What Damages Car Paint? 13 Things to Look Out For


As a vehicle owner, it’s important to know what eats paint off a car. In addition to keeping your vehicle looking good as new, protecting your paint can help to boost its resale value should you choose to sell it later on.

Unfortunately, chips and dings caused by accidents or poor parking jobs aren’t the only things that can scuff up your paint. Any collision repair technician will tell you that there are a handful of everyday substances we come in contact with that can deteriorate your paint and cause damage.

What Takes Paint Off a Car?

From shoe polish to bird droppings, there are a lot of things that can cause damage to the paint of a car. Seemingly harmless substances like silly string, for example, can leave behind a stain that can be difficult to remove.

So what damages car paint? Keep reading to learn about 13 things to steer clear of in order to keep your vehicle’s paintwork in good condition.

Brake Fluid on Car Paint

Brake fluid on paint that is not silicone-based can act like a paint thinner and eat away at the coating of your paint, causing it to peel. Not all brake fluids are created equal, and some may not have this effect on your car. However, it’s always wise to proceed with caution when using brake fluid near your vehicle.

If you do happen to get brake fluid on your car paint, use a towel to soak up the fluid immediately (without wiping the area, which can spread the fluid around). Clean the spot as soon as possible with soap and a clean rag or sponge, and rinse the area thoroughly.

Bird Droppings

Every car owner has had bird droppings on their vehicle at one time or another. It’s unavoidable! Aside from the general inconvenience, droppings can actually leave behind permanent damage because of their acidic content. When under the sun, droppings can harden and eat away at your paint.

Whenever you notice bird droppings on your car, it’s best to act immediately before they dry. Using a wet towel and detergent, gently clean the area without scrubbing, which can scratch your paint. If the dropping has hardened, allow the cleaner to sit for a few minutes to dissolve the deposit before wiping it away.


Insects are another common culprit of damaged car paint. Similar to bird droppings, insect body fluid can be highly acidic and dissolve your paint. While insects most likely won’t harm the surface upon initial contact, they can cause damage over time if left on your car.

If you notice insects on your car, it’s best to remove them and clean the surface right away. Use a cleaning solution and allow the solution to sit for 30 seconds or so before gently wiping the area with a clean towel. As previously mentioned, don’t scrub—let the cleaner do the work and simply wipe away to avoid any further damage.

Tree Sap

Another natural element that can surprisingly eat away at your car paint is tree sap. Over time, sap can eat away at your paint’s clear coat and cause staining and discoloration. If it’s hot outside, this process can be accelerated.

This sticky substance can be tricky to remove, but it’s better to act sooner rather than later. Using either rubbing alcohol or a cleaning solution of your choice, wet a washcloth and set it on top of the area with the sap.

After sitting for at least 30 seconds, use the cloth to gently rub the area until the sap is gone. If sap still remains, you can repeat this process until the surface is clean. If sap is on your windshield, you can use this same process—just be sure to avoid using your windshield wipers until the sap is completely gone. 

Some car owners have also reported having success using a box cutter blade. If sap has dried to the point where it’s a tar-like consistency, slowly scrape it off with your blade. When doing this, be sure to keep the blade flat against the windshield or paint so you don’t scratch the surface.


Whenever filling up your tank, be careful of any gas leaking onto your paint. While the gas will evaporate and you won’t see any damage initially, it can leave behind stains that are very difficult to remove.

If gas leaks onto your car while filling up, don’t panic—simply run your car through the car wash or clean it with a mild soap and water as soon as possible. Waxing your car at least twice a year can help to protect your paint’s finish so when things like this happen, you’re in the clear.

Silly String

Silly string is a classic when it comes to pranks, but you might want to think again before using it on someone’s car. Silly string contains resin and colorants that can cause damage to a car’s paint when left to dry in the sun.

If you’re the target of a silly string prank, simply clean your car with a mild soap and water or take it through the car wash. If there is remaining residue, use a product like WD-40 to wipe the surface clean.

Shaving Cream on Car Paint

Just like silly string, shaving cream can also damage a car’s paint. If you get shaving cream on your car, take the same course of action — clean your car with soap and water and follow up with WD-40 if there is additional residue.

Coffee & Soda on Car Paint

When grabbing your morning coffee or a soda on your lunch break, be careful not to let it get on your car paint. If you’re someone who sets your drinks on top of your car when getting in, make sure you don’t forget and drive away!

Both coffee and soda have high acidity levels and can eat away at your car’s protective layer of paint. If you do spill one of these drinks on your car, wash it as soon as possible.

Shoe Polish

Shoe polish can stain a car’s surface and be very difficult, if not impossible, to remove on your own. Never allow shoe polish to sit on your car for an extended period of time, and if it does get on your car, go to your local automotive supply store and look for a specialized cleaner. When in doubt, consult a professional.


Ever seen a car with “wash me” written in the dust accumulated on its surface? While this is humorous, the driver should take note and wash their car!

An accumulation of dust can actually negatively affect your car’s paint. When this dirt mixes with rain, it can create an acidic compound that damages the surface and leads to corrosion over time. So, take pride in your car’s appearance and get it washed every now and then. This will help to preserve its value in the long run!

Acid Rain

Acid rain can cause damage when it accumulates on the exterior of your car. Even after the water evaporates, the acidic material remaining will eat away at your paint, causing damage that can be hard to reverse. In addition to washing your car regularly, there are several things you can do if your car has acid rain marks.

Clay bars, which are available at most hardware stores, are commonly used to remove stains and grime from a car’s paint layer. To use them, simply wet the surface of your vehicle and gently rub the clay back and forth. Wipe the area with a microfiber towel, and repeat this to all affected areas.

Additionally, you can also remove acid rain using a watermark remover, dual-action polisher or even manually buffing the surface with a finishing compound. If you’re not sure which method is best for your vehicle, ask a professional.


Unfortunately, vandalism is another common cause of damaged car paint. Whether it’s scratches or graffiti, you may be able to file a claim with your insurance.

Whatever the case, you will want to take your car into a collision repair center to have it examined by a professional, who can tell you the steps that need to be taken to restore your vehicle to its original condition.

Using Dirty Rags & Towels

Last but certainly not least, many people make the mistake of using dirty rags and towels on the exterior of their car.

Whenever using a towel on your car, make sure it’s clean and don’t set it on the ground in between uses. Not only is this unsanitary, but the towel can pick up dirt and tiny particles that can scratch the surface of your car. While you might not notice at first, these scratches can accumulate over time and become more noticeable.

Also, while a towel might feel soft to the touch, it doesn’t mean it’s right for the surface of your car. Always be sure to use a microfiber washcloth or towel and clean it often. The last thing you want to do when trying to take care of your car is damage it! 

What Ruins Car Paint the Fastest?

Certain substances can break down car paint faster than others. However, this is dependent on many factors, like the type of paint you have, when you last waxed your vehicle, how long the harmful substance has been sitting on the surface of your car and the weather.

In general, it’s always best to act quickly when anything acidic comes in contact with your car. If you’re unsure, play it safe and give your car a wash. You’ll thank yourself later!

Tips for Keeping Your Paint in Good Condition

In addition to watching out for the things listed above, there are a few steps you can take as a car owner to keep your paintwork in good condition:

  • If possible, keep your car parked in a covered area like a garage. This will protect it from the sun’s UV rays and other natural elements that can break down your vehicle’s clear coat and damage paint.
  • Wash your car on a regular basis. If you wash it yourself, be sure to use a mild detergent and never allow your car to drip dry, as this can leave behind water minerals that can damage paint. Use a microfiber drying towel to absorb water left on the surface.
  • Clean the towels used on your car between every use, and never set them on the ground.
  • Wipe or wash off any acidic substances (like those listed above) that come in contact with your car immediately. Always do your research and make sure you’re using the right product for the job. WD-40 is commonly used to remove sap and other tricky substances.
  • Wax your car every three to six months, depending on how often it is exposed to outside elements. Wax adds an extra layer that can protect your paint from light scratches, keep it from breaking down and maintain its shine. In addition to waxing your car regularly, always follow up with a layer of wax when using a cleaner like WD-40, which can strip the surface.

Interested in Collision Repair?

Do you love working on cars? UTI’s Collision Repair & Refinish Technology (CRRT) program can prepare you for an exciting career as a collision repair technician.1 To learn more, visit our CRRT program page and request information to get in touch with an Admissions Representative today.

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