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Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Tar on the Skin

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Even though its really cold outside in much of the U.S., it's sunny in northern California and with a hooded sweatshirt, every day is a beach day! So, after a couple of nice days in the snowy mountains, I headed for the coast. On my first step onto the sand, I was reminded to write about a phenomenon that was called to my attention by a reader last April:

"Coast Guard Seeks Tar Source
By Janine Zúñiga
Union-Tribune Staff Writer

CORONADO — The Coast Guard is investigating the source of sticky tar balls that washed up on Coronado's shores over the weekend. Emergency crews...worked amid bathing-suit-clad beach-goers, picking up pieces of tar that a city lifeguard first noticed Saturday afternoon. Coast Guard spokeswoman Amanda Sardone said yesterday that about 20 National Response crew members picked up the equivalent of a 55-gallon drum full of tar balls through Sunday afternoon...the tar is not dangerous...the tar may have come from an older spill because of its thick consistency...the tar is similar to 'the stuff that sticks to your feet or your shoes' when at the beach."

I grew up in New Jersey, and vacationed in the summer on Long Beach Island. Almost every day, I returned from the beach with the bottoms of my feet covered with tar. Sometimes we stepped in a big blob of the stuff, so there was enough attached to need to scrape it off with a clam shell or a stick. There was always some between your toes, and if you tracked it into the house, you were in "big trouble."

I've experimented over the years with methods to remove tar (beach tar, road tar and roofing tar) and various sticky or rigid petroleum based substances. There are no perfect methods, but here are a few that might be helpful. An important point is to let any of these removal products reside on the tar-covered skin for a while (minimum 30 minutes; longer if you are not in a hurry), so that they soften up and begin to dissolve the tar. You will need to scrub less or more depending on what is stuck to your skin, how much of your skin is covered, how long you have let the remedy soak, how much it hurts, etc.:

1. Mayonnaise (not Miracle Whip). This is an emulsion containing oil.
2. Olive oil
3. Bacitracin ointment
4. 50/50 ointment, containing 50% liquid paraffin and 50% white soft paraffin
5. Baby oil, cooking oil, mineral oil or tanning oil

I have read recommendations to use turpentine or a product named "Goo Gone." Because this product contains solvent naphtha, petroleum, heavy aliphatic terpenes and terpenoids, and citrus oil, it is a perfect time for the following reminder: If you use anything that is toxic (such as a solvent or turpentine), then be sure to wash your skin very carefully with soap and water after you have finished with the tar removal. Be especially careful on sensitive skin. Never put anything that is toxic (solvent, caustic, thermally too hot or too cold) anywhere near the mouth, eyes, or sensitive mucous membranes.

There are probably lots of other substances, concoctions and methods for removing beach tar. If you have a favorite, please share it with us. Thanks!

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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