as possible when you’re done.

For the full test and review of baby shampoo as a car soap, see the video below:

Household Cleaners

Household cleaners should not be anywhere near your car! The only part of your car that you can clean with one of these products is the carpeting and floor mats, and even then you have to be extremely careful and follow the steps to the letter.

Most household cleaning products, such as floor care cleaners, drain cleaners, tile cleaners, etc., contain harmful chemicals such as ammonia. If any of these products found their way to your car’s exterior, they would do far more damage than simply making the colors fade. You can expect your car’s chassis to dry and crack everywhere. I repeat — do NOT use household cleaners to wash your car.

Wheel Cleaner

I’ve discussed wheel cleaners in the past, and my opinion hasn’t changed much since then. Generally speaking, wheel cleaners CAN be used to wash the entire car. After all, there are quite a few of them that contain the same ingredients as an average car wash soap.

Of course, before you decide to use a wheel cleaner, check the ingredients label. You might need to dilute it first, and once you do, make sure to remove it quickly so it doesn’t leave any residue.

In terms of effectiveness, the wheel cleaners might just be the best alternative of the ones listed here. But then again, that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, unlike dish soap and baby shampoo, they are products specifically aimed at cleaning parts of the car.

Baking Soda

Baking soda has so many different uses; it can cover anything from health issues to everyday work around the house. Some people I know even joke around that you can literally fix anything with a little vinegar and baking soda.

So, is baking soda a good alternative for washing your car? The answer is ‘yes’, but you can’t use it alone. Baking soda is, after all, a household cleaner-level product. So, unless you dilute it and mix it with something else, it will do damage to the paint job of your car.

DIY Car Wash Soap

By themselves, these car soap alternatives can be harmful or ineffective. But if you combine a few of them and dilute them properly, you can get an extremely effective DIY car wash soap. All you need are the following ingredients:

  • A bucket of warm water
  • ¼ cup of either baking soda or white vinegar
  • ¼ cup of either dishwashing soap or baby shampoo

How to make DIY car wash soap in 3 easy steps:

  1. Use a measuring cup to put the correct amount of baking soda (or vinegar) and baby shampoo (or dish soap) into the bucket.
  2. Fill the bucket with warm water.
  3. Mix the solution and DIY car wash soap is ready to use.

Make sure to follow the steps to the letter, both when making the soap and using it. That way, you will avoid any damage to the car’s finish and you’ll have a clean rig in the process.

Important Details to Consider When Using Car Wash Soap Alternatives

Man Washing a car with a microfiber towel.

Don’t Wash Your Car in Direct Sunlight

If you wash your car in the open, the sunlight can dry it quicker than usual. Considering that most of these products leave a potent residue, you need to wash them off quickly, so make sure to do the complete wash in the shade.

Never Use a Sponge

Instead of sponges, use either a microfiber cloth, lambswool, or synthetic plush wash mitt. Unlike sponges, these alternatives will not leave any tiny, swirling scratch marks on your car.

Use the Two-Bucket Method

Always keep two buckets next to you — one with the DIY soap, the other with clear water for rinsing the mitt. It will save you a lot of time and you’ll do a more thorough cleaning job.

Rinse the Car Properly

As I stated several times throughout this article, rinsing is extremely important, even if you’re using regular car wash soap. Once the soap (or an alternative) dries, it will be difficult to remove later.

Don’t Leave Your Car to Dry by Itself

If you leave the car to air dry, the water will evaporate, but it will leave a natural mineral residue behind. This residue will appear in the form of stains, spots, and streaks. Instead, dry the car by hand using a clean chamois or microfiber cloth

Use Wax or Sealant

If you want your car’s exterior to have a sleek, shiny, mirror finish, you will want to use wax or a sealant. But more importantly, the wax will keep the surface of your car from fading, cracking, or oxidizing. In addition, water spots will not accumulate on the surface of your car after rain.

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To Sum Up

None of the alternatives to regular car soap or shampoo will be great. The big problem is that these soaps have a negative impact on your paint job and the finish of your car. If you care about the aesthetic appeal of your vehicle, then it is going to be worthwhile to invest in some car wash soap or shampoo. Consider your options before you go through with using these alternatives. They may work, but they may also harm your car cosmetically in some ways.

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