“Thousands upon thousands of bugs hit our cars every year,” says Mark Hostetler, professor, urban ecologist at the University of Florida and author of That Gunk on Your Car: A Unique Guide to Insects of North America. “Most of them are moths, beetles, mosquitos and midges,” he adds. “And if you leave them on for a period of time, they could cause some damage to your car’s paint.”
While we can’t reduce the number of bugs flying around—and wouldn’t want to, since they’re a vital part of our ecosystem—knowing why they crash into our cars, the risks of leaving them unattended, and the best ways to clean them off could help preserve the car’s appearance and finish. Here’s a primer on Bug Removal 101.
It’s a Big, Buggy World
Whether you live in the north or the south, and whether the climate is dry or humid, you’re likely to be bugged year-round by insects splattering your car, says Hostetler. “And there’s no way to say if some parts of the country are more buggy than others,” says Hostetler. “Bugs are everywhere.”
Know When They’re Out
While there’s no official bug season, summer and spring are the buggiest times of year, especially after sunset. Most bugs are nighttime fliers, and there are more of them along the highways—and in front of your car’s headlamps—because they’re attracted to the light.
The Impact on Paint
When bugs hit your car’s front bumper, the grill and the backs of the mirrors—the most common landing areas, along with the windshield—and aren’t cleaned off right away, problems could start. Bug splatter is acidic and can destroy your car’s paint, leaving pockmarks. On top of that, bacteria grows on the dead bugs—and this, too, eats away at your car.
Add summer heat to the equation and you’ve got an even bigger, baked-on problem. That’s when dark vehicles are particularly susceptible to permanent damage, says Chuck Brosz, managing partner of White Rock Car Bath, in Texas. “Darker cars generate more surface heat, and that leads to blistering where the imperfections can appear as white spots,” he says.
(Check out more strategies for protecting your paint job here.)
Keep Your Car Clean
A good rule of thumb? Wash your car every two weeks and make bug removal a priority—especially after you’ve driven on the highway for a few days. “After a road trip, the car needs to be washed as soon as possible,” says Brosz. “The key is the length of time the bugs are left on the vehicle. Extreme conditions only make it worse—so the hotter the temperatures, the more likely damage is to occur.”
Yearly waxing is also a good idea to protect your car’s finish, he notes, but it doesn’t prevent bug-juice damage. “Wax can help, minimally,” he says. “It makes the car easier to wash. But if it’s August and it’s 110 degrees, and you leave the bugs on for a week, that wax will not keep them from damaging the finish.”
How to De-Bug
A quick run through the drive-through car wash will rinse off some of the bugs, and hand-held pressure sprayers can help. But to get rid of all of them, according to Brosz, the best way to go is a bucket of water and a microfiber cloth—terry cloth can be too abrasive on darker cars, he says.
For the peskiest of dried-on pests, give this DIY prewash treatment a try: Spritz from a spray bottle of water mixed with few drops of dish detergent. There are a number of specialty bug-removal solutions available, too. “There’s not a product that I can put on and the bugs just magically come off,” says Brosz. “There’s always a degree of labor and attentiveness, and easy does it.”
By Ellise Pierce