Spare Me The Details: Bugs Be Gone

Matt Fink
by Matt Fink
spare me the details bugs be gone

Is your car ready for winter? Have you put on one last coat of wax, installed the rubber floor mats, and maybe a nice layer of Rain-X? Well, even if your hose is already hibernating there is one more thing you need to do before winter and that is to get all the bugs off the paint. Some of these buggers contain acidic substances that can actually eat away at the clear coat and eventually even the paint. That’s right, leaving dead bugs on your car will destroy your paint. In my mind it’s just their revenge for killing them. What happens is that as an insect decomposes, they produce enzymes intended to break down the carcass. These enzymes also break down automotive paint, resulting in etching. It is always best to get bugs off the paint as soon as possible. It is especially important to get them off before winter when most of us don’t hand wash our cars as much. In fact, in many cases people have had to repaint bumpers because they didn’t take the time to get bugs off in a timely manner. Don’t believe me? According to a statistic I just made up, Americans spend more than $30 million every year on repainted bumpers and poorly fit car bras to cover bug damaged paint.

If you have a commute anything like mine, driving through beautiful open hills with stretches of farms on either side of the highway (read: 2 mile commute in stop-and-go traffic alongside strip malls.), it is inevitable that the front of your car is going to get covered in bugs! Besides bugs, your vehicle probably regularly encounters tar, tree sap, and bird poop. All of these things are bad for paint and should be removed ASAP (pun intended!). Keeping your car’s paint looking good isn’t just a matter of appearance; it’s also your car’s only line of defense between the metal and the elements. You already know grocery carts, gravel roads or an angry ex can ruin your car’s paint, but a lot of things out there can do just as much, if not more, harm to the exterior of your car.

As soon as you notice bugs, tar, bird crap etc…, take action. Here’s what you can do: If the spot is relatively fresh, you can use a microfiber towel and a quick detailer spray to wipe the paint clean. This is ideal because you’re not removing any existing wax. From my experience, bird crap tends to eat into your paint the quickest.

The thing to remember when cleaning bugs off your car is to always go with the least aggressive method first and work up from there. That thought process should be used whenever detailing your ride. This means in most cases if you’re not using the quick detailer spray to spot treat it, begin with a regular hand wash of the car and see what comes off. I use a bug mitt, which is basically a net around a really soft foam pad.

It is VERY IMPORTANT to make sure the mitt you are using is specifically made for a car, because using a sponge designed for cleaning dishes is waaaay too abrasive for car paint. Often times if the bugs are fresh, they can be removed with regular car soap and elbow grease. When I say “regular car soap” I do NOT mean dish soap.

If that doesn’t do the trick, and if the bugs have been sitting for a while it probably won’t, you’ll need to move on to more aggressive tactics. If there is a large area covered with bugs, I’d go with the wet towel approach next. It’s pretty simple, get a towel wet and just lay it over the “infected” area.

Let the towel sit for 10-15 minutes. To speed up the process, apply some gentle pressure while drinking hot chocolate and if need be, hum a little Christmas tune.

After removing the towel, the bugs should come off with scrubbing much easier. If I notice a lot of bugs on a car I’m detailing, I will go ahead and throw a wet towel over the bumper and both mirrors for a while before I even wash it to loosen things up.

Let’s say the bugs have been on your bumper since Dale Jr. only had one #8 on his car. In that case you’ll need to be more aggressive. There are lots of products out there that are specifically made for this. Most work pretty well, but the thing to keep in mind is that unless it specifically says on the bottle “safe for car wax”, bug and tar remover sprays will take the wax off your paint. Always plan on waxing the area afterwards. Plus, waxing the bumper makes it a little tougher for bug guts to stick to it next time. I’ve found soaking the bugs with some bug and tar remover and then wiping them off during the car to be another easy method.

If by chance you don’t have any bug and tar remover spray on your shelf, there are other household items you can use. Again, this would be getting more aggressive, so try other options first. Things you can use include rubbing the bumper with a dryer sheet. Also, believe it or not WD40 works well. WD40 leaves a slimy film behind though, so you will need to wash the area after using it. Neither should harm your paint at all.

If the problem is tar, the steps are similar, except you almost always have to begin with some type of bug and tar removing spray. I let the spray sit for 5-10 minutes to really loosen it before I go after it. Keep in mind; the towel you use to wipe tar off CANNOT be used for other applications in the future. It needs to be regulated to a lowly tar removal towel (or similar nasty tasks).

Sap is even harder to remove than bugs and tar in most cases. Here is some sap I noticed on my van this fall.

I used Turtle Wax Bug and Tar Remover spray to loosen it up.

After letting it soak some, I used to bug mitt to remove.

It took 3 applications to get it all. There have been times when that doesn’t get all the sap, in which case I’ve had some success using a rubbing compound.

After removing bugs and tar that may have etched into the paint, you may want to consider clay barring the car (read my previous post about how to use a clay bar here).

In conclusion, prevent future paint damage by washing and waxing regularly. Wax creates a protective barrier that makes bugs, tar and other road grime easier to remove. I’ve seen people do some crazy things to prevent bugs on their paint that I wouldn’t recommend including Goo Gone, peanut butter, finger nail polish remover, wrapping the bumper in Saran wrap, and soaking the front end in WD40 and leaving it on. Share what you have done to protect your ride from bugs in the comments.

Join the conversation
3 of 47 comments
  • CarPerson CarPerson on Dec 09, 2013

    Griot's Garage recommends and sells "3M General Purpose Adhesive Cleaner" in a 15oz aerosol can. I can't say how it does on bugs, tar, and pitch, but it certainly removes old, dried-up contact cement from a mailbox when nothing else would so it could be sold on Craig's List...

    • Matt Fink Matt Fink on Dec 09, 2013

      3M Adhesive Cleaner is great. It's definitely more aggressive and should be used after other things have been tried, but I too have had success using that when other methods failed.

  • Jfbramfeld Jfbramfeld on Dec 10, 2013

    I feel really bad about all those insects I left on my cars for so long. I feel really bad that I didn't suffer the ruination of my paint, either. Illinois bugs apparently lack the potency of regular bugs. I'm thinking about getting a car bra kit. You know; car bra, car bra protector, car bra protector wax and car bra protector cleaner and detailer. On the other hand, maybe my cars are protected by the thrice yearly commercial car washing they get, whether they need it or not. I am careful to use only high speed beating cloth washes. Perhaps my punishment will come in the next world, because I am paying no cost in this.

  • Carlson Fan I think it is pretty cool & grew up with a '75 Ford window van so I can attest to their utility. $60K is a lot for any vehicle and I'm not convinced EV's are ready for prime time for a number of reasons. It would make an awesome 2nd or 3rd vehicle in a multi-car household but again the price would keep most from considering it.I agree with the other comments that those who have to have it will buy it and then sales will drop off. Offer a panel version for the commercial market, that could have possibilities.
  • Wjtinfwb Panther Black? or Black Panther? Shaped like a decade old Ford detectives sedan? Seems like an odd way to send out your marquee car...
  • Kwik_Shift Instead of blacked, how about chromed? Don't follow the herd.
  • Carlson Fan Nicest looking dash/gage cluster ever put in any PU truck. After all these years it still looks so good.
  • Wheatridger Correct me if I'm wrong, but has the widescreen digital dash usurped the space formerly occupied in every other car by an HVAC vent? I see one prominent vent well right of center, where there should be two. I rely on twin driver's side vents to warm my hands on cold mornings, and I wouldn't give that up for more screen area.