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Car Wash Chemical Types and What They Do

Car washes exist all over the world in so many different environments, locations, with various clienteles, and of course, vehicles. But something all car wash businesses need is car wash chemicals. With the common goal of cleaning cars and so many different chemical options on the market, it's tough for newly starting out car washes to know what they need to operate and what can they add to their wash lineup.

As a car wash owner, you will want to ensure you have a strong understanding of car wash chemistry, chemical types, and their uses.

Car wash soap

Car Wash Chemistry

Car washes are designed to clean customers' vehicles, specifically the exterior of vehicles. They use a variety of chemicals to not only clean cars but protect them and improve their appearance by providing a strong shine.

There are no one size fits all car wash chemicals, there are many different types of chemicals and they have different jobs. Some may even have unique advantages over another and some may have disadvantages. Chemicals will also differ in the method you intend to use them as touchless washes for instance will need different types of chemicals than soft-touch washes.

Touchless Car Washes

In touchless washes, the car is cleaned without any physical contact between the wash equipment and the car's surface. This type of wash uses high-pressure streams of water to remove dirt and grime instead of soft cloths or brushes.

Since friction aids the cleaning process greatly, chemicals in touchless car washes need to be prepared to do more heavy lifting and thus need to be different than other chemicals.

Let's take a look at all the different types of chemicals car washes use.

Car soap hitting a car

The Basics

The 'basics' are the chemicals that most car washes need to do their job of washing vehicles. Though these car wash chemicals can still differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, almost all car washes will use these chemicals to conduct their business.


Presoaks are the first step in any car wash and their job is to loosen up all the dirt, grime, and build-up on a car. This makes it much easier for your other chemicals to clean and do their job effectively. This is especially the case for the application of protectants such as waxes and sealants.

Tunnel car washes will typically have a presoak arch at the beginning of the wash but some do not use presoaks in their wash process. This is typically due to a lack of space with smaller tunnel washes but we highly recommend your car wash utilizes presoaks as it will make the rest of your wash that much better.

Presoaks come in a variety of pH ranges, mostly low pH and high pH but some products offer a middle ground to ensure the experience can be tailored for every situation.

Impact of pH in Presoaks

Higher pH presoaks will do a better job of tackling organic material, greasy and oily soils on vehicles, this is due to it being more alkaline.

Lower pH presoaks are more acidic and thus, better at removing non-organic dust and dirt off surfaces.

Which presoak your car wash will want to use will depend on various factors but your location is one of the most important.

Turtle Wax Pro chemical

Detergents (aka Shampoo or Car Wash Soap)

Detergents are the next step in the wash process. These products are best at removing dirt. Detergents can also vary in pH from high to low and car wash soap is also used to prepare cars for drying as they aid in water wicking.

The incorrect type of car wash soap can create a water-retentive surface, so it is important to choose the right kind of product for your wash scenario.

Tire/Wheel Cleaners

Tire cleaners come in acidic and alkaline types and as you might have guessed, is used to clean the wheels of a vehicle. Specifically, tire cleaners take off the dirt and grime from wheels, tires, brakes, etc.

Wheels often are the dirtiest part of the vehicle, so it is a must for car washes to tackle them with the utmost quality and speed, especially since not all rims will be OEMs and may be an aftermarket part. The last thing you want to happen as a car wash is to damage a customer's vehicle.

Triple Foam Products

Triple foams are neutral or acidic products that either further clean the car (condition) or apply a layer of wax (polish), and in many cases, car washes opt to use both.  

A triple foam of some variety is used by many car washes, but customers usually must upgrade to receive it on their vehicle. They are a popular choice of customers as they have a strong visual benefit of the tricolors, this is where the product gets its name from.

It even strengthens the rest of the washing process by not only cleaning it further but preparing the car for a protectant and helping the drying process in a later stage.

Shiny black car

Paint Sealants, Ceramic Coatings, Waxes and other Protectants

Protectants come in many different forms and they all have their unique advantages and disadvantages.

Sealants bond with the vehicle's surface and protect it from weather and light marks, they may also offer some form of shine. Sealants are synthetic and try to bond in the pores of a car, this allows them to be exceptional at UV protection.

While wax will focus on providing a brilliant shine, with a weaker form of protection than sealants could provide. Waxes can be synthetic as well but are usually made of more natural ingredients, carnauba being a popular option.

Ceramic coatings are a thin layer of polymer that create a barrier between the vehicle and anything that comes into contact with it. Ceramics provide paint protection from the elements and UV rays, hydrophobicity, shine, and more.

Wet car

Drying Agents

After all the cleaning has taken place, the vehicle will be given a drying agent which provides a hydrophobic nature to its surface. They are typically synthetic oil based and thus, are used to repel water off the vehicle in water beads. This helps the high powdered dryers to quickly wick the water off the vehicle, so it can leave dry.

Those are the more standard car wash chemicals you will see used in car washes. Next up we'll discuss the more niche or specialty chemicals that car washes will use.


Specialties are car wash chemicals that you may not see being used in every car wash. Only some washes will choose to offer this product as it may pertain to their location, climate, or business model. Some car washes will only carry a limited stock of it to fit a certain time of the year, such as bug season.

Bug Removers

These are often alkaline chemicals used to remove the remains of bugs on vehicles, also often called bug splats. In some areas and some times of the year, there may be a high prevalence of bug splats on vehicles and they can be difficult to remove them.

They work by essentially 'dissolving' the bug so that it can be easily removed by the wash process but it is not always a quick process. The chemical may need to sit on the vehicle for a minute or two for the effect to take place.

Glass Cleaners

Glass cleaners are used to clean the windows of a vehicle and leave it streak free. They help driver impairment by making water and other vision blocks wick off the surface quickly.

Undercarriage Rust Inhibitors

The car wash will spray a light coat of inhibitor on the undercarriage which will help to prevent rust from forming. It becomes a protective coat underneath the vehicle which provides protection against moisture from water and snow year-round.

Shiny car and wheel

Tire Dressings

Tire dressings provide a consistent shine and protection to the rubber. It also can help repel water and snow which will keep the tires from degrading as quickly. They come in a few different forms such as water based which are the thinnest and least lasting, solvent-based which has better shine, and silicone which is the thickest and carries the best shine.

Tire dressings can also make future cleaning easier.

Wheel Protectants

Wheel protectants also offer shine but are often used for their protection from scraps, dirt, and grime. Using wheel protectants also makes cleaning easier in future washes.

Interior Cleaners

While most car washes only focus on the exterior cleaning of vehicles, there are some that will also clean the interior of vehicles as well.

Interior cleaners or detailing products are different than exterior ones as the materials within a car are greatly different than the outside of a car.

If you're interested in reading about interior cleaning and their chemicals, you can read our previous article here.

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Chemical Concerns? Contact Turtle Wax Pro

Turtle Wax has a 97% brand recognition for good reason, we manufacturer great chemistry and support our clients and customers so they can achieve success within the car wash industry. The right chemical supplier will ensure your business has all the supplies, training, and expertise it needs to compete within the market.

If you have any questions regarding the car wash chemical types, your own current chemistry, or looking for a place to start, get in contact with us! We would be happy to walk you through the different chemical options and see what is the best fit for you and your car wash business.

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