How to Get Hard-to-Remove Debris Off Your Paint

Summer is the season for cruising back roads with your windows down. Unfortunately, it's also prime time for road construction, tree sap, and bugs, which can mean unsightly debris stuck on your vehicle's surface. Here's how to get your vehicle looking like new again and how to keep it that way.

Source | Grahame Jenkins

Wash and rinse

Tackle any exterior cleanup job as soon as you notice an issue and before the debris has time to adhere. Start with a basic wash and rinse, using a mild car wash, clean microfiber towel, and plenty of water. Avoid using dish detergent as it can strip your vehicle's protective wax coating.

Bugs, tar, asphalt, and pitch

To remove bugs, tar, asphalt, or tree pitch, first let your vehicle cool down from your drive and/or park it in the shade. The foam used in the next step will evaporate more slowly on a cool surface. This will allow the product to set longer and work to remove any surface contaminants, saving you time and effort.

When your vehicle is cool and dry, inspect the surface for debris. The hood, headlights, and grille areas are prime locations for splattered bugs and tree pitch. Check your runners, rocker panels, mud flaps, doors, and hub caps for tar or asphalt.

If you find stuck-on debris from your drive, spray a thick coat of bug -and-tar remover foam product, like Meguiar's, on the affected areas. Let the foam sit for up to five minutes or until it starts to dry. If the foam dries too soon, apply more.

Rub the areas affected by bugs, tar, and tree pitch with a clean, damp microfiber towel in a circular motion until the debris is removed. For hard-to-reach places, like a vehicle's grille, spray the bug remover directly on a towel and lightly rub.

For more abrasive debris, such as asphalt, gently dab at the area to loosen it. Reapply the bug remover as needed. Avoid abrasive pads, which can scratch and damage your vehicle's clear coat.

Give your vehicle another quick rinse to remove any extra foam product or wipe down the surface with a clean towel.

Highway paint

Few things frustrate drivers more than finding highway-striping paint splattered along tires, wheel wells, rocker panels, and doors. Removing it takes creativity and patience. Here are a few methods to try, starting with the least aggressive and abrasive:

First, wash and rinse the affected area directly to loosen any easy-to-remove paint (you can always hope!). Follow up with a heavy coat of the bug and tar remover, which can be used on virtually any surface, including your tires or bumper. Let the foam set for up to five minutes to soften the paint.

Spray additional foam remover on your towel and loosen dried paint by working in a circular motion. You can also use this product on your hub caps, tires, mud flaps, or in your wheel wells. Use a scrub brush on your tire walls but stick with a soft towel for chrome or painted surfaces. This method takes a good amount of time and elbow grease, so get comfortable.

If paint still remains, it's time to step up to a polishing compound. Rubbing/polishing compound is lightly abrasive and will remove paint without damaging the clear coat. But it isn't designed to work on flat or matte surfaces.

To get started, apply the polishing compound directly to the surface. Let it sit for a few minutes, then rub a dry cotton towel (less abrasive) or sponge (more abrasive) in a back-and-forth motion. When you've removed all of the paint, buff the surface lightly with a clean cloth.

Last-ditch efforts to remove highway paint

If you try the aforementioned methods to no avail, you have a few remaining options. These methods will require less elbow grease, but be aware that the results are also less predictable. Test them in an inconspicuous location first. If you decide to try a harsh chemical, work in a well-ventilated area and protect your hands with gloves.

  • Some drivers report success with using WD-40 or diluted Goof Off, acetone, brake and carburetor cleaner, Easy-Off oven cleaner, and automotive paint remover.
  • If you want to avoid using harsh chemicals, you could also try scraping the paint off with a razor blade. Soften the paint first using bug and tar remover or polishing compound. Then, either apply even pressure to work the blade under the edge of the paint or scrape away the paint in layers with several light passes.

Finally, if you're struggling to get the results you want, call a professional detailer. Depending on the extent of the paint, expect to pay between $150 and $550.


Once you have your vehicle like new again, there are a few things you can do to keep it looking that way.

  • Obviously, avoid driving in areas where there's road construction when possible. Your local DoT and the Federal Highway Administration offer listings of local road construction projects.
  • Park your vehicle away from trees like pines and crepe myrtles, which can drop sap, pitch, and debris.
  • Give your vehicle a weekly wash so debris has less chance to adhere.
  • Use shields and screens to protect your grille and hood from bug splatter.
  • Apply a coat of car wax throughout the season to protect your vehicle's finish.

For more tips on keeping your vehicle's exterior sparkling, check out How to Protect Your Car's Exterior During Summer. And if you have any experience with unconventional ways of removing debris—especially highway paint—from your vehicle, let us know in the comments!

Last updated February 11, 2019