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Can You Use Dish Soap to Wash a Car: Car Washing Tips and Car Wash Soap Alternatives

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We get it. You want to know if you really need to buy a normal car wash soap, or can you use dish soap to wash a car. 

While dish soap is great for removing baked on grease from dinner dishes, it’s also great at removing your vehicle’s protective wax coating. And we don’t want that, do we? However, there are a few instances when dish soap may be useful in small doses. We’ll go over why dish soap isn’t a good car soap for general car washing, car wash tips for getting a sparkling clean ride, and a few car wash soap alternatives to try when you’re in a pinch.

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Credit: Norbert Buduczki / Unsplash 

Why you shouldn’t use dish soap to wash your car

There are a number of reasons why dish soap isn’t an ideal car soap for regular use:

  • Not pH neutral: One of the main reasons why dish soap is effective at removing grease and stuck-on food is because they contain various compounds from thickening and stabilizing agents to fragrances and dyes, and yes, plenty of water. While pH neutral is 7, many common dish soaps have higher pH levels to help fight grease. For example, the liquid blue Original Dawn dish soap has a pH level ranging from 9.0-9.2. A good car soap is pH neutral—gentle and effective at removing dirt without stripping off your car’s protective wax or paint sealant.
  • Leaves a dull luster: You can forget about having a sparkling clean car when you use dish soap. Dish soap leaves a dull, cloudy residue on the surface of your car that’s difficult to wash off.
  • Causes long-term damage: While you might not notice anything drastic after using car soap to wash your car once or twice, over time your car surface takes a hit. You may notice scratches, cloudiness, and the erosion of any protective coating your car may have had.

These other household soaps aren’t good for car washing either…

Before you get creative and think of using other household cleaners as an alternative car soap, stop right there. The following solutions aren’t ideal either.

  • Hand soap
  • Baby shampoo
  • Hair shampoo
  • Laundry detergent

Can you use dish soap to wash a car: exceptions to the rule

As with most things, there are exceptions to the rule. There are a few instances when dish soap is effective and safe to use. 

If you park your car outside, your car likely gets the brunt of nature from sticky tree sap to bird poo. A bit of dish soap can help in spot-cleaning.

Or, if your goal is to prep your car surface by removing its layer of wax, dish soap can be used. However, it’s still not the best product to use for this purpose. You’ll be better off buying specially-formulated products on your car.

Tip: Remember to rinse well with clean water following the use of dish soap.

Car wash soap alternatives

If you are really dead-set against buying car soap, or you don’t have time to go out to the store, here are three things you can try. 

Hair conditioner

Note that this calls for hair conditioner, not hair shampoo. More specifically, a gentle hair conditioner that contains lanolin, which is “a purified form of wool grease or wool wax,” gives your car a shiny finish. Bonus: using hair conditioner to wash your car helps repel water.

DIY car wash soap solution

While we’ve already gone over why dish soap in general is not good for your car, this DIY recipe calls for a small amount of dish soap mixed with baking soda and loads of water. While handy and cost-effective, a DIY car wash soap solution is not recommended for long-term use as it may wear down your car’s protective finish.

Tip: Before using a DIY car wash soap, test a small, inconspicuous area on your car first before washing the entire car.

You’ll need:

  • An empty gallon-sized jug
  • ÂĽ cup liquid dish soap
  • ÂĽ cup baking soda
  • Water filled to the top
  • 2-gallon bucket

Pour dishwashing soap and baking soda into an empty gallon-sized jug. Fill the jug with water, screw on the lid and shake vigorously to mix. Store this mix until ready for use. When you’re ready to wash your car, pour 1 cup of your DIY solution into a 2-gallon bucket filled with warm water.

Pressure washer

While not everyone has a pressure washer lying around, it’s a great tool to use for washing your car. If you just have a bit of dirt and debris to clean off, you probably can skip the soap and rinse away.

Car wash tips for getting a sparkling clean ride

If you’re a DIYer who doesn’t mind rolling up your sleeves and getting a bit dirty (and soapy), car washing can be an oddly satisfying and calming chore. Often how you do the job is just as (or more) important than the tools you use. Here’s a few tips on how to properly wash your car.

  • Avoid the midday sun: While it’s tempting to wash your car when you can also catch some rays, it’s not the best time for the job. When is the ideal time to wash your car? In the evening. This is because heat from the sun evaporates water and soap too quickly leaving water and soap spots. It’s also not good to wash your car while it’s still warm (immediately after driving).
  • Wash using lengthwise strokes: Washing in small circles isn’t effective when it comes to washing your car—swirl marks are a result of this. Instead, wash your vehicle using long, lengthwise strokes.
  • Do a quick pre-wash rinse: Before applying a soapy solution, give your car a quick, once-over with a water hose to remove any debris.
  • Work from the top-down: Just as you dust a room from the top-down, the same rule applies when washing a car. Rinse off the top of the car first before moving to lower areas.
  • Use two buckets: That’s right, two buckets do the job properly—one bucket filled with soapy water, and the other filled with clean water. Every once in a while, dip your sponge or cloth into the clean water bucket to remove any stuck-on debris that could end up scratching your paint. 
  • Use the right cleaning sponges and drying cloths: While some people say that any old t-shirt or rag works, there are better options. For washing, use a soft, non-abrasive sponge. For drying, a chamois or 100 percent terry towel does the trick. 
  • Use the right soap: We’ve gone over this already, but the best bet for a clean car is car soap.

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge on how to properly wash a car and why dish soap isn’t the best solution, you’re well on your way to a clean car (with a bit of elbow grease, of course).

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  1. P & G Safety Data Sheet, Dawn Ultra Dishwashing Liquid, Original Scent,  http://sds.chemtel.net/webclients/cheneybrothers/540011SDS.pdf. Accessed November 2020.
  2. Accurate Auto Advice, Can I Wash My Car With Dish Soap? Car Wash Myths and Facts, https://www.accurateautoadvice.com/maintenance-repair/can-i-wash-my-car-with-dish-soap/. Accessed November 2020.
  3. Britannica, Lanolin, chemical compound, https://www.britannica.com/science/lanolin. Accessed November 2020.
  4. Dragan, Diane (27 January 2020). “13 Weird Tricks to Clean Your Car,” Reader’s Digest. Accessed November 2020. 
  5. Consumer Reports, How to Wash Your Car, https://www.consumerreports.org/car-repair-maintenance/how-to-wash-your-car/. Accessed November 2020. 

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