Washing your car is an essential maintenance task that keeps your car’s paintwork in top condition. Many of us would like to find a way to this at home with products that are, let’s say, more typically found in the household.
But can you clean your car with dish soap, like Dawn for example? It would save a ton of money, right? Well, let’s find out.
In all honesty, it depends. But there are important reasons why this is the case, so let’s try to understand why.
So why is washing a car with dish soap controversial?
Using dish soap to wash your car will indeed remove dirt from paintwork successfully. In that sense, it works in a similar fashion to conventional car wash soap.
However, dish soap will also strip the surface of important wax and other sealants that are there to protect the paintwork long-term. This is where dish soap is clearly different to car wash soaps.
Car wash soaps will clean your car’s paintwork but will only remove minimal amounts of wax and sealants at most. This ensures that the protection provided by the wax and sealants will last as long as intended.
Additionally, good car wash soaps also contain ingredients that are designed to protect and treat the car paint during the washing process.
What Makes Dish Soap Different from Car Wash Soap?
The key difference between dish soap and traditional car wash soap is that the former is a “grease cutter”, while the latter is mainly effective at removing water-soluble dirt.
What does that mean?
So dish soap is very good at what it does because it can easily cut through oils and grease. This is why whenever you add a tiny drop of dish soap to oily water, the oil quickly disperses.
Consequently, this makes it very good at cutting through waxes and sealants too.
Car wash soap on the other hand is actually poor at cutting through grease. This is why it leaves car waxes and sealants unscathed.
It is, however, specifically designed to attract water-soluble dirt away from the car’s surface.
Think of the car wash soap as acting as a bubble. This bubble is where the dirt will be sucked into, and the surface of the bubble is a barrier that stops the dirt from escaping.
The dirt will be contained within the lubricating car wash soap thus making it less likely to cause scratches during the cleaning process.
This is one of the main reasons why car wash soap is usually recommended for washing your car regularly.
But Is liquid dish soap bad for the vehicle’s paint?
If you leave your car paint exposed without wax and/or sealants, then it will gradually degrade due to continued exposure to UV rays, salt, and other contaminants like tar, tree sap, etc.
Waxes and sealants also provide some level of protection against small stone chips. So overall, continued use of dish soap to wash your car is bad for its paintwork.
Is it ever acceptable to wash your car with dish soap?
If you really want to find an occasion where dish soap might be acceptable to use for car washing, it’s probably only when you are decontaminating your car.
Decontaminating paintwork is an essential detailing step when you plan to polish and wax your car. It works to strip your car paint of any contaminants, like tree sap, tar, oxidation, and other debris that may affect the finish of the polishing process.
The reason that dish soap may be OK to use here is that you should be looking to polish and wax your car immediately after.
Applying wax will provide the important protecting and nourishing layer that will shield your car paint against degrading factors such as UV rays and contaminants and also fill scratches.
You can find out more about how waxes and sealants protect car paintwork here.
Can dish soap dry out plastics and trim on your vehicle?
Indeed it can. While the main thing most people consider when using dish soap to wash a car is the effect it has on car paint, there are of course other surfaces to consider.
Your plastic and vinyl trims can dry out quicker and discolor with continued use of dish soap.
Traditional car trim cleaners tend to contain ingredients that act to nourish and protect such surfaces and slow down their degradation.
This also includes the plastic ad vinyl trim inside your car. All of these surfaces are susceptible to drying if they are not treated correctly.
The surfaces that can be affected include:
- Interior trim
- Unpainted fenders
- Any exposed plastic and vinyl trim
- Windscreen wipers
If you feel that you must use dish soap on these surfaces, it is important to rinse thoroughly after wash and apply the appropriate protectants.
There are a number of excellent products on the market that specialize in protecting the trims.
Can I use dish soap to wash my car windows?
Dish soap on windows is fine, but for the reasons outlined above, it is important to not allow it to make contact with your paintwork, even during rinsing. This will strip the waxes that would otherwise protect the paint from long-term damage.
As you might imagine, doing this successfully will be quite a tricky affair, and as such, may not be worth the hassle if you are serious about protecting your car paint.
So what can I use instead of car wash soap?
If this is the case and you want to find alternatives, we have a list of options that do work here.
So, as you can see, there are fundamental reasons why you need to carefully consider if it is the right thing to do to use dish soap when washing your car.
The bottom line is that it will not necessarily be the end of the world if you do, especially if you treat your car paint after.
However, if you want to minimize the risk of gradual paint damage over time, then we strongly recommend using a designated car wash soap or snow foam.