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A comedian once asked, “Why do we park in a driveway, and drive on a parkway?” It made us laugh, but it also it demonstrated how bizarre and complex the English language can be.
In the car detailing world, we use a term all the time that is part of this English language strangeness.
We use the term All Purpose Cleaner (“APC”) every day.
Those three words are an oxymoron.
If you consider there is no single cleaner designed for use on every automotive surface that can remove any type of spot and stain, why do we use “All Purpose Cleaner” to describe this family of products?
(It is also interesting to note that unrealistic expectations for APC cleaners are responsible for the majority of complaints and bad reviews from disappointed customers.)
I don’t know if APC was a marketing ploy that became ingrained in the detailing world, or just something that happened over time. But it is the term we now use to describe the general cleaners used in automotive detailing shops every day.
So, it might be interesting to explore what constitutes a great All-Purpose Cleaner, and importantly, what you can expect from these cleaners. Of course, we will also present and review some products worth considering.
Top 8 All-Purpose Cleaners for Car Detailing
Expectations vs. Benefits
Let’s start with the obvious. Using fewer cleaning products makes life simpler. There are less bottles of stuff to lug around and store, and you save time not having to grab another cleaner every time you move to clean the next surface.
That explains why there are hundreds of APC’s on the market and why so many people use them.
But if you have read any of my other articles on subjects like cleaning leather, alcantara, or upholstery, you already know that no single cleaner will work on every surface and remove every stain out there. The variables are simply too great.
Start with the spots and stains.
They vary greatly: organic to inorganic, alkaline to acidic, and water to oil based.
Then consider the surfaces in a car range from an engine bay to delicate electronic panels to plastic and glass to soft and porous things like carpet and upholstery. A cleaner designed to penetrate the fibers of a carpet is not going to work very well on your instrument panel.
You get the idea.
We can minimize the number of cleaning products used, but until the aliens land and share some hyper-advanced technology, we are limited by the laws of chemistry and physics and must still deal with different cleaners for some jobs.
However, we do have a whole family of All Purpose Cleaners (“APCs”) on the market that are used all the time. And since so many people routinely use these products, that leads to a few questions:
- What should we really expect from an APC?
- What constitutes a good APC?
- What are the benefits of using an APC?
These three questions are actually intertwined and to answer all three at the same time, let’s make a bullet list of the key attributes and benefits of an all-purpose cleaner.
To start, an APC should:
- Work on both the exterior and interior surfaces like plastic, rubber, upholstery, hoses, carpet, etc… And in places like engine bays, undercarriages, wheels, wheel wells, center consoles, etc…
- Work on other things like boats, motorcycles, RV’s or around the house
- Remove light to moderate grease and tar
- Clean common dirt and grime from fabric, plastic, rubber, wheels, carpet, upholstery, and vinyl (and maybe leather)
- Remove light to moderate spotting and stains
And an APC:
- Must not harm to the surfaces they clean
- Must leave no residue
Finally, we should state a few last points concerning the use of an APC.
- If the APC is a concentrate that can be diluted, various strengths can be used on different surfaces and stains.
- If the APC is supplied ready-to-use, there is no mixing.
- An APC can be for multiple jobs, saves time, and reduces the products needed to get a job done. (Yes, I know it was already said, but it needs to be stated explicitly for those just reading the bullet list.)
This last bullet is the one that justifies a family of products like this. The number of bottles you need to lug around and store is reduced, which is nice.
But it is also why several users are disappointed with these products. They expect an APC to do everything, which no cleaning product can live up to. So, let’s move on to a list of things that these products cannot do.
The biggest limitation has already been touched upon. No one cleaner will clean every surface and every stain/spot you encounter when cleaning your automobile.
If you run across a large ink stain or bubble gum, an APC alone may not be enough. But there also a few other constraints worth noting:
- You need to do a test spot in an inconspicuous spot when using a product/dilution of product for the first time.
- They may not be effective on tough or unusual stains, you still need a spot remove kit for the difficult jobs.
- Use extra precaution on leather. APC’s are very alkaline and can remove dye from certain leathers.
- If you use premixed, ready-to-use cleaner, you cannot vary the strength.
- You must not let an APC dry when using. It will leave a residue if not removed before it dries.
- This family of products is not for use on glass.
- You should not use APC’s on instrument panels or delicate electronics.
- These products are not the best for the exterior paint, and they can leave swirl marks (there are waterless wash and no rinse products for quick cleaning of your paint job).
- You need take some precautions, most products can cause eye and skin irritation, especially the concentrates.
- Odor: Some products are scented and while some like this feature, some hate it.
With all that said, let’s look at some of the best APCs that stack up to these expectations.
Meguiar’s D101 All Purpose Cleaner – Best Concentrated APC
- Ideal for reconditioning all interior surfaces
- Active foaming action lifts dirt from vehicle surfaces
- Dilution: Heavy strength 4:1 - Medium Strength 10:1
- 1 gallon
- English (Publication Language)
- Supplied as a concentrate
- Concentrate can be diluted to create various strengths for specific surfaces and spots
- Concentrate is cost effective and eliminates shipping excess water
- Contains fabric softeners and optical brighteners
- Intended for most interior surfaces like upholstery, vinyl, and carpet (and maybe Leather)
- Pleasant, clean odor after use
- Foaming action to lift dirt
- Material Safety Data Sheets are online
- Left residue when not wiped off before it dried
- Eye and skin irritant
- Concentrate odor is strong for some
- User must know what dilution to mix for the intended surface, if too strong can damage things like leather
Meguiar’s All Purpose Cleaner is a well-known, and well-reviewed, APC with a loyal following.
This product is shipped as a concentrate that you can mix to the strength you need. And you buy and ship less water. It also makes storing a large supply of product easier and one gallon lasts a while.
A drawback to mixing your own batches is that you may end up with an unlabeled spray bottle. But Meguiar’s also sells pre-printed trigger spray bottles, with the product name and logo, so you will know what is in that bottle. Meguiar’s appears to be in touch with the issues a detailer must face when using their product.
On the Meguiar’s website, it is stated that this product is intended for both exterior and interior surfaces, but it does contain fabric softeners and brighteners. And the foaming action works well on things like carpet. So, it leans to being more of an interior cleaner. But many users do like how it works on the exterior with things like wheels and wheel wells, too.
Meguiar’s All Purpose Cleaner is an economical choice on the low end of the price range, if you do not mind mixing your own batches.
A couple of quick end notes, I did notice you need to avoid letting this product dry, or it will leave a residue. And the odor of the concentrate was strong for some users.
Griot’s Garage Interior Cleaner Gallon – Best Car Interior Cleaner APC
- Quickly and safely clean all interior surfaces and materials...
- Safely cleans all interior fabrics and hard surfaces
- Leaves behind no residue that would attract more dirt
- Contains no dyes or additives that could discolor your...
- Also works great around the house
- Comes ready to spray and use, no mixing
- Available in trigger spray bottles and gallon jugs
- Leaves no residue
- Dye and fragrance free
- Gentle on surfaces
- Safer to handle than concentrates
- Available in trigger spray bottles and gallon jugs
- Cannot vary strength for varying stains and surfaces
- Cost more per gallon of cleaner compared to using a concentrate
- Eye irritant
Griot’s Garage Interior Cleaner comes premixed, ready to spray. No mixing makes things easier, but you will not be able to vary the strength for different cleaning jobs.
For those that find the scents of some cleaners offensive, this one is dye and fragrance free.
If the Meguiar’s product just reviewed “leaned” toward being an interior cleaner, this one jumps in with both feet and states it is right in the name! So, if you wanted to hit those wheels, or the undercarriage, this is not your product.
One thing worth noting, a product designed for a car’s interior is very gentle on the surfaces inside your car. I found one user who actually uses it on the instrument panel and touch screen display, without issue. That is not possible with most APC’s.
While it is gentle on the surfaces, it also is not the most aggressive on tough stains. You will need to break out that spot kit at times.
Price wise, this product is in the middle of the pack, but if interior cleaning is the bulk of your work, this product might be for you.
When researching this article, I reached out to many of the manufacturers, and Griot’s Garage responded within hours. Customer service is always appreciated, and I thought you might like to know this manufacturer takes it seriously.
3D All Purpose Cleaner – Best VOC Free Body Shop Safe APC
- USE IT WHEREVER YOU WANT … 3D All Purpose Cleaner is a...
- HELLO CLEAN … Quickly say goodybe to dirty, grease, and...
- USE IT IN MORE THAN ONE WAY … 3D All Purpose Cleaner can...
- WE'VE GOT YOU COVERED … For our car lovers, 3D All Purpose...
- PROUDLY MADE IN THE USA ... We've been researching and...
- Body shop safe (will not interfere with painting process)
- Company has a green initiative; their products are biodegradable and VOC compliant
- Fragrance free
- Concentrated, can be diluted up to 10:1
- Good pre-spotter on carpet and upholstery
- Available in trigger spray bottles, gallon jugs, and five gallon pails
- Material Safety Data Sheets are online
- Eye and skin irritant
- May remove dye from leather
- Not for use on glass
- Not as well reviewed as some other products
3D All Purpose Cleaner comes to use from the west coast (it is made in California) and because of the tough volatile organic compound (“VOC”) laws out there, this product is VOC compliant. The product is also fragrance free.
3D has a corporate wide “green” program, so if you have a concern for the environment, this product is worth a look.
The cleaner comes as a concentrate, so you can dilute it for your intended use, all the way up to 10:1. A gallon should last a while. Plus, it cuts grease and oil and works well as a pre-spot treatment prior to hot water extraction on carpet and upholstery.
And for all those body shops out there, 3D makes it clear their product is body shop safe. It will not interfere with your paint jobs.
For what it is worth, I found the material safety data sheets (MSDS’s) online. Most manufacturers are secretive with this information, but 3D has them on their website for easy access. The company appears committed to green, safe to use products.
As a caution, I did find a few instances where dye was removed from leather with this product. If you use this product on leather, do a test spot. You remember the caution regarding testing before using a cleaner for the first time, right?
Price wise, this product is economical, near the low end of the price range.
Adam’s ECO All Purpose Cleaner – Best Green ECO Friendly APC
- ✅ TOUGH ON DIRT BUT EASY ON YOUR CAR, YOU, AND THE...
- ✅ CLEANS WHEELS, TIRES, WHEEL WELLS, ENGINE BAYS, EXHAUST...
- ✅ GREAT FOR CLEANING UP DETAILING ACCESSORIES LIKE...
- ✅ D.R.E. TECHNOLOGY! When developing this product we...
- ✅ 110% SATISFACTION GUARANTEE AND USA MADE! We pride...
- Safe for the environment,
- Safe to release direct to environment (e.g. you can clean a boat in the water)
- Cleans surfaces like wheels, tires, wheel wells, engines, and exhaust tips
- Pleasing, fresh odor
- Adam’s states it is safe to breath
- Cleans polishing and buffing pads
- Can be diluted for “gentler” cleaning, up to 5:1 with water
- Marketing shows more exterior uses than interior
- Not for polished aluminum or glass
- For cleaning tires and grease, you need to use a lot of cleaner
ECO All Purpose Cleaner is the latest version of an APC from Adams. It comes ready to use, and is intended to be a green, safe to use product.
This product can be diluted for gentler cleaning of interior surfaces (up to 5:1). And undiluted, it can be used in the engine bay or wheel wells.
But I did find on heavy grease, tires, and wheel wells, a fair amount of cleaner needed to get things clean.
Up until now, I have been a bit reserved about mentioning the use of APC’s for other things, like boats, RV’s, ATV’s, and around the house. But this product is interesting for cleaning your boat. It is very green and claims it can be released direct to the environment. Or said more plainly, you can wash your boat in the water with this product, not something you can do with most cleaners.
Another interesting aspect of the Adams ECO All Purpose cleaner is that the toxicity profile is low (i.e. it is safe to use) and you can breathe this product according to their website. I am not promoting breathing or drinking any product, but this product is focused on being easy on the environment and the user.
And one other thing I noticed, unlike many of the other APC manufactures, Adams ECO All Purpose Cleaner focuses on exterior cleaning. Look at their website, and the photos and videos are almost always exterior uses like wheel wells, engine bays, and exhaust tips.
Adams also pointed out that this product works great on cleaning your polishing and buffing pads. While other products may do this too, they identified a unique, and useful, application for an APC.
The Adams ECO All Purpose Cleaner is priced in the middle of our price range.
CarGuys Super Cleaner – Best Satisfaction Guarantee APC
- ✅ The Hype is Real! – Are you tired of using cleaners...
- ✅ Replace your Cabinet of Chemicals! – Do you get...
- ✅ Super Clean any Surface! – This multi surface product...
- ✅ Why choose CAR GUYS? – We Care About Quality! Our...
- ✅ We Care About Customer Satisfaction! – We're Not...
- No ammonia or harmful chemicals
- No questions guarantee, just ask for refund if not happy
- Available in trigger spray bottles and one-gallon jugs
- Uses Nano technology
- Environmentally friendly
- Formulated for professional detailers
- Leaves no gloss
- Intended for use on many surfaces and vehicles, and around the house
- Not for glass or dashboard panels
- Cannot let this product dry on surface
CarGuys Super Cleaner uses a high-tech approach to tackle the job, Nano technology. Their product is ammonia free and CarGuys confirmed there are no harmful chemicals in the product.
It is obvious this product is manufactured and marketed for the professional detailer but is also easy to use for the casual driveway detailer. Further, this product can be used on your RV, boat, motorcycle, around the house, or pretty much anything else you want to clean.
And I found the guarantee interesting. If you are unhappy for any reason, they will provide a full refund. That is a confident statement about a general-purpose cleaning product backed up by the positive reviews on Amazon. (4.7 out of 5 stars after 800 reviews is phenomenal.)
While CarGuys Super Cleaner works on a whole lot of surfaces, you need to avoid glass or instrument panels with this product.
All in all, this is a versatile product. But a universal product that actually cleans comes at a price, this product is the most expensive on our list.
Mothers Professional All-Purpose Cleaner – Best Budget APC
- Mothers All-Purpose Cleaner is a highly concentrated,...
- Combining highly effective cleaners with a combination of...
- Perfect for cleaning carpets, fabrics, vinyl upholstery,...
- At higher concentrations, All-Purpose Cleaner is great for...
- Recommended Dilutions: General Purpose - 1:15, Carpet, Vinyl...
- Supplied as a concentrate
- Can be diluted up to 15:1 for general purpose
- Available in one and five-gallon jugs
- Pleasant odor
- Eye and skin irritant
- Not many reviews
Mothers Professional All-Purpose Cleaner comes from a company well-known name for waxes and polishes. But they do have an interesting product in their all-purpose cleaner.
It is biodegradable, which is gentler on the environment, and has an odor most find pleasant. And the concentrate can be diluted up to 15:1 with water, so your gallon will last a while.
Combine the fact that this ships as a concentrate with the very competitive price (this was lowest priced cleaner on our list), and this is an economical choice.
The product is designed to cut grease at higher concentrations, but lower concentrations work on your more delicate surfaces on the interior. So, it is a versatile cleaner that you can use to detail your car or clean a boat, RV, motorcycle, home, or many other surfaces.
So, for those that are price conscious, this product is interesting and works on a number of surfaces and cleaning jobs. However, with only seven reviews on Amazon, one can surmise that this product has not found wide use yet.
Chemical Guys CLD-101 All Clean+ Citrus-Based All Purpose Super Cleaner
- Superior foaming action
- All natural cleaning formula
- Free citrus scent
- Works for both interior and exterior
- Removes dirt and grime
- All-natural citrus-based formula
- Fresh, citrus scent
- Can dilute up to 20:1 with water
- Foaming action
- Removed some odors
- Spray bottles caps not removable, hard to dilute
- Several users complained about broken or defective spray tops
- Some complained not strong enough, had to scrub a lot
Chemical Guys All Clean+ Citrus-Based All Purpose Super Cleaner takes a different approach to formulating an APC, they employ a citrus extract. And not surprisingly, this product has a nice fresh, citrus odor.
All Clean+ is shipped ready to tackle the tougher applications, like grease and oil or the undercarriage, but can be diluted up to 20:1 for a less aggressive cleaner. However, to dilute the trigger spray bottles, the caps were not removable. Many users were disappointed that it was difficult to dilute the product in these bottles.
The product is formulated to foam to lift dirt and get into cracks and crevices. That can be a help when working on intricate things like wheels and grills. Many users also liked the way it clung to surfaces.
There are several complaints about broken spray tops on their trigger spray bottles. So, if you buy online, use a good retailer who knows how to package a shipment.
And finally, the price was in the middle of our price range.
303 Multi-Surface Cleaner
- 303 Multi Surface Cleaner is a powerful all purpose cleaner...
- 303 all purpose cleaner provides the ultimate cleaning power...
- 303 Multi Surface Cleaner is recommended by Sunbrella. This...
- Safely brightens, protects and rejuvenates surfaces....
- Same great product, new look!
- Water based, pH neutral
- Fragrance free
- Contains fabric brighteners
- Residue free
- Recommended by Sunbrella
- Available in wipes, or 16 oz and 32 oz spray bottles, or a one-gallon container
- Pedigree for 303 is in boating
- Owned by GoldEagle, makers of TriNova
- Eye irritant
- Cannot dilute to vary strength
303 Multi-Surface Cleaner is water based and pH neutral, which is a good start for any cleaner. And it is also fragrance and residue free.
For those who hate to mix, this product is supplied ready to use. That also means you cannot vary the strength for different uses. But is designed to cut grease and work on things like upholstery. 303 mentions several uses for the product, including around the house.
This product has a boating pedigree, which involves surfaces like canvas and teak not usually found in cars, but 303 Multi-Surface Cleaner is finding a use in the automotive detailing market.
Because fabrics are a common problem on boats, it is not surprising to find a fabric brightener in this product. This an obvious plus when cleaning carpets and upholstery in your automobile.
Price wise, this product is near the top of our price range. But it does clean a lot of different surfaces for that price.
Cutting to the Chase
Lists like this always become a bit repetitive, and all that information can be a bit overwhelming. But to summarize, you may have noticed by now that there are two types of products:
- Concentrates that you need to mix.
You need to first decide which suits your needs. For me, I like a concentrate because a user can mix various strength solutions for different cleaning jobs. But some don’t like mixing and the unlabeled bottles that can result.
So, the choice is yours.
Once you decide whether to mix or not, you still have choices available to you.
Meguiar’s D101 All Purpose Cleaner is a great selection if you want a cleaner with a track record on many different types of surfaces.
Need something extra gentle for your delicate interior surfaces? Griot’s Garage Interior Cleaner fits the bill.
For those of you that need their APC to clean more than a car, like say a boat, the 303 Multi-Surface Cleaner has a track record with surfaces like canvas and teak that are not normally found in cars. And Adams ECO All Purpose Cleaner can be used to clean your boat in the water.
For those who are price conscious, Mothers Professional All Purpose Cleaner is priced competitively. Combine that with the fact this product ships as a concentrate, this is an economical choice for sure.
But some of you may ask if you can get something with a proven track record and a great guarantee. Then look at CarGuys Super Cleaner, a well-known and reviewed product with a great no-questions guarantee. But, you will need to pay a little more.
So, yes there is always a lot of information whenever we review products, but I hope you can see there is an all-purpose cleaner out there to suit everyone’s needs.
Now at this point, all that is left to do is for you to pick one and get to that cleaning. Happy Detailing!