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Summary
  • Road salt, otherwise known as halite, is the mineral form of sodium chloride (NaCl). It is used during winter to melt ice and snow on the road.
  • Paint damage, corrosion damage, and brake issues are some of the possible effects of road salt on vehicles.
  • Thorough inspections, regular car washes, and car wax application may minimize the negative effects of road salt on your vehicle.

Driving during winter can be daunting because the roads can get slippery and wet. Luckily, there’s an effective and affordable solution that can minimize winter collisions by 85%–road salt.

But while road salt is a great solution for icy and slick roads, long-term exposure to it can have negative effects on your vehicle.

Effects of Road Salt on Your Vehicle

Road salt, otherwise known as halite, is the mineral form of sodium chloride (NaCl). It is used to melt ice and snow on roads and pavements through a chemical reaction that reduces the freezing point of water in temperatures lower than 32F.

The same chemical reaction that makes it an effective de-icing agent may have some lasting effects on your vehicle. Let’s take a closer look at each one of them.

Paint Damage

The chemical reaction from road salt can worsen the impact of the elements on various metal components of your vehicle and speed up rust formation.

As a corrosive substance, long-term exposure to road salt may cause your paint to fade, chip, or bubble. In severe cases, the paint blister may peel off and expose the metal surface to the elements.

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Underbody Damage

The vehicle frame and body are mostly made up of steel components. Therefore, extended exposure to road salt may cause corrosion in the underbody as well as other structural parts.

When the free-floating ions in road salt come into contact with the oxygen and carbon dioxide from the precipitation on your vehicle, they speed up the formation of iron oxide (rust) on exposed metal surfaces.

underbody of a 2008 impala
These photos were taken of the underbody of a 2008 Impala that spent its entire life in a northern state. Notice that the fuel line was leaking gasoline due to excessive rust. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian

Brake Issues

Rust may also form on metal brake components, such as brake lines, brake pads, rotors, and calipers due to exposure to road salt. This may reduce braking performance, compromising your safety on the road.

, How Does Road Salt Affect Your Vehicle?

Pro Tips are nuggets of information direct from ASE-certified automobile technicians working with CarParts.com, which may include unique, personal insights based on their years of experience working in the automotive industry. These can help you make more informed decisions about your car.

Pro Tip: Have your brake components, particularly the brake lines, checked often. External rust on steel brake lines weakens them to the point of sudden failure, which is very dangerous.

Suspension Problems

Rusted springs, shocks, and control arms from road salt exposure may cause your vehicle to suffer from poor handling and reduced ride quality. What’s worse, important front-end parts can fail suddenly, so have your suspension components checked regularly. Your vehicle may become difficult to steer, pull to one side, bounce on bumps, or dip. Overall, a damaged suspension makes for an uncomfortable ride.

, How Does Road Salt Affect Your Vehicle?

Pro Tips are nuggets of information direct from ASE-certified automobile technicians working with CarParts.com, which may include unique, personal insights based on their years of experience working in the automotive industry. These can help you make more informed decisions about your car.

Pro Tip: If a mechanic tells you that parts need replacing due to rust, have them show you exactly what they’re talking about.

Other Parts That May Fail

While not as common, it’s possible for the engine, exhaust, and electrical systems to suffer from performance issues due to rust and corrosion damage. Be sure to inspect the metal parts on your exhaust system. Leaking exhaust between the catalytic converter and the engine can allow carbon monoxide to enter the vehicle cabin through the rusted underbody. Since CO from leaking exhaust is odorless, it can cause serious health problems and even fatal injury, if left unchecked, over time.  

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How to Minimize the Negative Impacts of Road Salt

The US goes through approximately 24,000,000 tons of road salt every year. This means it’s almost impossible to prevent it from making contact with your vehicle–unless you store it until spring.

The best thing you can do is to prepare your vehicle for winter to minimize this chemical’s impact on your ride. Here are some tips you can try:

Thoroughly Inspect for Damage

One way to halt the damage from spreading is by visually inspecting your car. Whether it’s rust or peeled paint jobs, identifying damage and acting on it as soon as possible could save you money from expensive repairs.

For example, if you notice a chip in the paint job, then it’s appropriate to take your car to the body shop for repaint. This ensures corrosion won’t follow, as they’ll add a protective layer over the metal beneath.

Wax Your Car Before Winter

Waxing adds a protective coat to your vehicle while adding a glossy finish to the paint job. It’s an effective shield against road salt and the elements. Additionally, it makes cleaning easier as wax repels dirt, dust, and grime.

Regularly Wash Your Car

The easiest way to reduce or prevent road salt from damaging your vehicle is by preventing it from accumulating on your vehicle. Wash your vehicle at least once a week, and take an extra trip to the car wash after every snowstorm.

Regular car washes remove the salt before it can linger and damage the paint job. You can opt to do it yourself or visit a car wash to have professionals clean it for you.

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Make sure to clean the undercarriage as well to prevent corrosion on exposed metal components.

Avoid Driving Over Potholes and Puddles

Pools of water tend to collect road salt, so it’s best to avoid puddles of melted snow. Driving over them may kick water saltwater up the undercarriage of your vehicle and cause rust to develop on metal components.

Steer Clear of the Snow Plows

You may be tempted to drive behind a snow plow to enjoy the freshly cleared road, but this can expose your vehicle to undiluted amounts of road salt. The spreader and plow may also kick up grains of road salt, which may cause chips and nicks to form on your vehicle.

Get Your Car Detailed

Car detailing involves cleaning and restoring a vehicle back into shape. It is more precise and labor intensive than a regular car wash, and it also includes working on the vehicle’s interior.

It’s a good idea to get your vehicle detailed as the first sign of spring. This will give you an opportunity to thoroughly inspect for any signs of rust and winter damage on your vehicle.

Protect Your Undercarriage With a Wax or Rubber Undercoating

Most modern vehicles already come with an undercoating that provides sufficient protection against the elements. If you drive an older vehicle or if your car’s existing undercoating has deteriorated or become damaged over time, then you might want to consider additional undercoating.

Applying a wax or rubber-based composite undercoating onto clean, rust-free surfaces of your vehicle provides an added layer of protection against road salt, harmful chemicals, and the elements.

About The Authors
Written By Automotive and Tech Writers

The CarParts.com Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by CarParts.com's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Reviewed By Technical Reviewer at CarParts.com

Richard McCuistian has worked for nearly 50 years in the automotive field as a professional technician, an instructor, and a freelance automotive writer for Motor Age, ACtion magazine, Power Stroke Registry, and others. Richard is ASE certified for more than 30 years in 10 categories, including L1 Advanced Engine Performance and Light Vehicle Diesel.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

File Under : Lifestyle , Features , For the Car Owner Tagged With : ,
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