Get Your Free Car Wash Cheat Sheet

This cheat sheet breaks down the basics so you can get squeaky-clean, pro-level results on the inside and outside—every time you wash!

Car Soap, Shampoo, or Foam? A Beginner’s Guide

Confused or curious about car soap? It’s understandable because not all soap or foam-forming car wash products are the same! 

Like kerosine vs gasoline, you have additives and properties that make car wash products distinct from one another. It’s important to know the differences to see great results.

Instead of guessing what to use in your bucket this weekend, I’ll break down everything you need to know about car soaps at a beginner level. Info I wish I had when I first started washing my car (that I recently touched on in this video):

What to know about car soaps

When you hear the phrase ‘car soap’…know this term can mean a few different things. Many people use car soap as a term to include anything with suds, but some products like foams and detergents live in the pre-wash or paint prep category as opposed to normal, common car wash soap.

For example, Dawn dish soap—a product people mistakenly refer to as their car soap— is technically a detergent/degreaser…more on that later.

What is car shampoo?

Car shampoo or car wash shampoo is a type of concentrated car wash soap with lubricating additives, normally sold in smaller bottles than general-purpose car wash soap. Shampoos are diluted at a different ratio than general-purpose soaps, so you need very little per gallon of water.

General-use car soaps and shampoos both produce suds, both are designed for use with a wash mitt.

Cheap car wash soap vs premium car shampoo

Cheap car wash soaps sold in large containers may or may not contain waxes and protectants, and usually don’t work quite as well as premium shampoos.

Professionals generally prefer car shampoos because they tend to slide off the vehicle easier when sprayed with water. Cheaper soaps can sometimes leave behind residue.

I like a mid-grade car shampoo like Meguiar’s Gold Class. I’ve been using it for years, and think it’s a great product for beginners.

Meguiar’s Gold Class Car Wash Shampoo and Conditioner

What I like

Cleans and conditions, affordable

If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no cost to you. Thanks for your support.

That foamy, shaving-cream-like stuff sprayed on vehicles…that’s snow foam. Car foam (usually referred to as snow foam in stores) is a completely different type of car wash product

What is snow foam used for?

Snow foam is a pre-wash product designed to trap and carry away dirt on its own, without agitation. It’s applied with either a foam cannon or foam gun. Unlike car shampoo, snow foam doesn’t contain the same lubricants or waxes needed for hand washing.

If your vehicle is really dirty, start with snow foam. It produces a thick, creamy foam when applied using a power washer and foam cannon. Snow foam is a touch-free way of removing heavy dirt before hand washing.

Car shampoo vs snow foam

Unlike snow foam, car shampoo is best at removing light dirt from a vehicle. You can add car shampoo to a bucket and apply by hand, or apply it with a foam gun. It’s simply a matter of preference.

Some shampoos also leave behind wax, which is ideal if you don’t wax your vehicle often. 

I tend to use car shampoo more than foam for general maintenance washing, because most of the time my vehicle typically isn’t dirty enough to warrant snow foam.

Can dish liquid be used as car soap?

Dish liquid shouldn’t be used for routine maintenance washing like car wash soap, because it removes waxes and other protectants! Products like Dawn are actually detergents, not soaps, so they will remove grease, wax, and everything else.

Unless you plan to strip everything off your vehicle for paint correction, car shampoo or soap should be used every time you wash.

Check out my in-depth post on dish liquid in detailing (and if it’s safe) to learn more about this controversial topic!

Ready to try out car foam?

To create snow foam, you’ll need either a gas or electric pressure washer and a foam cannon.

If you’re considering using foam, check out these pressure washers for beginners under $300 I recently covered.

I also have a quick breakdown of foam guns, foam cannons, and snow foam you can check out while you’re at it.

Hope this post has cleared a few things up :)

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

Leave a Comment