How to Get Beach Tar Off Feet, Dogs, Clothes, and More

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I love beach tar. No really, I do—it’s how I met my husband. Over 10 years ago when I ventured into the wilds of Match.com I decided to post a photo of my tarry feet after a little surf session at Devereux. I figured that anyone who would want to spend time with me should be aware that I am a bit rough and tumble … and sometimes get lots of tar on my feet.

My (unbeknownst to me at the time) future husband wrote me a one line message on that site … “I bet I know what beach that happened at!” And the rest is history. 🙂

But back to the topic at hand here: *beach tar*

Unless beach tar is the reason you met your significant other, you probably aren’t fond of it. It’s the bane of every Santa Barbara beachgoers existence.

It . gets . everywhere.

On feet, on clothes, on your dog’s fur, on your surfboard, etc. etc

As someone who goes to the beach a lot in Santa Barbara, I have spent my fair share of time trying to get this funky stuff out of all kinds of things with all kinds of products. I even remember trying to get it off my foam board years ago when I was learning to surf and tried spraying Simple Green on it (spoiler alert: it failed!).

I wanted to share my hard-earned tips about the best ways to deal with getting beach tar off various surfaces in case it helps.

The most common place that tar ends up is on your feet. You take a lovely stroll along the shoreline only to start to feel sticky on the bottoms of your feet and …. ack!

The first tip about beach tar is to avoid it in the first place.

If you are walking on the beach, try to avoid walking in the tide line (the wet sands where the waves have been washing up). This is where the most tar accumulates.

tar tide line zuma beach
Tar in the tide line at Zuma Beach, Ca.

Try walking a little above or below the tide line, but not it in. If you do this, you will get less on your feet.

Another great tip that comes from the How to be Awesome, for Free site is to not wear shoes because it’s far easier to get tar off of bare skin than off of shoes.

Okay, so now that we have our tips out of the way, on to the good stuff …

How to Get Beach Tar Off Your Feet

Here are some great methods to get tar off of your feet (or anywhere you have tar on exposed skin).

foot with tar on it at the beach
An example of tar on the foot of a beach-goer in Santa Barbara, Ca.

Ice

This is the least expensive, most natural/non-toxic way to get tar off. It’s pretty simple: just put some ice on your tar patch and when the tar is nice and hard, peel it right off using your fingernails, credit card, etc.

I never seem to get straight forward little tar patches that can be easily taken care of this way, so on to our next method ….

Oil

Oil works brilliantly for taking tar off. And you can use literally ANY oil imaginable—canola, corn, olive, coconut, baby oil, they all work great. And in a pinch you can even use sunscreen, because it has oil in it. Or baby wipes, peanut butter, mayo, margarine … You name it, if it is the least bit oily, you can use it to help you remove tar.

The combination of the oil and scrubbing action of a rough sponge is tar-removal magic, so get one if you have it. If not, rags and/or paper towels are fine.

Grab your favorite oil (preferably an inexpensive one) and put some on top of the tar and get to scrubbin’!

And try not to laugh because scrubbing the bottoms of your feet really tickles!

This is a tried and true method for getting tar off. But it’s a bit messy and these ingredients don’t always pack nicely in your beach bag, which is a great segue for our third option for removing tar.

Oil Slick

I am a frugal gal who likes to DIY my way out of almost every situation, so I was very skeptical that a tar removing product like Oil Slick could work better than baby oil. But it DOES!

I ran into a tar situation at Jalama Beach and some friends had purchased this from the Jalama Beach store (a fun and iconic place, btw). I thought the stuff had to be a total rip off, except that it totally worked! And worked QUICKLY and I had to put a lot less on. It also had a nice citrus-y scent. The best thing about this product is that it is a lot more convenient to carry around than bottles of oil.

If you just visit beaches with tar on them occasionally, I would opt for the oil solution above, but if you are a regular to tarry beaches, this product is GREAT to have in your organized beach bag, purse, car, etc.

They even make a cool packet/wipe that weighs almost nothing and could be stashed anywhere and everywhere.

Oil Slick Beach Tar Remover Packets

What NOT to Use to Remove Beach Tar

Some people use things like gasoline, WD-40, Goo Gone, and nail polish remover to get tar off of their skin, but let’s not be using these types of chemicals on our bodies, okay? There are a lot of other choices that are cheap and non-toxic, so there is no reason to go this route.

Getting Beach Tar Off of Kids

tar on childs feet

Getting tar off of kids is exactly the same as getting tar off of adults except for one thing—kids squirm a lot more! Choose one of the non-toxic techniques listed above to remove tar: ice, oil, or the Oil Slick product,  but use these extra handy tips:

  1. Gather all of your supplies beforehand. If you stop midstream to try to get the paper towels your child will be off and running with oil all over their feet (not safe!)
  2. Employ a distraction. Now is the perfect time for some screen time! Play a funny cat video, let them call China with your phone, or use their favorite app. While they zone out, get to work as quickly as you can before they realize you are scrubbing the bottoms of their feet with oil.

Getting Beach Tar Off Your Swimsuit of Clothes

Okay, now for the other tricky place you can get tar: on your swimsuit or clothes.

The swimsuit is a far easier place to get tar off than regular clothes, so I am crossing my fingers that you just got a spot or two on your swimsuit and not a giant glob on your favorite white cotton t-shirt.

For this I like to use a popular homemade stain remover of baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and a little Dawn. Make a paste that is 2 parts hydrogen peroxide to 1 part dish soap and then add a few teaspoons of baking soda (it will fizz a little when you add it.

Once you have your paste ready, get out an old toothbrush to sacrifice to the tar gods.

Before you start, scrape off as much tar as you can with a butter knife, old library card,  or something similar. Soak the stain in a little oil (olive oil works well) and wipe with a paper towel. NOTE: If the stain is really bad you may even consider soaking it overnight in olive oil (or another type of oil).

Once you have physically removed as much tar as possible, spread your paste on the area and rub like crazy with that old toothbrush. Periodically rinse and repeat.

After doing this you may be able to get the last remaining tar off by dabbing an oil, like baby oil or olive oil, and rubbing with a paper towel. Or, try a little spray of OilSlick and rub.

If this is a swimsuit you will probably get lucky and get most or all of the tar off. If this is an article of clothing you may not be so lucky, depending on what it is, but it is always worth a try.

How to Get Beach Tar Off Your Dog

get tar off your beach dog
She looks cute, but she’s a tar magnet!

The same things that work to remove tar from humans also work to remove tar from dogs and other furry animals. AND, the same things that you probably wouldn’t want to use on humans to remove tar (you know, the things that work but are totally toxic, like Goo Gone, gasoline, etc.) are also things you don’t want to use on your dog or other furry friend. Remember that our furry friends lick themselves clean and their skin absorbs toxins just the way ours does, so it’s not good for them to have Goo Gone on their fur and lick it off just as it wouldn’t be good for us.

There is no need to use toxic chemicals anyway, because the same non-toxic remedies that work for us work just as well on them. Since they lick their fur, I like to use a totally edible oil to get tar off of animals, like olive oil or vegetable oil. Animals also have the added bonus in that sometimes you can remove tar by cutting or shaving their fur.

Here are the steps to remove tar from a dog:

1) Don’t panic! It’s hard to see Rover covered in tar, but BREATHE. They are going to be fine and are not in any danger.

2) Gather your supplies. Depending on where the tar spot is, you will need:

* a fine tooth comb

* scissors

* lots of paper towels or washcloths

* a trash bag to throw the nasty stuff

* an oil of some sort (vegetable oil, olive oil, baby oil, etc)

3) Okay, make sure you are calm. Get your pooch, breathe in, and get ready to get to work. If you can have an extra person to help you hold your dog or hand you the supplies, all the better.

4) Try to physically remove as much tar as possible with the comb. No, your dog is not going to like this, so have your helper hold them and keep them calm. Optional: cut some tar out with scissors.

5) Now it’s oil time. Get your oil and apply it generously. If you can, let it soak in a bit.

6) Paper towel time—and you will need lots of them! Try to wipe as much of the tar off as possible with the paper towels. Reapply oil and wipe some more. This step can last a while and is a bit tedious. Hang in there.

7) Alright, you should have most of the tar off now and a trashcan full of oily blackened paper towels. Your pooch is probably over it at this point and if you are feeling pretty satisfied, you can stop at this point. You may want to give your dog a bath later to freshen them up, but lets not push it right now, you can do that later.

 

How to Get Beach Tar Off Your Surfboard

In Santa Barbara there is a saying that “Tar on your surfboard is lucky.”

Still want to get it off? 🙂 Okay, okay, it’s easy. Here are the steps:

  1. If the tar is on the side of the board that has wax, take a credit card and scrape off the wax that the tar is on. If it’s on the bottom of the board, you can go to the next step.
  2. Put some oil on a paper towel and rub the tar until it comes off.

It’s just like getting tar off your feet, it just doesn’t tickle as much.

Why Is There Tar on the Beach Anyway?!

If you have ever run into a situation where you needed to remove beach tar, you’ve probably found yourself wondering, “Why is this stuff here anyway!!??? Is this natural or manmade!?”

And to that I say, GOOD QUESTION!

Some people say the oil seeps naturally from the ocean floor. Others say that it’s oil drilling and exploration that causes the oil seeps.

It turns out that both theories are correct.

Tar has been seeping from the bottom of the ocean since before humans were here. AND some tar seeping is caused by human activities such as drilling and oil spills.

Dave Valentine, a trained chemist and tar researcher explains, “Seepage has been happening since before humans were here.”

According to the UCSB Hydrocarbon Seeps Project, the native Chumash Indians began building plank canoes called “tomol” and caulked them with tar and pine pitch as early as 500 A.D. There is archeological evidence of humans using tar that dates all the way back to 5000 A.D

So, naturally occurring tar has been around for a LONG time.

That’s part of the story. The other source of the tar found on beaches is from man made activities, namely oil spills. Most recently, in 2015, when there was a large oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, Reuters reported that testing revealed that tar from the spill had traveled hundreds of miles, ending up on beaches near Los Angeles, even closing some in Long Beach and surrounding areas.

When that tar washes up to beaches it is the direct result of human activity and not seepage.

Interestingly enough, tar balls have tribes to which they belong to and a signature which can be traced. Because of this, researchers can actually track where tar balls on the beach have originated from (see Tar Balls, the Beaches’ Fossil Fuel Flowers)

Final Thought

Beach tar? Don’t sweat it. It’s a pain, but you got this. Use the techniques above to de-tar your feet, dog, surfboard, clothes, etc. If you have a great tar tip not mentioned in this article I’d love to hear about it in the comments section!

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An inquisitive investigator into the art and science of leisure, Kristen gratefully lives near the beach where she gets to conduct frequent leisure experiments. She is the Chief Leisure Strategist for Best Beach Days.