Removing oil and tar from clothing
September 21, 2016 10:06 AM   Subscribe

I made a Poor Life Choice and now have oil/tar from road construction on a bunch of clothing (cotton and leather). Help me remove it?

I was biking home from work late at night, and hit an area where the roads have been under a bunch of construction (though they've been open to traffic throughout the process.) Last night, they had put some sort of oil or tar on the torn-up road surface for some reason. I realized a little too late that the concrete looked sticky, thought "ugh, but it's only half a block and I'm almost home, it's already on my tires, if I dismount and head for the sidewalk I'll get it on my boots and pants too, and the road is open and cars are driving on it, so it can't be that bad." Predictably, this was not the correct call; as I was turning the bike slid on the oil or tar, and now I have a bunch of cotton clothing, leather boots, and a waxed-cotton-duck-and-leather saddlebag with splotches of disgusting oil/tar stuff. I've done my best to wipe the worst off with soap and water (saddle soap on the leather), but especially on the cotton stuff, it's soaked in a bit (and semi-solidified?), and isn't really budging.

So, er, halp! What kind of oil or tar was this stuff? How do I get it out without damaging the fabric? Is there a way to get it mostly out without too much discoloration? Assume that I have access to whatever one can buy at CVS, a standard-issue local hardware store, a local dry cleaner's, and if necessary the sort of random solvents my HPLC-using biochemistry lab is apt to have. I assume I'll have to reproof the waxed cotton duck bag no matter what, and re-condition all leather, but if there's anything else I need to do after cleaning, that'd be good to know too.
posted by ubersturm to Home & Garden (12 answers total)
Denatured alcohol should dissolve the tar. How that will affect the material it's on, I can't say, but there's probably not a better solution.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:10 AM on September 21, 2016

Don't put anything on it or attempt any stain removal. Take it directly to a reputable dry cleaner and tell them what got on your clothing, what you've done so far, and see if it can still be salvaged. I've tried DIY tar removal and failed miserably and, having learned my lesson, took my next tar disaster to a dry cleaner without having touched it and they worked miracles.
posted by quince at 10:15 AM on September 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

Yep, you'll need some serious solvent (and possibly heat) to try this and a dry cleaner is your best bet. Alcohol will dissolve some of the lighter tar fractions easily, but asphalt (if that's what this was) has some heavy, gunky fractions that... probably aren't going anywhere (sorry, but be prepared for this). You can be more hopeful about removal from leather, but staining is probable. Ditto with the fabric: if there's a solvent strong enough to get this mostly out of cotton, it'll likely leave behind visible residues. Oil, tar, asphalt, and related substances are tough to deal with!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:54 AM on September 21, 2016

Any solvents you put on your leather or cotton are going to make the oil drop further into the fabric. Those stains/residue are likely permanent.
posted by effluvia at 10:58 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

A visiting friend got tar on a bathing suit she borrowed from me, from a tar ball on the beach (evidently from an offshore oil spill that had occurred a couple of years before). I figured it was done for, but she applied peanut butter to it repeatedly, and got every last bit of the tar out.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 10:59 AM on September 21, 2016

Baby oil will take it out. No idea what it do to the underlying fabrics but it usually doesn't ruin stuff.
posted by fshgrl at 11:32 AM on September 21, 2016

As others have said you need to have an oil based solvent to remove the stain. Not a soap, but a degreaser. Dry cleaning solvent is best. Nothing dissolves oil stains like halogenated solvents. Pure hydrocarbons are the next best. Wd40 or google may both work.

Alcohols and acetone don't work well. Soap and water also aren't great. I'd stay away from those.
posted by bonehead at 12:19 PM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another vote for using a professional dry cleaner. I'd also file a claim to cover your expenses (or the cost of replacement items) against whatever company or government entity is doing the road work. This is precisely what insurance is for. I'm glad you weren't seriously hurt; that seems extremely careless of them to not block that area off until it was dry.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 12:28 PM on September 21, 2016

Dry cleaners use petrochemicals, which are the best thing to dissolve other petrochemicals. It's the right tool for the job.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:57 PM on September 21, 2016

Honestly? I'd take everything but the boots to a good cleaner. Take the boots to a leather professional.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:32 PM on September 21, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, a good dry cleaner it is! "While we actually have a fair range of halogenated hydrocarbons in lab, I don't think my labmates would appreciate my using up their substrate stocks for this purpose." Not to mention the many other issues with using, say, TCE for DIY dry cleaning in a fume hood.

If anyone happens to have suggestions for a good dry cleaner in Chicago, I'd appreciate any advice. I don't get stuff dry cleaned all that frequently, but this seems like it might be a bit much for the random corner dry cleaning place.

My boots at least may be fine without professional intervention; I put some Obenauf's leather preservative on the boots (since they'd been scraped-up and saddle soaped), and the tar/oil started coming off. If there's any stain, well, the boots are black so it's a moot point. (That said, if anyone has leather professional recommendations for Chicago, I'll take those too.)

I'm glad you weren't seriously hurt; that seems extremely careless of them to not block that area off until it was dry.

Yeah, me too. I cut a more extended description, but I saw a car swerve a little, like it was on ice, just as I was starting to turn; I don't seem to have been the only person for whom the road surface was an unpleasant surprise. While the road is a reasonably major one, it seems to me they could have closed off half of it (it's two lanes in each direction) and done it more safely! Thankfully I just had a few scrapes; I'm still kicking myself for not just heading for the sidewalk and only risking a bit of tar on my pant cuffs.
posted by ubersturm at 3:50 PM on September 21, 2016

Not to mention the many other issues with using, say, TCE for DIY dry cleaning in a fume hood.

Hey don't knock it. We saved a student's expensive sweater that way once. Why someone would wear a 300 Euro sweater into our lab is another question entirely, but DCM sure got rid of the bitumen stains.
posted by bonehead at 11:05 AM on September 22, 2016

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