Guide to Cleaning and Detailing Trim and Molding

Beginners guide on how to clean and detail trim, molding, and rubber on cars.

// Links to merchants mentioned within this website may be using an affiliate link which means that we may earn a commission if you buy something through that link. Read our Earnings Disclosure to learn more.

It’s a gorgeous Saturday morning. You’re walking out of the garage on a warm weekend afternoon, bucket and hose in hand, and you have everything in mind for a car wash. Many automotive enthusiasts will agree that the process of detailing a vehicle is an art form. Between daily drivers and weekend show cars, all vehicles enjoy proper care.

One area that should be given consideration is your trim and molding. This will give your wash an excellent finish and keep a vital detail of the exterior in great shape for years to come. Let’s dive a little deeper and learn how to maintain your vehicle’s trim and molding work.

Function Meets Form

Automotive designers and engineers work trim and molding details into vehicles for a variety of reasons. These rubber, plastic and vinyl parts often enhance body lines, create finished edges to panels such as fenders or bumper covers, and enhance functionality in high-use areas. Recall that lower lip on your front bumper cover or the long strips covering your roof rack mounting points.

Functionality also means keeping water out of places you’d prefer to be dry, like your interior and seats for instance. From window seals to trunk panels, it’s all in the details. These parts are created to both look and perform, but they are still susceptible to wear like the rest of your vehicle’s exterior.

Now that we have a better appreciation for the various places trim and molding can cover, let’s talk about keeping it looking great.

Damage Over Time

Plastics and rubbers on the exterior of your car, when not protected, are susceptible to damaging effects of the sun, heat, air, tar, and road film. This degradation can happen in as little as a year depending on the type of plastic or rubber used.

The most common degradation is that of UV damage from the sun, called photo degradation. Since these trim pieces don’t have a clear coat like your paint they begin to break down as soon as they leave the factory.

Cleaning

These areas of the vehicle develop a variety of build-up from the road and environment. Trim and molding should be cleaned with the rest of your vehicle, using proper shampoo and your wash mitt of choice. Your goal is to remove all surface debris and dirt on these areas. Areas that are particularly exposed to the sun should be taken into consideration as well, especially as we get into the restoration and protectant discussion.

Due to the many areas that trim and molding can cover on a vehicle, it is very likely to have over-spray or application of wax and other damaging liquids. Make sure you wash these areas, targeting hard to see or reach sections as well. To remove wax buildup I’ve had great luck using an auto body grade wax and grease solvent such as Dupli-Color Wax and Grease Remover.

Open doors, hatch or trunk, hood and even sunroofs — all areas with sealed rubber or plastic are on the cleaning list. Remember that your trim and molding can also be repelling cabin noise along with water, so the functionality of it can’t be taken for granted. For rubber seals, consider Nextzett’s Gummi Pflege Rubber Care Stick to protect those areas against cracking.

All trim, molding, and seals should be cleaned at least 6-8 times a year, keeping any regular build-up from happening.

Restore

You may notice that parts of your plastic or rubber trim have been ignored (especially when picking up a used vehicle) or deterioration has set in over time. This is not the end; you don’t need to rush out for replacement parts yet.

The first thing you need to do is address how severe the fading or deterioration is and then plan accordingly. There are a handful of fantastic restoration options, which I list in my article Top 5 Best Plastic Trim Restorers, that will return much of the trim to a natural state, usually restoring the original dark coloring as well.

Add a small quarter-size drop of your desired trim restoring solution to a microfiber towel and apply to each area of trim and molding. You should immediately notice a difference when restoring that dry or faded trim, which will also give you a clear guide to any areas you have missed. If you’re restoring a large area you may need several applications to provide a uniform appearance.

Depending on your product of choice, this process should be repeated every 3-6 months to ensure any aged or faded areas are maintained. You’ll also want to follow up this application with a protectant such those discussed below in the treat and seal section.

If you want a more permanent fix you’ll need to resort to painting the plastic. To do this successfully you’ll need to thoroughly clean the plastic with a wax and grease remover, apply an adhesion promoter, and then spray paint with a matte or satin paint that is rated for outdoor use so that UV doesn’t fade it.

If you’re lucky enough to have smooth plastic trim (such as those between the door windows on many coupes and sedans) you can bring back the luster by polishing them using the same pads and polish you polish paint with as seen below.

Trim between windows that has degraded over time from UV and finger prints leaving it spotty and faded. Trim between windows that has been restored by polishing and sealing with a ceramic coating.

Treat & Seal

What if you have a brand-new car that has significant trim and molding detail? Maybe you’re meticulous and your vehicle has outstanding looking trim and molding at the moment. Consider yourself in an excellent position. You have the opportunity to prepare your vehicle from the elements and can establish a schedule for detailing for years to come.

Following a thorough wash and dry, you can prepare to address this sparkling new trim and molding around your vehicle. While not as drastic as a full restoration of faded trim, this will be a foundation that many vehicles rarely receive. A quality protectant will seal the materials, giving added protection from debris, wax and other offensive chemicals. Your trim and molding will enjoy UV protection, as sunlight can be one of the most harmful sources of deterioration over time.

Worth considering for this process is Wolfgang Exterior Trim Sealant, CarPro Dlux303 Aerospace Protectant. Both will give added protection to your trim and molding, although the Wolfgang product will give a darker appearance, whereas the 303 product offers a more natural matte appearance.

Taking your sealant of choice, add a drop to a microfiber towel or foam applicator and apply to all vinyl, rubber and plastic trim and molding.

The Wax Issue

We have all been warned to keep wax of all sorts from touching the rubber or plastic trim of our vehicles. You may have even encountered a tragic case of staining with an older vehicle’s exterior trim. Yet, the issue is no longer as disastrous! Modern hybrid spray waxes and sealants for instance, such as Mequiar’s Ultimate Quik Wax, are now engineered to enhance and protect trim.

That being said, it’s still advised to not apply traditional carnauba waxes to rubber or matte trim.

One thing to keep in mind as you are spraying wax in all directions — there is always the chance of uneven application showing. Much like wax on your paint, an even application and thorough spread with a clean microfiber towel is the only way to go.

Cleaned, restored, sealed and even waxed — your trim and molding is now better than ever, or least the beginning of the day. Remember that this process should be included in rotation so that you are never having to replace cracked trim or discover torn molding. A few minutes of upkeep each wash can lead to years of a beautifully maintained vehicle.

Benefits to The Process

You’re finished cleaning, possibly restoring, and sealing your trim and molding. Your car is likely shining and prepared for a drive to your local Cars and Coffee…  or prepared for a nice wax. While you enjoy a job well done, consider some of the benefits of this added detailing you completed.

  • Your vehicle’s appearance now has a more finished, striking look, as the paint and trim has a beautiful contrast once again.
  • Functional trim and molding can more efficiently resist liquids and in some cases, seal areas from road noise.
  • Wax and other cleaners are less likely to affect or dry on your trim; removal being even easier if it does happen.
  • Money saved on trim replacement can be used on those new summer tires you’ve been wanting all winter!

Whether you are a master detail, first-time owner or maintaining your daily driver — protecting your vehicle’s functional and aesthetic details will always be important. Proper upkeep will maintain your comfort level while driving and compliment a healthy resale factor. There are few things sweeter than walking out to a ride that is showroom-clean on a Saturday morning.

Good luck with your next wash and detail job!

If you appreciate what we do on The Art of Cleanliness, you should consider:

  1. Sharing this post with your friends, followers, and readers.
  2. Staying connected to: Pinterest | Facebook | Twitter
  3. Subscribing to our email updates: Sign Up Now
  4. Supporting us: Learn How We Earn
We are thankful for your never ending support!

Share Your Thoughts:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *