Car Shampoo vs Snow Foam: Is There a Difference?

Car shampoo and snow foam may seem fairly similar, but they are actually very different products. Both are designed to clean the exterior of a vehicle, but they should be used at different stages of the wash process and have quite different formulations resulting in different consistencies.

In this article, I’ll be talking about all the key differences between snow foam and car shampoo, and what happens when you use one in place of the other.

The Quick Answer

Snow foams are applied to a car before shampoo to remove as much dirt as possible without using a wash mitt, so they have higher cleaning power than shampoos. Car shampoos are used after snow foaming to remove any remaining dirt with a wash mitt so provide better lubrication to reduce the risk of scratches.

It’s really important to understand the distinctions between these two wash products to make sure you are cleaning your car safely and effectively.

Looking for some of the best car washing products? Make sure you check out my recommended products page for all my current top picks.

What is a Snow Foam?

Snow foaming is the first product you use in the wash process. After you’ve thoroughly rinsed the vehicle down, to remove as much loose dirt as possible, you can apply the foam.

Snow foams are normally applied using a foam cannon attached to a pressure washer, however they can also be applied using a pump sprayer, or a cannon attached to a regular hose.

Check out this complete guide to using snow foam for some more information on the application process.

The idea, is to let the foam sit on the car for a few minutes to soften the remaining dirt on the paintwork. Then the car can be rinsed again, removing the dirt that the snow foam has loosened.

The effect, is that most of the dirt and grime is removed before physically touching the paintwork with a wash mitt. This helps to reduce the risk of scratches and swirl marks and makes the overall wash process much safer.

What Makes a Good Snow Foam…

  • Softens as much dirt and grime (traffic film) as possible.
  • Easily rinsed away without leaving residue.
  • Highly concentrated so you don’t need to use much product.

What is a Car Shampoo?

A car shampoo is designed to be used after snow foaming and rinsing the vehicle. The shampoo is mixed with water in a clean bucket, and then gently wiped over the panels on the car using a microfiber wash mitt, to remove all the remaining dirt and grime. Then, the car can be rinsed to leave a squeaky clean finish.

What Makes a Good Car Shampoo…

  • Lubricates the paintwork to avoid inflicting scratches and swirl marks.
  • Good cleaning power (so you don’t need to scrub at the paint).

Check out my recommended car shampoo and snow foam options.

The Key Differences

So both products are designed to clean the car, but they are formulated differently. Snow foam is designed to clean without agitation, whereas shampoo is designed to be used with a wash mitt. Now let’s take a look at the differences between car shampoo and snow foams in a little more detail.

Snow FoamShampoo
Used at the start of the wash process (pre-wash)Used after the pre-wash (contact wash)
Higher cleaning power to remove dirt without contactLower cleaning power as it assisted by a wash mitt
Less lubricity (as contact is not required)High lubricity to prevent scratches

Cleaning Power

Both snow foam, and car shampoos, need strong cleaning power. A high power snow foam, will remove a lot of traffic film before you ever need to touch the car. And a high power shampoo, will remove grime swiftly, without the need to scrub at the paint, again reducing the risk of scratches.

Snow foam tends to have a high cleaner power than car shampoo, in order to clean the car without the agitation a wash mitt provides. Hence, snow foams tend to be a lot more concentrated than car shampoos when it comes to cleaning agents. They also tend to have a higher pH as the alkalinity helps to soften the dirt.


The second thing to consider, is how much lubrication these products provide. Snow foams provide little lubrication, as they are not designed to be agitated with a wash mitt.

Car shampoos on the other hand, contain chemicals designed to lubricate the paintwork, and are more “gel-like”, in comparison to snow foams when mixed with water.

This means that you can safely use a wash mitt and car shampoo together to wipe the panels without causing scratches. Snow foams when paired with wash mitts, tend to provide less lubrication to safely glide the mitt over the paintwork.

Can You Use Snow Foam as a Shampoo?

Snow foams should not be used as car shampoos in a wash bucket to clean the car with a mitt, because they do not provide enough lubrication. This increases the risk of causing scratches and swirl marks during the wash process.

Instead, you should always go for a dedicated car shampoo when physically wiping the panels. This ensures that there is plenty of lubrication on the surface, to make washing the car safer and scratch-free.

Can You Use Shampoo as a Snow Foam?

Car shampoos do not usually work well in snow foam cannons because they don’t foam up well and the concentration of cleaning agents is usually too weak. Unless a very high ratio of shampoo to water is used in the cannon, the foam will be very thin and have poor cleaning ability.

If you’ve run out of snow foam, push comes to shove, you can sometimes use a shampoo as a snow foam, if the car is only lightly dirty. But it is always much more effective to use a snow foam to pre-wash the car as it removes more traffic film, and reduces the risk of scratches during the contact wash.

Check out what happens when you use shampoo as a snow foam and vice-versa in this video.

So Do You Need Both?

This is usually the question that car owners ask at this point. Two products can seem a little bit over the top when washing your car, plus it does add an additional cost. So is using a car shampoo and a snow foam actually worth it?

In my opinion, it’s important to always use a snow foam, followed by a car shampoo to wash any vehicle.

This process dramatically reduces the risk of scratches and swirl marks, so for me, it’s 100% worth it. Plus, it’s miles cheaper and easier than removing scratches later down the line.

Chances are, if you’re reading this article you care about your car’s paint too. So I’d definitely recommend purchasing both a snow foam and car shampoo, and using them every time you wash your car.

Check out my recommended car shampoo and snow foam options.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve found this article useful. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the website to learn everything you need to know about car detailing.



Heather is a professional car detailer & valeter based in Cheshire and the owner of Auto Care HQ. A familiar face in the car detailing community, she has written over 200 car detailing guides on and has produced over 165 videos on the Auto Care HQ YouTube channel.

Articles: 221

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *