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How to Get Tar Off a Car

Cleaning supplies on the roof of a car in a garage.

Nothing looks better than a wide-open freshly paved road stretching out in front of you, but few things look worse than getting to your destination and finding part of that road on your vehicle’s finish. There’s no need to panic though be the process of tar removal from car paint is actually quite simple. Let’s take a look at road tar itself and how to get tar off a car if you happen to hit a sticky patch.

What Exactly Is Road Tar?Tar road curving to the right and then white bridge

Unlike concrete, which is poured and then hardens, asphalt or blacktop is a mixture of sand, gravel, maybe some ground-up old tire bits (for noise reduction) and tar, which binds it all together. This mixture is pliable and can be poured and rolled out into the endless roadway ribbons we all know. It’s applied hot, and it solidifies as it cools. In some climates, this takes months. Just ask anyone from Phoenix how much they like “chip sealing” — what they call resurfacing the streets in this legendarily hot desert city.

Even with careful driving it is possible to end up with road tar on your car. If your two-ton vehicle rolls across tar while it’s still cooling or on a blazing hot summer day, the pressure and friction caused by your wheels can pull bits of it up from the road. Just like driving through a mud puddle, this can throw the tar onto the sides of your car. Unlike a mud puddle though it is not obvious that you are driving through loose tar. If there’s a car next to you, you may get some tar from that guy too, and if you’re following someone down the road, it could get on the front of your car. If you drive past heavy machinery while they’re laying asphalt in an adjacent lane, you’ll likely find it on the side of your car when you stop.

What Do I Need To Get Tar off a Car?

Getting tar off a vehicle isn’t a monumental chore. Assuming that you don’t let it sit for months, it doesn’t harden the way tree sap or bug guts do. However, because of the petroleum in the tar, typical car wash soap doesn’t really do the trick, and you want to do the job without risking any damage to your paint.

What you need is a dedicated tar remover or tar and bug remover. This will break down the petroleum in the tar and allow you to wipe it away from paint, glass, plastic and chrome. Follow that up with a wash, polish and wax, and you’re set.

Which Remover Should I Use?

There are some options on the market that are solvent-based and proud of it. Their pitch is that the solvent dissolves the petroleum. While the claims may be true, those solvents themselves can leave behind a residue and make the finish of your vehicle look greasy and inconsistent. For that reason, the best tar remover for car paint is a tar and bug remover that is solvent-free.

Do not use any harsh chemicals like paint thinner, acetone, or mineral spirits. While these may technically remove the tar, they may also take the paint right with it!

If you have a portable steamer you can use it to soften the tar to make it easier to remove. This is especially handy if you didn’t notice the tar and it has hardened over time. As a last resort you can use a plastic scraper but you will likely scratch and damage the paint.

How To Remove Tar From Car Paint

Removing tar from car paint is easy. Get some soft cloths, tar remover and a bucket of clean water. Spray the tar remover on a cloth and then work in small, circular motions. You should see the tar start coming off onto the cloth. You can also apply the tar remover directly the tar and let soak in for a few minutes. Once the car starts to melt away you can then use the cloth to wipe it off. When the tar is all gone turn over  the cloth to the clean side for the final wipe-down of the area, and then take another clean cloth, dip it in the clean water, and wipe the area down.

Once you’ve removed the offending road tar follow up with a DIY car wash to get everything clean again. You can then help protect your paint from any future tar issues by giving it a good coat of wax. The wax won’t repel the tar, but it will make it easier to remove with the bonus of a nice shine.

Check out all the cleaners, polishes and waxes available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how to remove tar from car paint and picking the best bug and tar remover for cars, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Swain.


Mike Hagerty View All

Mike Hagerty is an automotive journalist whose work has been featured on radio, TV, in print and online since 1997. He's the Publisher and Editor of, and contributes car reviews to the Los Altos Town Crier and Previous outlets have included KFBK and in Sacramento, California, the ABC television affiliates and Hearst-Argyle and Emmis radio stations in Phoenix, Arizona; AAA magazines for Arizona, Oklahoma, Northwest Ohio, South Dakota and the Mountain West and

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