There comes a time when we have to remove tape from something and don’t want to damage it. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible to remove tape residue from almost anything. Even paper. Here’s how.
Removing tape residue often requires use of several different techniques including heat and chemicals. My favorite is rubber cement thinner, as it will even remove tape adhesive from paper, but different surfaces require different options.
First things first: If the tape is intact and wrapped around an edge or a corner, gently slice through it with a blade along the edge. For some reason, it’s easy for the tape to catch on the edge and damage the surface.
I generally work my way through the following steps in order.
Removing tape residue with heat
Most adhesives respond well to heat. Heat tends to loosen it up and sometimes, if everything goes well, the residue just rubs off easily. But if nothing else, alternating heat and other means will remove the tape residue more quickly.
I prefer to use a hair dryer, as it emits a fair bit of heat without being too dangerous. A heat gun will probably get too hot and damage the surface and/or melt any remaining tape that’s present. A hair dryer, even on its high setting, probably won’t.
Better living through chemistry, tape residue edition
Once you’ve weakened the adhesive, it’s time to bring in the chemicals. There are at least four I’ve used that work very well, but not all of them are appropriate for every surface, and some are cheaper than others. I’ll list them in my order of preference, and include what they work well on. The first two will even help you remove tape that’s still there, not just the residue.
Always test in an inconspicuous area first just in case you’re working with something I never have, but I’ve had great success with all of these methods.
Rubber cement thinner
My favorite is rubber cement thinner, specifically the Bestine brand, but the brand name may vary in your country. Rubber cement thinner is the most expensive option, but it works on anything, including cardboard and paper. Yes, I have removed tape from cardboard and paper, even non-glossy surfaces, without a trace and without damaging the printing on it. Just drop a bit of the thinner onto the adhesive, let it soak in, let it dry, and then it will rub, scrape, peel or flake off without a fight. If any of the remaining residue puts up any kind of a fight, just repeat.
If the tape is intact, just apply some of the thinner along all the edges of the tape and let it wick under the surface. Free a corner, peel it back very slowly and gently, then apply some more as soon as the tape starts putting up a fight.
Lighter fluid is cheaper than rubber cement thinner and almost as good. I don’t think it works as fast and I’m a little less confident about it not affecting printing, but I haven’t had much in the way of problems with it. Just squirt some lighter fluid on, let it dry, and then it will rub, scrape, peel or flake off without a fight. Repeat if it fights you at all.
If the tape is intact, just apply some of the lighter fluid along all the edges of the tape and let it wick under the surface. Free a corner, peel it back very slowly and gently, then apply some more as soon as the tape starts putting up a fight.
Goo Gone is very effective at removing tape residue on any hard, nonporous surface. The main caveat with Goo Gone is that it’s not terribly effective if the tape is still present. It’s best suited for cleaning up the residue after you remove the tape.
It also generally works well on coated surfaces, like high-gloss cardboard. Goo Gone can stain, so be careful, and it will damage printing on matte paper or cardboard. It works, and it’s something you’re likely to have around, it’s just not as universal as the others. Just be ready for a fair bit of scraping after squirting it on and letting it soak in.
Last and least, there’s old-fashioned WD-40. The stuff your dad or grandpa used. WD-40 has become a brand name for lots of different products, so make sure you’re using the original stuff, the stuff sold as a penetrating oil and cure-all. Only use it on hard, nonporous surfaces, but it works. Squirt some on, let it soak in for a good 30 minutes, then scrape.
Finally, scraping off remaining tape residue
Most people recommend scraping off tape residue, with either a metal or a plastic blade. A plastic blade is less likely to damage anything, but I’m still reluctant to use either type of blade on a fragile surface like a book cover or a box. On hard surfaces it’s fine, but a metal blade can damage paint. If the tape or residue doesn’t peel off on its own, gently scrape it away, adding more chemical if needed. Just get under an edge, work under the edge slowly and gently, then get the other corner, repeat, and work your way toward the center. Try to get the full width free, and peel with a slow, only slightly firm motion.
If the tape fights you at all, go back and repeat any and all steps as necessary, and remember, with this, you can’t go too slow. Apply a bit of heat right to the area where the tape stopped lifting. Then follow up with a bit of lighter fluid or rubber cement thinner right there. The chemical will wick under and weaken more of the adhesive.
I do a lot of adhesive residue removal on notebook computers, other computer gear, and camera gear. My chemical kit is only three items. In order of preference (first to last) they are:
1. Isopropyl alcohol. I always try this first because it dries with no residue, is the least likely to do damage to surfaces and is safest to use. It has worked for a surprising number of residues, in addition to Sharpie ink, printing on plastic bags, general old dirt and more.
2. Nail polish remover/acetone. If alcohol doesn’t work. Also leaves no residue of its own, but has more potential to damage paints, plastics etc.
3. GooGone will remove about anything, but it leaves an objectionable film, which I then have to remove with alcohol.
I also use plastic scrapers to lift off softened goo. Old credit cards are good and don’t scratch plastic surfaces.