Every vehicle uses polymer based products. Unfortunately, one of the immutable facts of owning a car is that its polymer-based components will suffer through polymer degradation to at least some degree.
The Science: Polymers are materials composed of long and repeating chains of molecules, their unique rubbery properties make them indispensable for use in certain parts and components used in cars. Some polymer materials include vinyl, rubber and certain plastics. You’ll find them used in many components of your car, such as; bumpers, trim around windows, hoods and windshields, spoilers, and used in various other car parts.
All polymers are vulnerable to polymer degradation, and while we can’t completely prevent polymer degradation, we can slow it down.
What Causes Polymer Degradation?
The properties of polymer make it vulnerable to such environmental factors as heat, light, chemicals, and salts. These factors can cause a change into polymer’s properties, causing it to degrade.
Because of this sensitivity to the elements, polymers tend to degrade and break down faster than other components of the car. Exposure to sunlight, road tar, oxygen, oil and air pollution can rapidly accelerate degradation.
UV exposure is polymer’s worst enemy and probably the environmental factor that is responsible for most polymer degradation. When exposed to sunlight’s UV radiation, polymers shape, color and strength starts to change, a process called photodegradation.
With degradation at the atomic level, the bonds between polymers have ‘dissociation’ energies, similar to that of UV radiation. When photons hit the polymer molecules, they ‘dissociate,’ an analogy of this reaction is like throwing a baseball into a pool of much lighter, Styrofoam balls, causing the Styrofoam balls to dissociate. A similar reaction happens when UV photons hit polymer atoms.
Preventing Polymer Degradation for Rubber, Plastic and Vinyl
Preventing degradation is one of the easier vehicle maintenance tips you should be following. Continual maintenance of your car’s rubber, plastic and vinyl surfaces is key to putting the brakes on polymer degradation.
The key to preventing polymer degradation is by adding a layer of protection between the polymer and the elements. Doing this is the only way of keeping degradation at bay and keeping your polymer components looking new, so UV radiation and oxygen are not able to cause dissociation of polymer’s atoms.
Preventing polymer degradation is easy, but what if your polymer components have already are weathered and faded?
Restoring Plastic, Rubber, and Vinyl
If the polymer surfaces of your car have already faded, it can mean a couple of things. Either polish or sealant dried on the surface of the polymer component or it has degraded.
Restoring Polymer Components That Have Faded Due to Polish/Sealant Residue
As you may be aware, using polishes and sealants can leave white chalky stains on your polymer components such as cladding, molding and trim. This problem happens quite quickly once dried. A simple way of preventing this is by using masking tape to cover and protect your polymer components while you are applying polish, wax or sealant on your cars paint. Doing this will help prevent any excess polish, wax, or sealant from spilling over onto your polymer components.
If your polymer components have already been tainted by polish, wax, or sealant, then you will need to use a solvent to pull the residues out of the polymer.
Here are some of my recommendations of several solvent products on the market that could be used: Black Wow, Meguiar’s M40, Meguiar’s Ultimate Protectant, 303 Aerospace Protectant, and Ultima Tire and Trim Guard Plus.
These products will help pull the residue out of your polymer components and provide extra protection.
If you use one of these products, but still the residue does not come out, you can try a dedicated rubber cleaner like Miguel’s M39 or use a bit of vinegar on a microfiber cloth and a toothbrush. Don’t forget, though, that once you have cleaned your trim, cladding etc., you need to protect it. Ultima’s Tire and Trim Guard is a great choice for this. If there are other products that you have used for protection, please give us the name in the blog comments.
Restoring Polymer Components That Have Faded Due to Degradation
If the faded effect on your polymer trim, cladding, etc., is not from residue and is a permanent result of degradation, you still have some options to brighten it up. Here are your options:
Apply a Dressing
Applying the dressing should be done with a microfiber clothe. Make sure to start with a small amount.
My recommendation: Black Wow is a great option. It is a concentrated gel and has good spreadability. Start with just a pea sized amount and wipe the product on, then wait a few minutes and wipe off.
Apply a Dye
Applying dye is another easy and effective way of darkening faded trim, cladding, etc.
My recommendation: Forever black is a good black dye product and cleanser.
Applying the dye is straightforward. Use your eye and be careful not to apply to much. Apply it as you would shoe polish to a shoe.
After applying the dye, it is a good idea to apply a protectant to extend the life of the trim, cladding, etc.
Maintain it so You Don’t Need to Restore it
While faded or degraded polymer isn’t the end of the world, I’m sure you would agree, not letting it degrade in the first place is a better way of caring for your car’s polymer parts. So it’s always a good idea to think ahead and follow the simple DIY tips we have laid out for preventing polymer degradation, before it’s worn away and is in need of restoration.
Daniel Calvin keeps a good portion of his enthusiasm dedicated to high power performance sports cars, oh, and of course writing about them too. He is the content creator for Euro Motorsport Mercedes Benz mechanics in Melbourne.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.