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What Are All the Different Soaps They Spray on Your Car at the Car Wash?

And why the hell are the suds all rainbow-colored?

After several months of driving my car around the desert and letting my dog drool all over the backseats, I finally decided it was time to send ‘er through the tunnel at my nearby car wash. They had three options: A “Regular Wash,” “The Works” and a “Manager’s Special.” The pricier the package, the more suds you got (at least, that was the deal as far as I could tell). Befuddled and slightly panicked, I opted for “The Works,” because it was the literal middle ground, and honestly, I had no idea what the actual differences were.

Then, as I watched my white Kia Rio glide through the tunnel and receive its chemical bukkake, I realized it would probably be helpful to know what soaps and suds are being sprayed onto my vehicle, so I can actually make an informed choice next time around. 

I reached out to at least 10 different car washes, and if you can believe it, absolutely none of them were interested in revealing their soapy secrets to me. So I took my search for answers elsewhere (namely, the internet, where answers to virtually all questions are abundant) and quickly found out about all kinds of soaps and other chemicals they use at the car wash. 

Below, you’ll find everything I learned about everything that’s squirted onto your ride in a car wash (and why), from the beginning of the tunnel to the end.

The Pre-Soak

While car washes with shorter tunnels might skip out on a pre-soak arch — and by arch, I mean the thing that shoots cleaning shit at your car — the purpose behind pre-soak chemicals is essentially to leave the car as a blank, clean slate, removing any obvious buildups of dirt and grime. Once all of that crud has been removed, the other chemicals and waxes used down the line can do a better job of cleaning and shining your vehicle.

The Detergents

Next up: Detergents, which typically have lubricating properties that, again, lift soils from the surface of your vehicle and allow water (and the removed soil) to bead up so that it all rolls right off when those huge dryer thingies let out a big, strong breath.

The Wheel Cleaner

These are detergents that are specifically designed to remove all sorts of soot from brake pads, abraded rubber and other parts of your tires, which require a slightly different kind of cleaning (often stronger, because of how dirty tires get while you drive around, eating cheeseburgers) than other parts of the car. 

The Triple Foam

This is one (or more) of those chemicals that you usually only get if you paid for an upgraded wash, and they come as conditioners or polishes: The conditioners help clean the car (and prepare the clear-coat for any forthcoming sealants or protectants), while the polishes apply a thin layer of wax that gives your ride a nice, shiny shine. (Many car washes provide both, running the conditioner first, then the polish.) These come in all sorts of colors, like purple, orange and red, so if you ever wondered why your car is being slapped by a rainbow of suds, blame the triple foam.

The Rinse Aids

Now that your car is all clean, here come the rinse aids, which are oil-based and do the opposite of most everything up until this point: Rather than reducing the surface tension of your car to remove crap, these increase the surface tension so that the big dryer things can blow water off easier (and anyone coming in later with a towel has to do less work, which could otherwise end up resulting in loads of smudging).

The Sealants and Protectants

Last but not least, sealants and protectants are also oil-based chemicals that provide short-term protection against sunlight and harsh weather. Or, if you pay extra, some car washes provide “total body protectants,” which are usually wax-based and add shine, in addition to providing extended protection against the sun and the elements.

And that about does it for the suds your car experiences while traveling through the car wash tunnel. Of course, there are some other add-ons that are typically done by hand — such as bug washes (which remove the highly acidic remains of splattered bugs), glass cleaners (which leave a streak-free clean on your windows and might also prevent precipitation from building up) and underbody rust inhibitors (which, well, help prevent rust from forming on your car’s underbody).

All of which means that hopefully I can tell the car wash dude what I want next time without panicking.