How to Remove Tar from Cars & Prevent it from Coming Back

Have you been noticing dark, sticky stains on your car as of late? Wondering what they are and how to get rid of them?

These types of stains – tar stains – can be quite difficult to avoid. Once on your vehicle, they’re tough to clear, but the task isn’t impossible – and we’re here to tell you all you need to know about removing tar from cars.

These often tiny spots aren’t only unaesthetic, but over time, they can also cause great damage to your car’s paint job. Without a proper removal procedure, they can (and will) cost you a great deal of money down the line.

Luckily, you don’t need to be an expert or a professional to remove these stains from your vehicle’s exterior.

Man wiping silver car hood clean with a towel after removing tar from it

In this article, we’ll explain what this substance is, as well as how it ends up on your vehicle. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know all about how to safely remove it from your vehicle, and how to best prevent it from getting on your car again.

What Is Tar?

Tar is a sticky substance that, once it gets on your vehicle, forms small spots that are dark in color. They can form from petroleum, coal, peat, or wood.

Many roads today are made of asphalt, which also contains bitumen. Not only is it durable, but it’s also waterproof, non-slippery, and affordable to make. Asphalt is a semi-liquid form of petroleum.

When it melts, tar is released and sticks to anything it comes in contact with.

Because asphalt spots—and therefore tar—originate from the road, they usually stain the lower parts of your vehicle. Side doors, plates, and wheels are usually the main targets.

In some cases, it can even reach the windows, headlights, or even your vehicle’s roof. Luckily, the stains take time to harden, but even as a sticky texture, it’s quite challenging to get rid of.

This substance is oil based, which means that it requires different tactics than those used when removing tree sap or for when you want to remove bugs from your vehicle. In other words, a simple car wash probably won’t be enough to get rid of tar from your car.

How Does Your Car Get Stained?

So, how does this sticky substance end up on your vehicle? This is a very important question to ask, since understanding how tar gets there allows you to take the necessary measures to prevent it from coming back again in the future.

This substance can land on your vehicle in many ways.

  • Driving on a newly made or repaired road will likely deposit the substance on your vehicle.
  • Watch out for freshly filled potholes as well.
  • Passing by a construction site or construction trucks might also splash some of the substance on your vehicle.
  • Asphalt melts with high heat. In hot weather, it softens and becomes sticky. When driving over it, particles can splash over your car paint. If you’re not guilty yourself, passing vehicles driving on the melting bitumen might help the substance reach you.

Why Is It Important to Remove Tar from Cars?

So, why is it important for people to take the time, effort and elbow grease to clear tar stains from their vehicles, anyways?

First things first, resell value and helping a vehicle last over time are both important to most car owners.

Giving your car a regular and thorough cleaning is necessary to keep it in good shape. Tar-free, it also gives your vehicle a shiny and maintained look.

Also, a fair amount of this substance can also become a fire hazard. Better safe than sorry! (Just in case this does happen, be well prepared beforehand by keeping a fire extinguisher in your car).

When spread on the doors, the sticky substance can easily migrate to your clothes or anything else coming in contact with it. Taking off tar from fabric is at least as difficult to remove, if not more difficult than removing the tar from your vehicle.

So, these stains should be removed as soon as you notice them. Although it takes time to dry, once hardened, it will be very challenging to wipe the tar off your car. It’s also not a wise idea if you’re trying to avoid damaging the paint of your car.

The important point we’re trying to get across is this: The longer you wait to get rid of these stains, the more significant a toll this will all take on your wallet.

How to Remove Tar From Car Paint

Because it’s a gluey and condensed hydrocarbon substance, it requires light hydrocarbon remedies, such as oils or solvents.

Whether you’re looking for a homemade cleaner or a commercial product to get rid of tar spots from your vehicle, several options are available for you to choose from.

Before proceeding with removing the stains themselves, be sure to clean your car throughout using a car wash mitt, (choose one from our guide the best car wash mitts if you don’t already have one) This will remove dirt and dust, avoiding potential scratches that might otherwise occur.

It’s also very important to make sure that your vehicle isn’t parked on your yard’s grass or concrete. Once removed, it can leave stains on your concrete floor, and it can also create dead spots on your lawn.

Using a Commercial Product

Designed and tested for this very specific purpose, using specialized commercial products to remove tar from cars often saves time. These tar cleaning products are specifically designed to dissolve the stain, making it easier to remove.

Citrus-based and non-chlorinated products are often the most efficient. They’re also safer for your car’s paint, and are readily available in most auto shops.

Each product may have different application instructions, which is why we recommend reading the labels carefully first before applying the cleaning solution.

With that being said, here are some general guidelines to follow:

  1. Apply the product on the stain and let it sit for at least 30 seconds. The longer you leave it there (without overdoing it), the better.
  2. The stain should slowly start to dissolve. Once it starts running down in brownish water drops, know that you’ve won the battle.
  3. For something that removes stubborn stains, use a microfiber cloth and rub the spots until they’re fully dissolved, (if you don’t have any, choose from the recommended products in our guide to the best microfiber towels for cars.)
  4. Using a pressure washer and proper washer fluid, rinse your vehicle. We recommend using medium pressure level (500 to 800 dpi). A bucket of water can also be used, just in case you don’t have access to a pressure washer at the time. A pressure washer will, however, be more convenient to clean difficult places to reach. It also gives you more power to remove drier spots. If you don;t have one, check out our guide to the best pressure washers.
  5. Using a microfiber towel, reapply a layer of protective car wax over the vehicle.

The Clay Bar Solution

A good clay bar kit might be a good cleaning tool to keep handy. It removes bugs, tree sap, water spots, and fresh tar stains as well.

A clay bar should be used on a wet surface only. Also, and although this might be tempting for many, don’t reuse an old clay bar.

  1. Use a clay lubricant to wet the area.
  2. Pour warm water in a bucket and soak the clay.
  3. Rub the stains until they dissolve. Making small circular movements will help attack the spots from all corners. Apply light pressure to avoid scratches.
  4. After rinsing and fully drying your vehicle, wax your car.

Household Tar Removers

Don’t have time to drive to a car shop to purchase a commercial bug tar remover product? Don’t worry about it, you can often get by just fine with household products. Here are useful cleaning ingredients you might be able to find in your kitchen.

Even though you might not get as fast and efficient results from using these as you would when using regular tar remover products, these ingredients can still be of great help when it comes to removing tar stains from your car.

To stay on the safe side of things, if you’re going to be trying any of these remedies out, we recommend trying the solution on a small area first to check for any adverse reactions before proceeding.

WD-40 Spray

This home spray can be applied directly on the stain and left for at least 30 seconds.

WD-40 can also be applied on a microfiber cloth and then rubbed onto the stain.

Peanut Butter

Peanut butter can be found in most American homes, and can efficiently dissolve tar stains.

Ensure that you’re using a smooth, chemical- and additive-free peanut butter, though. Crunchy ones could result in scratches on your paint, ones that will prove to be a pain to get rid of later on.

If you don’t have peanut butter handy, regular butter or even mayonnaise can be used. However, peanut butter is really preferred if you can get your hands on some.

Apply on a microfiber soft cloth and let the butter sit on the stain for the same amount of time—at least 30 seconds. Rub in a circular motion if needed (think small circles), and wash the car thoroughly.

After using both WD-40 or peanut butter, apply a layer of wax over the entire surface.

Other Remedies

Both kerosene and white spirit are also effective at cleaning tar from cars. They both contain a degreasing agent, helping them to dissolve.

The application remains the same as described above. It is, however, best to leave the solution for about five minutes before rubbing or washing away.

Professional Removal

If you lack the time to do all of this on your own, or you’re having trouble removing the spots, your auto-retail shop should be able to help.

Depending on the surface area and how dry the stains are, quotes might differ.

How to Prevent Tar From Sticking On Your Car

It can sometimes be challenging to avoid this substance from making its way onto your vehicle completely, but there’s definitely a few precautions you can take to help keep the substance away as much as possible.

Avoiding New Asphalt

This might be common sense, but it’s also the most efficient way to keep tar stains off your vehicle.

Once you notice a fresh asphalt coming up, it can sometimes be too late already, and you can’t avoid it anymore.

When caught off guard, drive slowly over the asphalt concrete. It might not completely prevent the sticky substance from reaching your car, but at least they might remain on the lower end of your vehicle.

Are you driving in a familiar area? Are you aware of a road repair or a new road construction project going on? Having to remove road tar will be a huge problem in these cases, so choosing a detour route might be helpful.

Wax Application

It’s best to apply wax regularly over your entire vehicle.

This should be done at least once every three months. If you’re using or washing your car with car wash soap more than normal (we talk about how often you should wash your car here), apply it on a monthly basis.

Wax acts as a blanket between the external environment and your clearcoat. If tree sap, bird droppings, or tar gets to your vehicle, it will stick to the wax, and not the clear coat. It makes these things easier and safer to remove.

Summary

Keeping your vehicle in good shape requires constant attention, care, and maintenance.

Preventing tar stains from happening can be helpful, but this isn’t always possible, and your vehicle might still be exposed to these stains every now and then.

Because they’re made of oil, these stains will require different attention, compared to what you’ll need to do to remove a tree sap stain.

Using home remedies or a commercial cleaner should help you get your vehicle back to a pristine condition, though. So, it really isn’t all that difficult to take care of.

With that being said, keep in mind that the sooner you dissolve the stains, the faster (and easier) the whole process will be.

Dried stains can be very difficult to remove, and you’ll likely need professional help to deal with those, which will greatly increase the cost of the repair. So, moral of the story, don’t leave them till they dry!

From childhood go karting and motocross, to collecting and obsessing over scalextric, matchbox and radio controlled cars, I've always had an obsession with cars. Learning through manuals, books, trial and error, and more knowledgeable family members, I've also enjoyed tinkering with the mechanics and electronics of any vehicles I've owned. Now, over 3 decades later, I've started this site as a place for me to share my knowledge, to teach others how to care for and maintain their vehicles themselves, at home, so they can get the most of their vehicles and save a pretty penny compared to always seeking out professional help.

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