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Updated November 2021
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Buying guide for best brake parts cleaners

When you’re driving around town or cruising down the highway, it’s easy to forget about the brakes on your car — until you need them. If a child runs out in the road or someone stops unexpectedly in front of you, those brakes are suddenly the most important part of your vehicle.

Dirty brakes don’t work the way they’re supposed to. A buildup of road gunk, grease, oil, and contaminants can cause a caliper to stick. The result is increased friction on one wheel while the other continues to turn normally. This translates into the sensation of your car constantly trying to turn itself, forcing you to keep the wheel turned slightly in the other direction to compensate.

Cleaners for your brakes and all the associated parts are one of the few maintenance tools for cars that are both inexpensive and easy to use. However, due to environmental regulations in some areas of the U.S., manufacturers have had to change their chemical makeup. Keep reading, and we’ll walk you through choosing the right brake parts cleaner for your vehicle.

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Environmental regulations vary from state to state. Some states require a special container to store brake cleaner and some have strict requirements concerning disposal. Check with your local environmental office before using a brake cleaner.

Key considerations

Chlorinated vs. non-chlorinated

Brake parts cleaners come in two varieties: older chlorinated versions and newer non-chlorinated ones created in response to environmental regulations. Unfortunately, any time you’re dealing with chemicals, “environmentally friendly” is not much of a scientific reality.

Brake cleaners are toxic and/or dangerous regardless of which version you use. If you accidentally ingest or inhale it, contact a poison control center and get to a hospital immediately. Additionally, don’t eat or drink when you’re using brake cleaner.

Chlorinated brake cleaner has been around the longest. It is not flammable, but it is very harsh if it gets on your skin. It also contains possible carcinogens. The two main ingredients are tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene) and carbon dioxide. Tetrachloroethylene is the active ingredient that does the cleaning while carbon dioxide is the propellant in aerosol form.

Tetrachloroethylene isn’t flammable, but when it is exposed to heat it can form toxic compounds that are fatal in dosages as small as four parts per million.

Calling a brake cleaner “chlorinated” means there are chlorinated atoms or solvents present in it. Many places have banned the use and/or sale of chlorinated brake cleaners within their borders.

Non-chlorinated versions of brake cleaners don’t have chlorinated atoms or solvents in them so they aren’t as harsh on your skin. Unfortunately, the new chemicals used in them are extremely flammable. Never smoke when you’re using a non-chlorinated brake cleaner or allow any sparks in the area. Always use it in a well-ventilated area to prevent buildup of flammable fumes that could lead to an explosion.

The active ingredients in non-chlorinated brake cleaners are heptane, a non-water-soluble solvent for cleaning contaminants and acetone, a solvent used to remove water-based contaminants. Carbon dioxide is used as a propellant in aerosol varieties. Non-chlorinated brake cleaners don’t dry as fast as chlorinated ones, so you have to take more time using them.

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For your safety
Toxic fumes are a fact of life when you’re working with chemicals — even “everyday” chemicals like brake cleaner. Protect yourself by wearing a mask.



Brake cleaners come in two varieties: chlorinated and non-chlorinated. The packaging is a standard aluminum aerosol can.

Red straw

Most brake cleaners have a standard red plastic extension straw taped to the side of the can. The straw has to be inserted into the cavity on the push nozzle to create a thin stream of cleaner. Some brake cleaners, however, have a short, hard plastic nozzle built into the cap. An extension straw can be inserted into the end or it can be used without it.


The size of the can varies somewhat from one manufacturer to another. The majority of brake cleaners come in or around 14-ounce cans.

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Did you know?
With chlorinated brake cleaners, heat causes the active ingredient, tetrachloroethylene, to break down into phosgene, a highly toxic gas that was used during World War I as a choking agent.


Protective clothing: Dickies Men's Basic Blended Coverall
Brake parts cleaners can be harsh on your skin. Even the non-chlorinated variety can cause dry skin and flaking. Brake cleaners can also eat holes in your regular clothes. Keep a good pair of coveralls in the garage for use when you’re cleaning your brakes or anytime you’re working on your car.

Eye Protection: NoCry Safety Glasses with Clear Resistant Wraparound Lenses
Sprays can splash back into your face and eyes if a gust of wind comes through or if you get too close to what you’re working on. Protect your eyes with wraparound safety glasses. They are inexpensive and can save you from injury.

Hand protection: MedPride Powder-Free Nitrile Exam Gloves
Your hands are closer to the harsh chemicals in brake cleaners than any other part of your body. You may even need to reach into the brake mechanism to dislodge large particles with your fingers. Wear disposable gloves to protect your hands.

Catch pan: Plews LubriMatic Galvanized Steel Automotive Drip Pan/Tray
As you’re spraying the brakes on your car, the excess liquid and loosened contaminants run down and drip onto the ground. You need a drip pan to catch that runoff, but brake cleaners eat away at plastic, so a metal pan is required. There won’t be much runoff, so the pan doesn’t have to be deep.

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The chemicals in brake cleaners can irritate your eyes and skin, cause dizziness, give you headaches, interfere with your breathing, render you unconscious, and in extreme cases, lead to death. Exercise caution.

Brake parts cleaners: prices

Inexpensive: Under $5, it’s still possible to find a quality brake cleaner. Price alone won’t tell you much about these products.

Mid-range: Between $5 and $10 is where most single-can brake cleaners are found.

Expensive: Above $10 are generally brand names or cleaners that come in larger than normal cans.


  • Removing the tire from the hub is the only prep work you have to do before using a brake cleaner.
  • Put a metal catch pan under the brakes to catch any runoff.
  • After donning your safety gear, begin spraying at the top of the brake assembly and let the fluid and contaminants run down into the catch pan.
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Acetone, the main ingredient in nail polish remover, is one of the solvents used in non-chlorinated brake cleaners. The U.S. National Library of Medicine classifies it as an irritant and as a flammable substance.


Q. Will brake cleaner damage the paint on my car?
Yes. If there is a possibility the brake cleaner may get on your car’s paint, cover it with some wide tape.

Q. What parts of the brakes can brake cleaner be used on?
Brake cleaner is intended to be used on brake linings, brake shoes and drums, caliper units, pads, and rotors.

Q. Can I use brake cleaner while the brakes are warm and the contaminants are soft?
No. Heat causes chlorinated brake cleaner to break down into toxic compounds and non-chlorinated brake cleaner is highly flammable. Wait several hours until the brakes have completely cooled.

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