Past Issue

The History of Car Wash Soap - Today’s Products Have Come a Long Way

By Chris Barboza


Before we begin talking about the history of car wash soap specifically, we should start with a bit of history of soaps and detergents in general. There is one main cleaning ingredient that all humans need, and that would be water. It’s the universal solvent. Personal cleanliness utilizing water probably began in prehistoric times, but did you know that the first evidence of soap making dates back to as early as 2800 B.C.? During the excavation of ancient Babylon, a soap-like material was found in clay cylinders. There were inscriptions on these cylinders suggesting that fats were boiled with ashes. This is a method of making soap. Early medical documents from 1500 B.C. indicate the Egyptians combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like material; even early biblical accounts suggest the Israelites mixed ashes and oil.

The Europeans were making soap by the seventh century. Vegetable and animal oils were mixed with ashes of wood and plants. Western Europe had an abundance of olive oil, which made it an early hub for soap making. The English began making soap during the 12th century, which continued even as soap making made its way to the American colonies in the 17th century. The soap manufacturing process basically stayed the same until the early 1900s when it gave way to the synthetic detergent. These detergent surfactants were developed during World Wars I and II due to the enormous shortage of animal and vegetable oils. Unlike soap, this petroleum-based detergent was resistant to hard water thus eliminating the insoluble film that makes cleaning more effective.


This is the period during which our car wash industry was born. In 1914, the first wash was opened with men manually pushing cars throughout wash, rinse, and drying stations. By 1946, the first semi-automated car wash was installed, and by the 1950s there were 30 plus of these washes across the country. The first detergents were utilized here. Our industry calls it soap, but these detergents were anionic surfactants that basically made water wetter. These surfactants actually lower the surface tension of water for better cleaning. The drying agent was introduced to help increase water surface tension, allowing blowers to better remove the residual water. The older drying-agent formulas utilized lemon oil, kerosene, and mineral seal oil. As time moved on to the 1960s and ‘70s, equipment manufacturers were adding tire washers, automated wheel cleaners, and the polish-n-wax application.

This gave rise to chemicals new to our industry, such as high-caustic tire slurry, inexpensive powders for presoaks in self serves and tunnels, and hydrofluoric-acid-based presoaks which also could be formulated with 10 percent to 20 percent kerosene as a raw material in it’s acid presoak formulas. Sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid (HF) were very inexpensive and are still comparatively so today. Many local blenders and owners were making their own products in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The old alkaline formulas could leave an insoluble residue if not completely rinsed. HF and sodium hydroxide formulas were very harsh on equipment and the different substrates on vehicles. Not until the mid 1980s, when regional and national brands hit the ground running, did the car wash “soap” product lines really start to change. This was when raw material manufacturers began seriously working with customers to improve formulations. These companies began making new raw materials that could vastly improve formulations. This is when the built detergents became popular by making surfactants better. These alkaline builders were phosphates, metasilicates, sodium and potassium hydroxides, etc. These raw materials, along with chelating agents, help to stabilize formulas, improve hard water stability, and increase cleaning ability. This is when our industry’s chemical formulations became about surfactant chemistry rather than the built detergent.


There are four different types of surfactants utilized in car wash chemical formulas:

1. The anionic, which are negatively charged in solution and are high sudsing and excellent cleaners.

2. The nonionic, which have no charge and are low sudsing. These are an excellent raw material to help hold formulas together and are excellent degreasers.

3. The cationic surfactants, which are positively charged in nature. These are utilized in drying agents, sealers, and true foaming polishes.

4. The amphoteric, which can act as any of the above surfactants depending on the pH of the medium. This chemistry was important because of the upcoming boom in our industry.

All through the 1990s and 2000s, equipment-manufacturing companies grew and expanded their offerings to the car wash operators. With this comes another increase in products for chemical suppliers.

These decades gave rise to new touch-free cleaners, safe and effective bug removers, triple-foam conditioners and polishes, new clear-coat protectants, better drying agents, and a hyper-concentrated product line. New wheel cleaners began to emerge as well as safer presoaks. It was during this time that every chemical supplier attempted to come out with an HF-replacement product — the jury is still out on that one. All chemical suppliers had to make not only every chemical used throughout a tunnel or self-serve wash, but also had to have all the offline chemicals available, such as fragrances, interior/exterior dressings, glass cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, express waxes, etc.


As more and more restrictions were being placed on water usage, we saw the reclaim companies come to the rescue. This gave rise to an entirely different product line for suppliers: the reclaim-compatible line. These products usually cost more and are not as effective as the regular products. In many cases you cannot utilize anionic surfactants, phosphates, or mineral seal oil.

The 2000s and 2010s saw an explosion of new self-serve products. The products have to foam, be fragrant, and have color as well as clean; a task that is easier said than done. Also new were products and applications for the total vehicle protectant, lava arch, and bubblizers; better on-line tire dressings; and new foaming protectants such as high-end carnauba-enhanced protectants. Better car wash chemical dispensing has given rise to the ultra-concentrated chemical line that can be four to five times as concentrated as a regular strength product. There is a whole new packaging size and dispensing system for this product line.

One thing is certain: there will always be change. All of us have to be ready to meet whatever change tomorrow brings, whether we are operators, chemical suppliers, or equipment manufacturers. It seems like it took forever for car wash soap to evolve into what it is today. It’s kind of like our information technology world: it took forever for big technology to hit but, once it started changing, it happened quick and often. Remember when we used pagers back in the early 1990s? We started using the flip cell phone around 1997. And look at us today: there isn’t anything we cannot do on our smartphones. Who knows what the tomorrow of car wash soap holds?

Chris Barboza is the vice president of international sales and product development with Houston, TX-based Stinger Chemical LLC. You can visit the company on the web at


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