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How to Clean and Restore Car Trim (Quick Guide)

Those pesky trim areas on your vehicle I know are annoying to clean (isn’t it so much easier to clean large body panels?) 

Bu anyway…if you really want a spotless car, you should clean and protect trim every month or so, and it’s not that difficult to do right.

Today I’ll break down everything you need to know about how to clean it car trim, including:

  • How to clean car trim
  • What products to use
  • ..plus a few FAQs at the end I think are worth mentioning

How to clean car trim

Exterior trim is what I’ll be covering today…the stuff you want to make look less faded.

Dark exterior trim sections around windows are commonly rubber, while trim pieces are often plastic. Emblems, air vents, that sort of thing. Either way, you can clean and protect most trim the same way.

Step 1: Wash and dislodge dirt from trim

To start, wash your vehicle in the correct order using a wash mitt. From there, use a small-bristled detailing brush and a rubber and vinyl cleaner for trapped dirt. A small brush with no short bristles works best. A soft-bristled toothbrush can work too. The idea is to dislodge as much stuck-on dirt or grime as you can without scratching the paint

I like this product by Meguiar’s for cleaning all my vinyl/plastic. Many products can clean rubber, vinyl, and plastic…so just check to make sure you have the right one.

Meguiar’s Vinyl and Rubber Cleaner and Conditioner

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meguiars vinyl seat cleaner

Check out my post on removing wax on plastic trim if you have some areas that won’t come clean due to dried wax.

Step 2: Find a trim restore product that suits your needs

Before you buy a trim restore product, you’ll want to select a product based on factors most important to you, like:

  • Level of gloss and shine
  • How long does it last?
  • How natural is the finish compared to OEM trim?
  • Trim coating or trim dressing?

Here’s the one thing to know about trim restore products: Most can be used on vinyl AND plastic, but some look shinier and last longer than others. The water-based dressings will give you a more natural finish, while gels and ceramic or petroleum-based trim products often look super-glossy and dark.

If you’re looking for a good, long-lasting trim restore dressing that’s pretty affordable, The Car Guys make a good one. Repair Geek on YouTube recently put it to the test, and it lasted around 4 weeks…pretty good for a dressing.

Car Guys Plastic, Rubber, and Vinyl Restorer

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Car trim dressings vs trim coatings

A trim coating is a semi-permanent layer that will last a lot longer than a standard trim restore dressing. You’ll see these on the store shelves as ceramic trim coatings. The standard bottle-of-trim-restore products with an applicator are dressings, so just be sure to read the label. 

Your choice comes down to personal preference, the look you want, and how often you want to re-apply a product.

Step 3: Apply trim restore using a foam applicator pad

Once the surface is completely dry, apply the product you’ve selected as directed with a foam applicator pad. I also like to carry a damp microfiber towel to clean up any excess that may contact the paint (before it dries).

You can also tape off windows if you prefer…totally up to you and the vehicle you’re detailing.

Quick Tip!

Cut on side of your foam applicator pad included in trim restore products. Completely optional, this will make it easier to apply the product using a straight edge if you’re working on door trim or smaller trim.

And that’s it! Here are a few frequently asked questions before you get started.

FAQs for cleaning vehicle trim

How long do trim restore products last?

Most trim-restore dressings last anywhere from a few days to about 3 weeks depending on the product. Trim restore coatings are like semi-permanent paints that can take a few months to fade away.

How do you clean chrome car trim?

To clean chrome trim, apply an automotive-grade chrome metal polish with a clean cloth. Chrome may or may not need to have rust removed before polishing. For more on this process, check out my post on restoring chrome bumpers and trim

Can you use tire dressing on trim?

You can, but always check with the manufacturer. Water-based dressings are generally safest, while petroleum-based tire foams and gels can make trim look unnatural and potentially dry out plastic. Overall, I’d recommend products formulated for restoring trim specifically.

What is the best car trim restorer?

If you want great results, AMMO MUD is one of the top products to use for trim on the market. It’s not the cheapest or most expensive, but it’s pricier than most. Again, you get what you pay for. I like this one because it’s a dressing you can use both on trim and tires and looks shiny, yet not over-the-top glossy.

Should you use a heat gun to restore car trim?

No. Using a heat gun simply brings the remaining dark pigment within car trim pieces to the surface. While things will look dark for a while, the fading process will continue. Most plastics and rubbers contain carbon black, a pigment tat gives rubber and plastic a darker color. Once they’re used up, there’s used up…so your trim will look even worse.

Can you paint car trim?

 If your trim is beyond restoring, you can technically paint it. I recommend you use an adhesion promotor and finish with a vinyl/plastic paint that matches.  I’ve done this a few times, and it’s a lot easier than continually applying trim restore products. I wouldn’t recommend this process on classic, late-model, or exotic cars…but for run-of-the-mill vehicles, it is an option if you know what you’re doing.

Want more tutorials like this one? check out our other tutorials and how-tos!

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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