How To Get Tree Sap Off Your Car

How To Get Tree Sap Off Your Car

Parking under a tree is hit or miss. The shade during hot summer days can’t be beat, but there are potential downsides from birds doing target practice and sap that seems to drip out of nowhere. Bird poo is easy to remove, but removing sap can be a pain. Learn how to get sap off cars the right way.

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Why is tree sap damaging to a car?

First off, let’s look at what sap is. There are two kinds of goo we know as sap. First up is xylem sap, carrying a watery mix of minerals. The second is called phloem sap, carrying the sugar, minerals and nutrients created by the tree through photosynthesis. The sugary bit is what makes sap sticky, and you know it in a different form poured on your waffles as syrup.Alternatively, “honeydew” is tree sap that bugs have eaten and excreted, so it’s basically sap minus some nutrients. It’s also annoying on your ride. Just as sticky syrup can stain clothes, letting sap sit on your car can cause permanent damage.

Tree sap is not instantly damaging like brake fluid, as it needs a few days to harden. As the sun bakes the water out of the sap, it becomes a hard resin that welds itself to the clearcoat. Attempting to get sap off car paint at this point risks scratching the clear coat or paint. Fortunately, you probably already have what you need to safely remove the sap.

How to get tree sap off a car

The steps for how to get sap off a car vary depending on how long the sap has been sitting and how much of the mess is covering the vehicle. From the tiniest droplets to buckets of sap, start the removal process with a simple car wash. To remove sap from a car, you can use:

  • Water source
  • Wash bucket
  • Car wash soap
  • Soft sponge or mitt
  • Nail polish remover
  • Baking soda
  • Mineral spirits
  • WD40
  • Cotton balls
  • Gloves
  • Steam cleaner

Wash the car

Time to break out the wash bucket and sponge. This is the same process as washing a plate with syrup stuck to it. The water and mild detergent soap, plus a light scrubbing from a soft sponge or mitt, gently break down the sap and lifts it off the paint. Wetting the sap slowly rehydrates it, potentially turning it back into a thick but removable liquid. If you clean the vehicle the same day sap hit your ride, you’re likely done at this point. Give your vehicle a little more TLC with some wax and call it a day. If you’re dealing with stubborn dried up and stuck-on sap, you’ll need to treat the sap.

Treat the sap

Treating sap is different from washing the vehicle. Rather than washing the entire car, you’ll use specialized products on just the sap. Note the material the sap is stuck to will determine what products you use.

For sap on paint

  • Nail polish remover. This one might make you cringe, as nail polish remover is made of acetone and other paint thinners. The trick is to wet cotton balls with the polish remover, then rub it just on the glob of sap. The solvents quickly break down the sap. As soon as it’s gone, make a paste from baking soda and water, and spread the mix over the work area. This will chemically neutralize the area, protecting the paint from any splashed polish remover.
  • Mineral spirits. Located in the hardware aisle instead of beauty products, mineral spirits are a petroleum-based solvent that thins paint. It’s also a great sap dissolver. Apply mineral spirits to a microfiber cloth and rub on the affected area. Be sure to use the baking soda neutralizer above, then follow with a quick wash and wax.
  • WD-40. The handy spray grease is also a mild solvent. The reason it is so good at removing PlastiDip is the same reason it easily removes sap. Spray on, let it sit for 10 minutes, then spray with high pressure water. The “WD” offers an additional benefit here as it stands for water displacement. WD-40 penetrates tiny cracks, including the hairline between sap and the clearcoat. This makes the sap easier to remove.
  • Steam cleaner. It’s not just for dress shirts anymore. Use the low setting on a steam cleaner to heat the sap above it’s natural flowing temperature. Instead of being too viscous to move, the heated and thinned sap will easily wipe off with a microfiber cloth.
  • Commercial sap remover. Any of the “bug and tar” cleaners can handle sap, and some products are dedicated specifically for sap removal. These are great options since they specifically target sap, are safe for all vehicle surfaces and come with handy instructions. They aren’t the cheapest option though, and you might wonder if you can use the entire bottle in the next couple of years before it dries up. These products are a great option if you don’t have any of the household cleaners above, and want a ready solution on hand for the next sap attack.

For sap on glass

  • Distilled white vinegar. Buy the cheap stuff from the grocery store and fill a spray bottle with it. Heavily spray the sap, letting it soak in for five minutes. Then use a microfiber cloth to wipe off the sap.
  • Isopropyl alcohol. So you’re not a cook, but you keep a well stocked emergency kit? Grab the isopropyl alcohol and (while wearing gloves) soak a microfiber cloth. Set the cloth on the sap for around one minute. Then wipe the sap off the glass. Alcohol evaporates quickly, so you may need to re-wet the cloth.
  • Ice. This one is a little unconventional, but it works. Grab some ice cubes out of the freezer and place them in a cup of water to remove any sharp edges. Place an ice cube on the sap and hold it there for several minutes. The sap will freeze, and you will be able to easily blast it off with a plastic ice scraper. Do not attempt this method on paint.

For sap on plastic/rubber

  • Water-free wash & wax products. If you don’t have ready access to your own hose, you might already be familiar with water-free car wash products. These are incredibly easy to use by just spraying on and wiping off. Most surfaces are good to clean and anything with plastic—such as headlights and side mirrors—can easily and safely be cleaned of sap and any other filth.
  • Mr Clean Magic Eraser. This odd rectangle can tackle any job around the house, including crayon, wax and other unusual messes. The Magic Eraser, when wet, is equivalent to super fine sandpaper, so it makes quick work removing sap from plastic and rubber trim. Just as you wouldn’t use sandpaper on paint, don’t use a Magic Eraser on paint, clearcoat or glass.
  • Wax removers. Products that gently remove wax to prep the vehicle for detailing are another good bet. Even dish soap can strip the sap of its sticky properties as it breaks down the organic compounds. Make a bunch of suds and let it sit on the wax, then wipe off. Note that any spillover onto paint will also remove wax. Follow this up with wax on the paint, and a general plastic/rubber protectant on the trim.


It is possible to get tree sap off your car without harming your paint and clear coat. Follow the steps above, first cleaning your vehicle, then using specific products to safely remove sap. Remember to follow up with a fresh coat of wax to make the next sap removal even easier.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does sap take paint off a car?

Sap doesn’t have any caustic properties, so it won’t remove auto paint by itself. The damage from sap comes from letting it sit too long until it stains the paint and improper removal methods that lift off the paint with it.

What is the best tree sap remover for cars?

The best tree sap remover for cars is the one you have on hand. The detailing products designed for wax removal are safe and effective, while the household products are likely available, cheap and just as effective if used properly.

Does vinegar harm car paint?

Kitchen-grade vinegar does not harm paint, but stronger cleaning-grade vinegar will cause corrosive damage to paint. Dilute it with water if you have concerns.

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About Andy Jensen

Andy Jensen is a former reporter, now automotive enthusiast writer. He covers industry news, manufacturing, car reviews, race recaps, maintenance how-tos, and upgrades. Andy has contributed content to Jalopnik, Advance Auto Parts, Carvana, and His project car is a modified Scion FR-S, but he’s probably looking at $400 beaters on Marketplace right now.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.