How to Get Tar, Sap, Bugs, and Other Caked-on Dirt Off Your Car’s Paint

Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring—any season brings build-ups of hard-to-remove debris like smashed bugs and tree sap. Some of these substances like tree sap can ruin your paint job, and they can all be really hard to remove. Other contaminants are microscopic in size, but when you run your hand over a freshly washed car, you will feel them. Many people opt to wax over these contaminants, which is also a bad practice. There are, however, there are many ways to go about cleaning up paint contaminants that summer can leave behind. If you are looking for advice on how to remove stubborn dirt from car, read on.

Clean it Up When You See It

Probably the most salient advice for big messes is to keep on top of your car’s washing. If you notice any sort of an issue, it’s better to take care of it right away as opposed to letting it harden on your vehicle. Additionally, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so regularly washing your car should become part of your weekly routine. With a little bit of maintenance, you may find that major clean-up jobs can be avoided.

The best way to tackle spot cleans between regular car washings is to obtain a microfiber towel, some mild car wash, and water. With all of this in hand, you can simply go after problem spots as soon as you notice them. Again, the longer you wait, the more elbow grease it requires to remove in the long run.

Giving Asphalt, Tar, and Pitch the Boot

Some of the most frustrating substances to try and remove from your car are sticky ones. Asphalt, tar, bugs, and tree pitch can give you a real headache. Often, the soap and water treatment is not enough to really remove these annoyances from your vehicle.

Thankfully, there are specific products that can help you restore your vehicle to its original luster. In order to remove stubborn sticky debris, you first want to drive your vehicle into the shade or somewhere cool, and let your vehicle cool down. If your vehicle is hot when you apply the product, it either hardens or evaporates too quickly.

While traditional Bar and Tar remover are often the best items for this job, using the “thousands of uses” traditional WD-40 or other penetrating oil, or even Goo-Gone will also remove plenty of super-stubborn contaminants from the paint. For paint that’s been contaminated with microscopic things you can feel on a freshly washed car, using a Clay Bar is by far the industry standard for getting a nice, smooth, contaminant free finish that is ready for waxing. It’s highly recommended that you Clay Bar your car any time before you are applying wax.

How to Remove Sticky Substances from Your Car

1. Inspect Your Vehicle

After your car has cooled off and is completely dry, you can then inspect the vehicle for any sticky messes. In terms of asphalt, you’ll find it most often on your mud flaps, rocker panels, doors, and hub caps. Bugs and tree pitch can be plastered across your headlights, hood, and grille. Of course, any of these annoyances can be found anywhere, but these are the most common locations.

2. Spray the Mess

When you find a sticky mess, reach for a bug-and-tar remover first. You can spray the remover on the areas that have the mess, and let it sit for at least five minutes. A good practice when using an automated car-wash is to spray the front of the vehicle and mirrors with bug and tar remover about 5 minutes before entering. This will help the car wash break up the bugs and mess that otherwise wouldn’t have come off.

3. Use a Towel to Remove Debris

Once the product has set for an appropriate amount of time, you can then use a microfiber towel to remove the mess by rubbing it in a circular motion. This should remove the debris. In the event that you were trying to remove mess from a difficult location, like your car’s grille, you can spray the product into the towel and work it along the surface that way.

If you are dealing with a stubborn sticky mess, you can also try using a dabbing maneuver to loosen it. You want to avoid abrasive materials like scrubbing pads or steel wool, as these can damage the finish of your vehicle.

4. Wash Your Car

Once the mess is removed, you can then go ahead and wash your car like normal to return it to its original state.

How to Remove Highway Paint / Other Paint

One of the more frustrating risks of driving through construction zones is discovering highway paint splattered all across the bottom of your vehicle. To this end, if you have to drive through a construction zone, make sure that you keep a sharp eye on your rocker panels, doors, wheel wells, and tires. It’s easy to miss splatters of highway paint, and the quicker you are able to remove this menace from your car, the better.

However, if you do discover splatters of any kind of paint that are dried on your vehicle, there are many steps you can take to remove it. First, you should always try going through a traditional car wash or putting some elbow grease in on your own driveway with mild car soap and water.

If this fails to remove the paint, go ahead and reach for your bug-and-tar remover and use the same steps outlined previously to remove the paint. You may also want to add more of the remover to your microfiber towel, and try and buff out the paint in a circular motion. It is very likely that this is going to take a good amount of time to get all the paint off, so be patient.

If this fails to work, usually the best option for removing paint, but requires extreme caution, is Lacquer Thinner. Most modern paint jobs are a basecoat/clearcoat finish, and once hardened, is resistant to solvent like Lacquer Thinner in small doses. The best method is to test your finish in an inconspicuous area to be sure the Lacquer Thinner won’t damage it. In most cases, it will not, and to apply, simply splash a little Lacquer Thinner onto a microfiber or polishing towel and gently rub the area that has the paint you wish to remove. You will notice the Lacquer Thinner will dissolve the paint quickly. It will also strip any wax off of the finish, so after removal, you will need to re-wax / polish the area that once had paint on it, but usually this is the quickest and easiest way to remove paint that otherwise will not come off.

If this still fails to work, you may wish to reach for a polishing compound. Polishing compounds are slightly abrasive and can help you remove paint without damaging the surface of your car.

To use a polishing compound, apply to either an application pad by hand, or use a mechanical buffer / compound over the area. Follow up with wax.

With these car wash tips and tricks in mind, you can ensure that your summer drives remain carefree and, ultimately, clean.

Advice, how-to guides, and car care information featured on and AutoZone Advice & How-To’s are presented as helpful resources for general maintenance and automotive repairs from a general perspective only and should be used at your own risk. Information is accurate and true to the best of AutoZone’s knowledge, however, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes.

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