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Alternatives to Car Wash Soap: What to Use When You're Out

When a last-minute car wash is a necessity and there is no car wash soap available, there are a variety of alternative options to use in a pinch. Fortunately, most are commonly found around the house or even at the convenience store across the street.

Even though alternatives can be used, it is highly recommended that car wash soap still be prioritized over any other solution since it is specifically manufactured to be used on your vehicle’s delicate paint.

Many car wash alternatives can be used in specific situations and in emergency situations, but using many of these as long-term replacements can do a great deal of damage to your vehicle’s paint. The most common purported alternatives to car wash soap are dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, hand soap, hair conditioner, and baking soda.

Car Wash Soap Alternatives

car wash soap alternatives

There is a surprising amount of common household soaps and cleaners that can be used in place of car wash soap in a pinch. Through the past decade, many natural soaps and cleaners have been made and sold in increasing numbers.

If a car wash alternative must be sought, it is best to use these types of soaps and cleaners since they are softer and often have a neutral pH.

Dish Soap

dish soap

Dish soap is one of the most common purported acceptable alternatives to car wash soap, even as a long-term solution. Despite its stellar reputation as an inexpensive replacement, car wash soap can do more damage than good if it is used as a true car wash replacement.

That said, it can easily be used once or twice in case of emergencies. In these situations, it works very well. The same components in dish soap that can make it detrimental to car paint over time also make it a good short-term substitute for car wash soap.

In addition to usually being a harsher type of cleaner than car wash soap, dish soap is designed to cut through tough grease left on dishes, and it contains microscopically abrasive elements that help it do so.

Laundry Detergent

laundry detergent

Laundry detergent is much like dish soap in that it works as a once-and-done solution to cleaning your vehicle. Long-term laundry detergent use can result in the same kind of damage that dish soap can cause since it often uses powerful chemicals used to rid your clothes of dirt.

These chemicals are not vehicle-friendly, but they also do a good job of cleaning your car one or two times. Many experts recommend using water to dilute the detergent before use since it can be so harsh.

Shampoo

shampoo

Out of all the household cleaning products you could use on your vehicle, shampoo is one of the better alternatives to car wash soap. It is not made with harsh chemicals like dish soap or laundry detergent since it is designed to be used on the skin, but it should still be used with caution.

Baby shampoo is especially close to car wash soap when it comes to its gentleness on paint, but it is also not as effective at removing hard dirt stains as a result. Again, many experts recommend diluting any shampoo with some water before using it on your vehicle.

Hand Soap

hand soap

Hand soap is similar to shampoo in that is usually a gentle type of cleaner and may not be as damaging to car paint as other cleaners. This also means that it is not as effective against hard dirt and grime as more potent cleaners.

Additionally, it may also be harder to use since hand soap usually comes in smaller bottles than shampoo and laundry detergent. It would take quite a lot of hand soap to be able to wash your entire vehicle effectively.

Hair Conditioner

Hair conditioner may be a surprising car wash alternative considering that it is not considered to be a cleaner. Though it is similar to shampoo in that it is used for hair and should be less harsh than household cleaning chemicals, the same general rules apply: try to use a neutral or natural conditioner, long-term use is not advised, and dilute with water since it is still a dedicated car wash substitute.

One benefit that hair conditioner has over other car wash alternatives is the use of lanolin. This is what gives hair its shine after using a conditioner, and it can give your vehicle’s paint a shiny finish as well. Despite this, conditioner is not and should not be used as a substitute for car wax either as it also does not add the protection that car wax does.

Baking Soda

Baking soda is used to clean a number of different things in your house, and it can be used for cleaning your vehicle if it is used with water. Baking soda is often used as an ingredient in DIY car wash solutions and is usually mixed with at least two other components.

Baking soda is basic – it has a higher pH than a neutral solution. In addition to not being able to work by itself anyway, baking soda needs to at least be mixed with water to work. If your cleaning solution uses an incorrect water to baking soda ratio, it could cause severe damage to your paint. 

DIY Car Wash

There are a huge number of DIY car wash solutions that can be made from just about cleaners or soaps you have in your house. Many of the best ones include water, baking soda, one or more different household soaps, or a combination of the aforementioned ingredients. The best DIY car wash soaps use mild soaps, neutral pH soaps, or natural cleaners.

Car Shampoo Alternatives to Avoid

For as many household cleaners that can substitute for car wash, there are others that should be avoided altogether.

Other Household Cleaners

Hand soaps, shampoos, and dishwashing liquid are not usually the harshest cleaning materials in your home since they often still have to be handled by you at some point.

For as resilient as your skin is, there are other household cleaning products like bleach, stove cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, and toilet cleaner that can be irritants. Not only are they also bad for your vehicle’s paint, but they could also do damage to yourself as you wash your vehicle.

Tire Shine/Cleaner

There are some who say that tire cleaner or even tire shine can be used instead of a regular car wash product. Tire cleaner may work as an absolute last resort, but tire shine definitely will not.

It is also best to leave the tire cleaner to that for which it was designed. Rubber is very different from vehicle paint, so it is best to leave it for that specific part of the vehicle.

Any Other Harsh Cleaning Products

Any other cleaning products that might not be as common within your house should not be used on your vehicle. Things like industrial cleaners, grease cleaning agents, and those things more commonly found in a garage could be even worse for your paint than harsh household products. 

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
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