Whether you’re looking for a car shampoo that cleans, protects, leaves a showroom shine - or all three - this article reveals the best
“The good people of the world are washing their cars on their lunch break, hosing and scrubbing as best they can in skirts in suits,” once sang Sheryl Crow. And with the best car shampoos as part of their cleaning arsenal, thousands of people around the country continue to wash their cars themselves – despite a proliferation in automatic and hand car washes.
It’s not hard to understand why this is: a hand car wash can easily cost £10 or more – but doing it yourself, even with good quality products, can be much cheaper (perhaps even as little as 20p). In only a couple of washes, some big-name car shampoos could already pay for themselves.
Car shampoo is designed specifically to be gentle on your car’s bodywork and paintwork, and makes it easier to remove dirt and grit. That’s important, because it reduces the amount you need to wipe the car to get it clean – and less rubbing means you’re less likely to damage or scratch the car.
It doesn’t take long, either. We recommend a decent cleaning cloth, two buckets – one with your detergent, one with fresh water to rinse your cloth – and some car shampoo. But which one? Our list below will tell you all you need to know.
How to choose the best car shampoo
Why do I need a special car shampoo?
Car shampoo is designed to be gentle on your car’s paintwork, but tough on grime. A good shampoo will be pH neutral (a similar acid/alkaline balance to water), to reduce the chances of causing damage. Car shampoos usually leave a hydrophobic residue too, meaning that once you’ve washed your car, water should run off its bodywork rather than sticking to it and depositing dirt when it evaporates.
Many smell nice, too, and a thick layer of foam in the bucket is satisfying.
What ingredients should I look out for in a car shampoo?
Graphene and ceramic solutions represent the cutting edge of car shampoos. They contain graphene or ceramic resins which bond to your car’s paintwork to create a protective hydrophobic layer, allowing water to bead off without leaving dirt behind. Carnauba wax is still used in many car shampoos: it is more cost-effective, and leaves that all-important showroom shine.
Is it worth paying a premium for expensive shampoo?
It really depends on how much pride and joy you have in your car, and how much time and effort you’re willing to spend keeping it clean. Serious detailers will happily spend a small fortune, but a mid-range car shampoo will be perfectly fine for most of us.
Remember to look beyond the per-bottle price: some highly concentrated shampoos might look expensive, but if you only need 5ml, the per-wash price could be surprisingly small.
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What’s the best way to use car shampoo?
You should try to minimise the time your cleaning cloth is in contact with your car, because that’s when the risk of causing scratches or swirls is highest. First, rinse your car thoroughly – a high-pressure hose or a pressure washer can blast away minute traces of grit.
Take a clean bucket and dilute your car shampoo according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and fill another bucket with clean water to rinse your cloth or sponge. A grit guard to place in the bottom of this bucket can help isolate any debris when you rinse.
Use a good quality cleaning cloth or sponge, or a microfibre cloth – making sure they’re clean and free from grit – and work top to bottom, rinsing frequently in the fresh-water bucket. Leave the lowest part of the bodywork to the end, and tackle the wheels last. You might find a wheel brush and alloy wheel cleaner useful here.
Once the car is clean, rinse it with clean water before drying it with a cloth or a chamois leather. An application of car wax or a car polish will help seal in your hard work, add a layer of shine and will help protect your paintwork from damage.
How often should I wash my car?
As often as you can. During the winter, it’s worth doing two or four times a month to prevent grit promoting corrosion or scratches in the clear-coat should someone brush against your car accidentally. In the summer, washes can be less frequent – though when you do wash your car, try to avoid doing it in the heat of the day.
Using ceramic coatings or waxes can help increase the gaps between washes. And when it comes to bird droppings, you should remove these as soon as possible, as they are extremely corrosive.
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The best car shampoo you can buy in 2023
1. Autoglym Bodywork Shampoo Conditioner: Best overall car shampoo
Price when reviewed: £11 (1l) | Check price at Amazon
Autoglym’s green goo left our car positively gleaming. It’s superbly effective at cutting through dirt, and it also contains an extremely effective water repellent, which doesn’t allow liquid to settle: after we’d rinsed off the suds, just a few drops of water remained to wipe away. The price might seem on the high side, but you only need to add two small capfuls to ten litres of water, so the bottle should last you for a year or more, at a very reasonable 20p per wash. Combined with its exceptional cleaning performance, it’s a winner.
2. Power Maxed Shampoo & Ultra Wax: A good-value shampoo for a shiny finish
Price when reviewed: £11 (1l) | Check price at Amazon
With excellent performance and a cost per bucket that’s even lower than the Autoglym shampoo, this Power Maxed product is another strong choice. It wasn’t quite as effective at clearing off grime as the Autoglym, but again it provided a water-repellent finish that dispersed water effectively, leaving just small beads on the bodywork. That’s partly thanks to the carnauba wax that’s included in the formula, so if your priority is a deep, glossy shine, this is definitely one to try.
3. Bilt Hamber auto-wash: A super-concentrated option, but not the most effective
Price when reviewed: £20 (500ml) | Check price at Amazon
The bottle looks like something you might pick up from a pharmacy, and the contents are extremely concentrated: even though you only get a small quantity of auto-wash, it goes a very long way, working out to a cost of just 17p per bucket. Unfortunately, while Bilt Hamber is a respected name, the potency of its formula seems to have been reduced in recent years. Even though it was effective, the product left the surface of our test car slightly less water-repellent than the best-performing car shampoos.
4. Halfords Advanced Performance Shampoo: Best cheap foaming car shampoo
Price when reviewed: £10 (500ml) | Check price at Halfords
Halfords Advanced Performance Shampoo might, on the face of it, look expensive compared to the brand’s basic shampoo (below). But it only requires 10ml per 10l bucket, meaning a per-wash cost of 20 pence. The strength and impressive lubricity of the Advanced Performance shampoo meant that our cleaning cloth would glide across the bodywork, reducing the chances of leaving swirl marks. The solution also gives off a pleasant minty smell, and after cleaning we found that water would neatly bead off the car.
5. Halfords Car Wash: Best cheap and cheerful car shampoo
Price when reviewed: £6 (2.5l) | Check price at Halfords
There’s no fancy design or gimmicky name here. Even the bottle is a no-nonsense affair, with a built-in handle, chunky cap and not a nod to aesthetics. But don’t be put off: this is a very effective shampoo. After use, water ran straight off our paintwork, leaving just a few neat beads dotted across the surface, and the speed of drying was close to the best on test. You do need to slosh it about, with 50ml needed per bucket, but even so, it works out to a very economical 10p per wash.
6. Meguiar’s Ultimate Wash & Wax: Good for shine, but not drying time
Price when reviewed: £21 (1.4l) | Check price at Amazon
It’s not cheap, but Meguiar’s bottle is larger than average. You don’t need to use a great deal either – the recommended dose is 28ml, although confusingly the label also talks about mixing four capfuls into your bucket, which would be a larger measure. Stick to the 28ml dosage and you’ll be spending about 27p per wash for a lovely shiny finish – although it takes a bit longer for the water to assemble into beads than the best, increasing the drying time.
7. ValetPRO Advanced Poseidon Car Wash: An upmarket shampoo that claims to protect your investment
Price when reviewed: £12 (500ml) | Check price at Amazon
The name certainly makes a statement, and this shampoo did a reasonable job of cleaning our test car, with neat water beading on the surface, even if the water-repellent surface wasn’t as effective as the best. The price of 38p per wash is on the high side, but the shampoo is claimed to be gentle to protective wax and sealants on the car – even prolonging their life. You would have to use it for years, versus other shampoos, to test the veracity of that claim, though.
8. Angelwax Shampoo: Gentle on paint and skin, tough on grime
Price when reviewed: £13 (500ml) | Check price at Amazon
Angelwax might not have the fancy packaging of some other products on this list, but it makes up for it with a highly effective shampoo that gets results. It’s highly concentrated, so you’ll get more washes than you think per bottle, and its rich lather gets rid of road gunk and leaves your car gleaming.
What’s more, it’s gentle on both skin and bodywork; a neutral pH of 7 means it shouldn’t cause any rashes or discomfort – and it won’t damage your car’s paint either.
9. Meguiars All Purpose Cleaner: Best for cleaning inside and out
Price when reviewed: £27 (3.79l) | Check price at Amazon
Meguiar’s products are almost always found in the arsenal of every car cleaner or detailer, and this All Purpose Cleaner partly explains why. Although not strictly a shampoo, it’s incredibly versatile and can be used to clean mud and dirt – as well as leather seats and dashboards. All you need to do is change the amount of water you mix it with.
It might seem expensive, but it comes in a generous 3.79l container – and it’s important to remember that it’s both highly concentrated and can do the work of several other products. There’s a reason it’s one of the most popular products on Amazon’s car care section.
10. Diamondbrite Max Foam Shampoo: Best for the environmentally conscious
Price when reviewed: £10 (1l) | Check price at Amazon
Fragrance isn’t a key concern when it comes to car shampoos, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t commend Diamondbrite’s Max Foam shampoo for smelling great. In addition to its refreshing citrus scent, it’s also a very competent cleaner – and at £10 for a 1 litre bottle, it’s relatively cheap too.
Like some other products on this list, Max Foam also leaves a water-repellent finish after you’re done shampooing – so it’ll keep your car cleaner for longer. Those interested in avoiding harmful detergents will also be glad to know that the shampoo’s formula is fully biodegradable.