Having tree sap stuck to your car’s exterior is not only unsightly, but the annoyingly sticky substance can actually do damage to your vehicle over time. It’s always better to park your car in a garage or at least under some protective overhang, but not all of us can do this, so sap is a common issue that many drivers end up having to contend with. If you’ve recently discovered that your car has been marred by tree sap, read on, and we’ll explain exactly how tree sap damages your car and provide essential advice on removing it once it’s already there.
What Is Tree Sap?
We won’t go too deep into the science of it because that’s not why you’re reading this article, but you might want a quick overview of what this infuriating substance actually is. Tree sap is essentially equivalent to blood–it contains lots of minerals, nutrients, and energy that it carries through the trunk and branches to the new buds to help the tree form new parts.
Technically, “sap” can refer to two substances that are essential to trees’ biological function: xylem (which brings water, minerals, and other important substances from the roots of the tree to its top) and phloem (the sticky, sugar-containing stuff that most of us are thinking of when we think of sticky sap). Trees often leak sap because they’re being damaged by disease, pests, or something else that has breached their protective barrier of bark.
Now that you have a general sense of what tree sap is, we’ll explain how it damages your car and what you can do to prevent this from happening once the sap is already there.
How Does Tree Sap Damage Your Car?
When tree sap lands on your car, it starts out extremely sticky, but it gradually begins to harden as the water content of the sap evaporates. This process happens especially quickly on hot, sunny days and leaves behind a substance that is comparable in hardness to epoxy–so, unsurprisingly, it’s tough to remove. To add insult to injury, while it’s drying and still sticky, sap can also attract unsightly and abrasive dirt and grime to the exterior of your car.
The dried sap can then eat away at your car’s clear protective coat and, even worse, the paint itself, which v. How, specifically, does this happen? Consumer Reports explains the process clearly and succinctly: “Sap can damage your car because of how it bonds with the vehicle’s surface. Tree sap drops shrink over time, and as they shrink, they create stress on your car’s finish because of that strong bond with the paint, says Dennis Taljan, a general manager at PPG, which produces car paints and other products. That tension can end up cracking a car’s finish.”
How Long Does It Take for Tree Sap to Damage Car Paint?
This depends on a number of factors, so it’s hard to make a general estimate, but the damage doesn’t happen instantaneously. Weather, season, and climate are major factors–when it’s hot and sunny out, the sap effectively gets “baked” onto your car’s exterior. This means that the subsequent damage to the clear coat and your car’s paint job will happen much sooner.
Another factor that affects the time it takes for tree sap to damage your car’s paint job is the concentration of sap, which is pretty variable. Finally, different tree species can produce more or less damaging saps. For instance, pine tree sap is one of the worst culprits for damage to car exteriors, and pine trees also release lots of sap throughout the year.
To quote Leonard Raykinsteen, a paint material engineer at Nissan, “If sap is detected on a vehicle’s paint finish, it should be removed in a timely manner. How soon? I don’t think anyone can truly define it because it depends on the concentration of the sap as well as the weather conditions. Generally, when it is hot, the effects of tree sap are accelerated.”
Either way, you definitely shouldn’t wait to deal with the problem. Be sure to take care of it as soon as possible using one of the methods we’ve described below.
How to Remove Tree Sap From Your Car
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably wondering how to get sap off a car windshield, and/or how to remove tree sap from your car without damaging the paint. Not to worry–we’ve got a number of methods for you to choose from, so keep reading!
One thing to note is that no matter what method you choose to remove tree sap from your car, the sooner you remove the sap, the easier it will be. If you can remove the sap while it’s still sticky, before it begins to harden, it’ll be a lot quicker and simpler.
Start with soap and hot water
We’d also recommend starting out by washing your car with soap and water to make it less likely that the sap removal will accidentally scratch your car. As a bonus, the sap might just come off with soap and water, saving you the extra effort. Don’t go to an automatic car wash, though, because doing so could easily cause the sap to spread all over your car and leave you with a much worse problem. Wash your car by hand to save yourself a major headache. If you have access to one, you might even want to use a power washer (on a safe setting that won’t damage your car’s paint) to really blast the sap away.
Removing sap from your windshield
If you’ve got sap stuck to your car’s windows or windshields, you’ll pretty much follow the same removal steps as you would for your car’s paint. An important note: make sure not to try to use your windshield wipers to remove the sap. This definitely won’t work, and if the sap is recent and not entirely hardened, it will spread it around even more and get it stuck to the wipers, too.
If you have sap that’s quite thick, you might want to try using a razor blade to get it off the glass. Keep in mind that you can’t use this method on the painted parts of your car, because it could very likely cause bad scratches to the paint. Once you’ve removed as much of the sap as you can with a razor blade, you can rely on the other methods (listed below) to get the remainder off.
Follow that up by cleaning the windows with a glass cleaner to ensure that there are no streaks left behind and you can see clearly out of the windshields. This is not only important for aesthetic reasons, but also for driver visibility and thus for safety!
Using hot water and rubbing alcohol to loosen hardened sap
If the tree sap has dried for long enough that it is rock-hard, you can use hot water to soften it a bit–just make sure not to use boiling water. Simply wet a microfiber cloth with hot water and scrub the spots of dried sap with rubbing alcohol.
We would recommend diluting the rubbing alcohol with water to ensure that the alcohol itself doesn’t also damage your car’s paint job because it can be a powerful chemical solvent. You’ll want to mix it to a ratio of between 10 and 15 percent rubbing alcohol and 85 to 90 percent plain water.
Good old baking soda
Baking soda is an incredible, affordable multi-use substance you probably already have sitting in your kitchen cabinet. There’s not much harm in giving it a try, so if you’re unsure where to begin, make a paste of hot water and baking soda and let it sit on the sap stain. Then, pour hot water over the baking soda (not boiling, just hot!) and wipe it all off with a damp cloth.
Using a clay bar to remove many smaller splatters
Sometimes the sap falls on your car as a bunch of tiny splatters, which can be a huge hassle. In this case, you might want to try using a clay bar, which has the texture of a sticky putty and will remove not only sap but also other debris like dead bugs, tar, etc. Using a mitt that’s been infused with that same substance will make removal even easier and more convenient.
Try WD-40 for stubborn stains
Another potential solution is WD-40 to get sap off your car. Here’s how it works: first, spray your WD-40 directly onto the stain(s) and let it sit for about five minutes to really let it penetrate the stain. If you want to make this even more effective, you can soak a microfiber cloth in hot water and put that on top while the WD-40 is soaking.
(Alternatively, you can also cover it with a piece of plastic wrap or a few layers of paper towels to give the WD-40 a chance to soak in.) Then, rub the sap-covered area with the cloth until it’s clean. You can re-apply WD-40 a few times if the first round of soaking doesn’t resolve the problem. Follow this with a regular soap-and-water wash.
Consider a commercial adhesive remover
Many products have been specially formulated to dissolve sticky, stubborn substances like glue, tar, and sap without affecting your car’s paint job. These include but are not limited to
Nail polish remover (acetone)
Nail polish remover is likely to work for stubborn sap stains, like those created by pine sap. Simply soak a cotton ball in nail polish remover and use circular movements to wipe the stain away.
Removing sap from your car’s interior with rubbing alcohol
If the sap has made it to your car’s interior, there are ways to fix that. You can use rubbing alcohol to remove the sap from your car’s fabric seats, employing slower wiping motions so that you don’t rub the sap deeper into the weave of the fabric. Sap stuck to your car dashboard or steering wheel can be dealt with by soaking the sap with warm water and loosening it up so you can wipe it away with a microfiber cloth.
And if you’re lucky enough to have a car with a leather interior, please don’t use rubbing alcohol! Instead, use a specialized leather cleaner to protect the material from damage, and apply it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
If all else fails, get professional assistance
In some cases, that sap is hardened on, and you won’t be able to get it off with any of the DIY methods we’ve listed. In that case, don’t bring out the big guns or try anything too drastic–you might end up damaging your car’s paint job worse than the sap ever would have! Instead, we’d recommend reaching out to a car body shop/auto paint shop for their professional assistance. Worst case scenario, they can remove the sap and the underlying paint and then repaint those spots for a pristine finish.