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How to Safely Remove Traffic Film…and What to Use

Traffic film, also known as ‘road film’ is a mixture of car exhaust, motor oil, brake dust, and other random chemicals that create a dark haze on vehicles.  Anywhere you have a lot of vehicles and wet roads, you’ll notice a thin grayish film on your vehicle when (that’s not brown dirt). That’s traffic film!

You can usually remove dirt with regular ol’ dirt with soap and water, but traffic film tends to cling to the paint a bit more and requires a different approach.

Today I’ll cover how to remove traffic film the right way, and a few effective products for the job. Depending on the severity of the road film will dictate what route to go.

Caution!

For heavy road film, start with a touch-free solution to remove most of the road film chemically. Once most of the road film is removed, it’s safe to use a wash mitt with your road film solution assuming you have enough lubrication not to scratch the paint.

With traffic film, you always want to pre-treat first, then go back with a wash mitt and soap. Normal car shampoo and foams won’t remove much road film without you touching the paint (after all, they are built to carry dirt away, not motor oils and other junk). 

The process to remove traffic film is pretty much the same, no matter the product used.

Steps to remove traffic film

  1. Pre-treat the vehicle with the right product for the job and let dwell for a few seconds
  2. Rinse off with water
  3. Use a wash mitt and soap to remove the rest of the traffic film
  4. Wax and re-apply protection (if necessary)

Here are a few traffic film removal products to consider depending on your situation.

Method 1: Use a spray-On degreaser

If you have some road film (or just a smaller car), you can use a handheld citrus degreaser or paint-safe degreaser like Purple Power to cut through everything. Some degreasers will strip wax, sealants, and even cheaper ceramic coatings off your vehicle, so keep that in mind.

Purple Power Cleaner and Degreaser

Best for:

Treating small vehicles, minor traffic film.

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Pick up an empty spray bottle to dilute your degreaser at a ratio that is appropriate. A 4:1 water-to-degreaser ratio is common, but tweak as needed; sometimes undiluted degreasers work best for extreme cases of traffic film.

Never use strong acids like muriatic acid on paint, as they can and will damage and chew through your clear coat. If a chemical is eating away everything on wheels, paint, or anything else without you even touching the vehicle…it’s too strong.

Method 2: Use the right foam to pre-treat traffic film

As I mentioned in my post comparing snow foam vs. car shampoo, snow foam is designed to pre-treat. This is not to say all snow foams will remove traffic film, but some are formulated to treat it. Especially if you have visible dirt, red clay, plus road film, it’s a good idea to start with foam before you touch the paint.

CW-37 by Malco is a high-foaming product that’s formulated to tackle traffic film, and a professional product you don’t see in most stores. It can be used like a snow foam with a foam gun or cannon, and this specific one won’t strip off wax. If you have light traffic film sitting on top of a waxed vehicle, give it a try. Again, for heavy cases where the traffic film has etched into the clear coat, you’re better off stripping everything off (including wax) for best results.

Malco CW-37 Foaming Car Wash Concentrate

Best for:

Removing light traffic film; removing traffic film plus visible clay and dirt

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This Malco product is similar to the next product on the list as a car wash concentrate, but it’s more similar to a snow foam AND it won’t strip wax off the paint. If you just ran through a dirty street in the rain a few days ago, I’d recommend this non-stripping product as your best bet. 

Method 3: Use a vehicle-safe wax-stripping product

Purple Power Vehicle and Boat Concentrate

Best for:

Moderate to heavy traffic film;  for stripping off wax, traffic film, and everything else.

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Have a vehicle heavily caked with traffic film? I highly recommend a wash product in the wax-stripping category like this one by Purple Power. It’s more affordable than a dedicated TFR I’ll cover next. Maybe you waxed over existing traffic film, or didn’t remove 100% of the traffic film before applying a protective coating. In this case, you’ll want to remove everything and start over.

If you plan to clay your vehicle (and proceed to paint correction), you’ll first need a product that can remove waxes, sealants, and traffic film safely. Wax-stripping products will also do the trick (including Dawn Dish liquid…specifically for removing old wax).

Method 4: use a traffic film remover

For heavy cases of traffic film, a dedicated traffic film remover (often labeled as a TFR) can be an effective solution if available. TFRs tend to be harsher than most, and are not readily available in the U.S. for consumers like they are in the U.K and the rest of the world. These high-alkaline products are similar to truck wash products in the U.S. and often applied with a handheld sprayer.

Caustic vs non-caustic traffic film removers

Caustic…meaning something that burns or destroys by chemical action will strip wax and other protectants. Caustic traffic film removers have their place in industrial jobs like cleaning windows or semi trucks..but there are safer products for vehicles. I recommend a non-caustic TFR if you go this route.  

Caution!

Avoid trim and non-painted areas whenever you use a traffic film remover. These products are a bit more aggressive than most, so you’ll want to spray them only where needed.

FAQs about traffic film

Can you remove traffic film by hand?

Yes. You can best remove light traffic film with a wash mitt or microfiber towel, assuming you have the right product and lubrication. Key word: light traffic film. Regular soap won’t traffic film if road grime has been on the vehicle for a while. For fresh traffic film, agitation plus the right traffic film removal method will do the trick.

Can’t I just use an iron remover for traffic film?

Yes, but there are better products for the job. Iron removers target…obviously iron, but they won’t be effective on motor oil or other contaminants. A clear-coat safe iron remover you can use for metallic particle buildup,  but a degreaser or similar traffic film remover will target a wider range of substances found in ‘traffic film’.

Have specs or contaminants you can’t remove? It’s probably time to clay

If you remove traffic film but still notice little black specs, it’s probably time to clay your vehicle. Clay helps remove small particles like iron, industrial fallout…and other metallic particles that literally etch into your clear coat and require clay to remove. Acids, degreasers, TFRs, or wash mitts won’t remove these particles.

Check out my post on how to clay your car for beginners if you truly want a smooth, like-new finish after you remove the traffic film. As always, after claying a vehicle, you NEED to add a layer of protection! A car without a sealant or wax is the equivalent of sitting in the sun without sunscreen or a shirt.

I’ll leave you with that! Happy detailing.

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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