How Something You Spray On Your Kids Can Melt Your Car’s Paint

Alex Lloyd
·Editor at Large
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It’s early evening: You’re working in the garage and swarms of tiny bugs are feasting upon your flesh. You grab the bug spray, coat your entire body, and cackle something like, “Come and get me now!” Only when you wake up in the morning, you’re no longer laughing: The car’s paintwork is destroyed — the bug spray effectively melted the clear coat.

How do I know this? It happened just the other day to my neighbor, Mo Almalag, a professor at Indiana University. And after hearing his story, I went onto the Internet and discovered lots of unlucky people posting about the same issue. Apparently the DEET used in bug spray is known to melt car paint.

Yeah, I know. Bug spray. Melts paint. And we put it on our bodies. Let that sink in for a minute.

Almalag bought the new silver Jeep Grand Cherokee parked in his garage a few months back. The incident occurred after someone in the family applied SC Johnson’s OFF! family care insect repellant to children prior to playing in the yard. This nameless person or persons (we don’t want to start a family or neighborhood war) did so in close proximity of the car, and evidently the solution went on both the left rear bumper and right side doors.

The next day, the dried repellent had turned white, as if a hooligan had made mischief with a can of spray paint. Wiping it down removed the white residue, but left the color of the car’s paintwork considerably lightened — and the clear coat gone entirely, replaced by tiny bumps that looked like teenage acne. Almalag tried everything to remove the marks, including your typical car polishes and even a Clay Bar.

The picture below is as good as it gets — after countless hours of buffing and waxing — without a costly repaint. (Note the streaks; although it appears considerably worse in person as you can’t see the minute paint bubbles and other defects in this picture.)

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What causes the marks? The DEET within the product — an oily liquid known as diethyltoluamide that mosquitos and other inspects intensely dislike. DEET has been known to destroy the varnish on wooden tables, melt plastics, and even permanently mark TV screens. (One Internet goer claims bug spray with DEET is the perfect solution for a quick headlamp restoration, which is telling to its level of ferocity.)

Auto expert and YouTuber who goes by the name of ChrisFix posted a follow up to this video, explaining why using bug spray to restore your headlamps is actually not a clever — or long lasting — idea. The DEET acts as a solvent and effectively dissolves the plastic, and the oils within the spray fill the pores in the headlamp covers, temporarily offering clarity. This effect will soon wear off, however, and in the video, ChrisFix warns of the permanent trouble the solution causes when it gets onto the car’s paint or plastic bumpers.

“If a woman wanted to remove her nail polish, she’d use acetone,” ChrisFix told Yahoo Autos. DEET is a solvent similar to acetone, he said. But unlike acetone, it keeps on dissolving the material it touches. “It’s very difficult to neutralize using normal household products — soapy water doesn’t work, alcohol doesn’t work, nothing really works.”

We can see how accidentally leaving the solution to dissolve the car’s clear coat overnight can cause such vast damage, which can be costly to repair. “The problem is most places wont want to just touch up the clear coat because there could be damage to the base coat or lingering bug spray which would cause any new paint to bubble up,” Chris says. “Instead, they would probably try and sand down and repaint the whole panel.”

SC Johnson, the company that makes OFF!, issues a warning on its website: “Do not apply on or near: acetate, rayon, spandex or other synthetics (other than nylon), furniture, plastics, watch crystals, leather and painted or varnished surfaces including automobiles.“

Still, few people realize the strength of the product and the damage it can cause — I mean, we spray it onto our skin. And onto our children. How bad can it be?

The Department of Health and Human Services state that the side effects for using DEET on ourselves remains minimal, providing you don’t inhale or get the solution in your eyes; rashes, blisters and other skin irritations are the most common issues. (It does, however, suggest people wash their skin throughly with soap and water immediately upon returning indoors.)

An SC Johnson spokesperson told Yahoo Autos, “DEET is regulated by the EPA and can be used with confidence when used in accordance with the label.” The company continued, stating “avoiding mosquitoes is the best way to combat West Nile virus,” pointing to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to use repellants containing DEET.

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Photo of the “chickenpox” effect bug spray can cause, via M Division

There are numerous cases online where people have inadvertently wrecked their vehicles fighting mosquitos: One E39 BMW owner sprayed himself in bug spray and the next day found a large portion of his paint ruined, requiring it to be completely refinished. That owner described the marks as being like “chickenpox.”

“The actual paint has bubbled up and the clear coat has been destroyed!” the owner said online. “I spent hours buffing, waxing, claybar — didn’t do dam thing!!!”

The same fate befell a Harley Davidson owner, where the spray dissolved the paint on his cruiser’s tank. Then there’s this guy who vented his frustration online having been working on his truck, sprayed himself with bug spray, and soon after found his motorbike covered in irreparable “little bumps.”

In the case of the Jeep, the OFF! bug spray contained just 15 percent DEET, which is on the lower end. Many contain around 30 percent, and some hardy outdoorsmen even use 98 percent DEET, although research suggests that is overkill. So don’t assume that because your bug spray is low on DEET you won’t face this same issue.

We reached out to Vertellus, the makers of DEET, regarding whether it was aware of the damage the product can cause to car paint; the company did not respond.

Almalag currently has two options: Leave the damaged clear coat and hope he gradually becomes accustomed to the markings, or repaint the car: “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet,” he said. “I had no idea bug spray could do this much damage.”

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If you do use bug spray containing DEET (there are non-DEET options on the market, although their effectiveness remains debated), make sure you do so a safe distance from your vehicle, and if an accident does occur — whether to a car or other painted, varnished or plastic surfaces — try your best to clean it as quickly and thoroughly as possible using soapy water to minimize the damage. Like many of us, insect repellant can be a savior when working in the garage or hanging out in the backyard. It doesn’t take much, however, for a few drops to land on the wrong surface, and by the following morning, you’ll awaken to a nasty surprise.

And seriously, we actually coat our skin in this paint-melting stuff? No wonder the mosquitos can’t stand it.