Hands-On Review: The Best Brake Cleaners You Can Buy

We test and choose the best brake cleaners so you can blast off brake dust and road crud, fast.

byMike Bumbeck| UPDATED Feb 27, 2021 2:01 PM
Hands-On Review: The Best Brake Cleaners You Can Buy

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Best Overall

CRC Brakleen Non-Flammable

Summary

The original brake cleaner formula is still the best of the bunch. The most powerful and fastest drying chlorinated heavy hitter is a time-proven champion against brake dust and crud.

Pros
  • Non-flammable and highly effective
  • Almost 100% perchloroethylene
  • Does not contain paint- damaging methylene chloride
  • Highly versatile
  • Leaves no residue
Cons
  • Not available in California or New Jersey
  • Can cost more than some non-chlorinated brake cleaners
  • Contact with hot surfaces can produce deadly phosgene gas
Best Value

Super Tech Non-Chlorinated

Summary

This non-chlorinated 50-state brake cleaner is a value leader that stands on its own with good performance. It's an excellent choice to supplement more expensive formulations with sheer volume.

Pros
  • Often the least expensive non-chlorinated brake cleaner
  • Effective against the worst of caked-on brake muck
  • Low price means more for your money
Cons
  • Highly flammable
  • Acetone can damage plastics and paint
  • Not as effective as chlorinated blends
  • It's popular — and often out of stock when you need it most
Honorable Mention

3M High Power

Summary

Innovative formulation and trade-secret cleaning agents add up to more power in every ounce. It’s a key component in the comprehensive lineup of specialized 3M brake repair and service products.

Pros
  • High performance 
  • Brilliant shine on bare metal surfaces
  • Three different formulations for professionals and DIYers in all markets
Cons
  • Premium performance comes at a higher price
  • Three different part numbers that share the same name can result in confusion
  • Highly flammable

About Our Hands-On Test and Review

Brake cleaner benefits are numerous, but not all brake parts cleaners are the same. Choosing between varieties can be like trying to decide between the 567 different kinds of toothpaste on the store shelf. State regulations and 50-state legal formulations add another layer of product confusion.

No matter which kind you choose, one good rule with brake cleaner is to always buy more than you think you’ll need. Having extra brake cleaner on hand is always good. 

We went one step beyond and picked up several different brands and types of brake cleaner, and put them to the test on a long-overdue front brake overhaul on our 1989 Mitsubishi Montero. Road salt, rust, and contamination had ruined the rotors, clogged up the brake pads, seized the caliper pins, and fused one of the pistons in place. 

Why Trust Us

Our reviews are driven by a combination of hands-on testing, expert input, “wisdom of the crowd” assessments from actual buyers, and our own expertise. We always aim to offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.

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Why You Need Brake Cleaner

  • Preventive Maintenance. Cleaning off your brake assemblies with a few squirts of brake cleaner helps stop problems before they start. Powerful cleaning agents remove dust and buildup that can cause rotor surface high spots and brake pedal shudder.
  • Liquifies brake dust. Brake pad dust can contain trace elements of harmful chemicals such as asbestos, cadmium, lead, chromium, and mercury. That's why you should never use compressed air to blow off brake dust. Brake cleaner liquefies and removes brake dust more safely. 
  • Removes grease and oils. Oils and lubricants can ruin all those new parts you bought. Brake cleaner eradicates oils in seconds and leaves no residue. Clean things up as they go back together to avoid premature brake problems. 

Types of Brake Cleaner

Chlorinated brake cleaner almost always wins against non-chlorinated blends. Since it’s also usually more expensive, we often grab a few cans of the good stuff and an armful of economy grade brake cleaner for the initial attack. The spent brake parts didn’t need to be super clean, and our Best Value winner Super Tech Non-Chlorinated Brake Cleaner dispatched brake dust in seconds flat. 

Higher grade non-chlorinated formulas performed better in our test — but were no match for the chlorinated champion. Here are the various types on the market:

Chlorinated Non-Flammable

Chlorinated brake cleaners contain powerful solvents like tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene or PERC), methylene chloride, and other organochlorines. This top-shelf heavy hitter cleans parts fast, dries quickly, and leaves no residue. Chlorinated brake cleaner is non-flammable, but it should only be used to clean cool parts; tetrachloroethylene can create deadly phosgene gas if it contacts surfaces above 315 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Non-Chlorinated Flammable

This type of brake cleaner is less potent but no less toxic than its chlorinated cousin and can take longer to dry. Non-chlorinated brake cleaners use a blend of hydrocarbon solvents and alcohols to get the job done. These blends can contain hexane, acetone, toluene, naphtha, benzene, xylene, and methanol. Most non-chlorinated brake cleaner ingredients are extremely flammable. Use caution. 

50-State Legal

Hydrocarbon VOC regulations vary by state; California and New Jersey regulations prohibit the use of perchloroethylene cleaners outright. This newer type of brake parts cleaner meets tighter state regulations on organochlorines and hydrocarbon volatile organic compounds, or VOC. Low VOC non-chlorinated brake cleaners make up the bulk of 50-state blends, but the product distinctions get blurry in some cases. 

Top Brands

CRC

Corrosion Reaction Consultants was founded in 1958 with CRC Corrosion Inhibitor as its only product. CRC has come a long way since that Pennsylvania garage served as company headquarters. Today, CRC manufactures over 1,300 specialty consumer and professional products for the automotive, marine, aviation, heavy truck, and electrical markets spanning the globe. 

3M

3M manufactures a wide range of products for the automotive industry and the aftermarket. 3M is a global supplier of adhesives and acoustic materials used to manufacture new cars and trucks and offers a comprehensive lineup of professional and consumer level tools, supplies, collision repair solutions from car care products like Scotch-Brite to its world-famous Bondo body filler. 

Brake Cleaner Pricing

  • Under $5: Many brake cleaners fall into this category, and you usually get what you pay for. It might seem counterintuitive to spend $4.95 for the same quantity as the $2.95 can, but more powerful formulas can get the job done with less.
  • $5-8: Stepping up with a few more bucks gets you a more effective product and more of it. Mid-range and premium brake cleaners often pack a powerful cleaning punch, a few more ounces in the can, and high volume spray nozzles for on-target success. 
  • Over $8: Brake cleaner prices vary wildly online. A single can that costs a few bucks at the local auto parts or big box store can list for crazy money online. Buying in bulk or by the case is an economical choice when ordering on the internet.

Key Brake Cleaner Features

Powerful Cleaning 

Cleaning is the essential feature of any brake cleaner, and different formulations affect overall performance. Perchloroethylene, or PERC, is the main ingredient in most chlorinated brake cleaners and is generally more effective than the hydrocarbon solvent and alcohol blends in non-chlorinated formulations. But it's not available in all 50 states.

Leaves No Trace

The smallest quantity of greasy film or oily residue on brake pads or rotors can cause significant problems down the road. The best brake cleaner blasts away layers of dusty debris, dries quickly, and leaves nothing behind. 

Other Considerations

  • Rules and Regulations: Brake cleaner formulations are changing to meet state and federal requirements. Conventional wisdom may not apply to newer formulas, so read the label and check out the Material Safety Data Sheet to make sure what you’re using. 
  • Deadly and Deadlier: Choosing between chlorinated and non-chlorinated brake cleaner is like choosing whether to fight a lion or a tiger. Both will kill you, most likely in different ways. Wear safety gear and live to wrench another day. 
  • Guns and Parts: Folks swear by brake cleaner to clean all sorts of parts and even guns, but that doesn’t mean you won’t swear at it. Chlorinated brake cleaner ingredients might be OK for other parts and guns, but non-chlorinated brake cleaner solvents can damage paint, plastics, and non-brake parts. 
  • Volume Price: Check the listed volume before purchase and determine the per ounce price before purchasing. A $5 can of high-quality chlorinated brake cleaner is often a better deal than a $2 can of less-effective, non-chlorinated brake cleaner.

Best Brake Cleaner Reviews & Recommendations 2021

Best Brake Cleaner Value: Buy-the-Case Edition

Online brake cleaner prices range from slightly pricey to downright ridiculous. Buying in bulk can bring costs down to far more reasonable levels. Buying by the case also reduces the possibility of a loose cap and wedged nozzle emptying the can in shipping.

We had good results with CarQuest

Wearever Non-Chlorinated Brake Cleaner; a 12-can case brought the per-can cost within pennies of the store's shelf price. Further, one can of 3M High Power Brake Cleaner might set you back a sawbuck online, but a 12-can case more than halves that. A 12-can case GUNK Non-Chlorinated Brake Cleaner also works out to substantial savings. 

Buying by the gallon is another option. One 5-gallon can of CRC Non-Chlorinated brake cleaner contains the equivalent of almost 46 14-ounce cans.

High pressure and high volume can add up to unexpected overspray. Protect painted and plastic surfaces and suit up in safety gear before using brake cleaner. Catch the leftover liquid in a shallow pan and reuse it to pre-clean super crusty nuts, bolts, and hardware. Finish clean with a few fresh shots., Mike Bumbeck

Brake Cleaners We Tested:

Brake Parts Cleaner Tips & Tricks

  • Safety first. Non-chlorinated, 50-State, or chlorinated – all brake cleaner is toxic and harmful to humans. Wear safety glasses, protective clothing, gloves, and a vapor mask. Work in a well-ventilated area and avoid sparks or flame. 
  • Save some money and the environment. Use a container and catch the runoff during your brake job. Dunk the extra grungy caliper bolts, rotor shields, and other parts in the runoff and pre-clean with a brush. Finish off the job with a few shots of fresh cleaner. 
  • Keep it cool. Never use brake cleaner on hot or even warm parts. Make sure all brake parts are cool to the touch before blasting them with brake cleaner. 
  • Brake cleaner is excellent for maintenance and brake inspection. Spray from the top down in quick bursts to remove crud and pad material buildup that can cause squeaks and chatter. Now that all the brake dust is gone, take a closer look. 
  • Manufacturers treat cast-iron brake rotors, drums, and some clutch parts with a rust-preventative coating before packaging. These coatings must be removed before installation. Brake cleaner removes these protective oils and leaves nothing behind.
  • Perchloroethylene or PERC was once widely used in the dry cleaning industry. Chlorinated brake cleaner that lists PERC as its main ingredient can remove clothing and carpet stains. Test in an inconspicuous area first and wash clothing after treatment. 
  • In no way whatsoever an approved usage, chlorinated non-flammable brake cleaner is an outstanding insect killer. One well-aimed shot instantly kills angry bald-faced hornets, stinging paper wasps, garage-eating flying pests, and the seemingly endless numbers of yellow jackets with more di-electric voltage than most hornet sprays. 
  • WARNING: Non-chlorinated brake cleaner does NOT instantly kill stinging insects. Moreover, it is extremely flammable. Hornets and yellow jackets will just get mad and sting you repeatedly while you set the garage on fire. 

Brake Cleaner FAQs

Q: Does brake cleaner harm brake pads and shoe linings?

No, not at all. Brake cleaner is a safe and effective brake pad and shoe lining cleaner. A few quick squirts of brake cleaner removes grease and accumulated crud that can damage brake pads and rotors. Brake cleaner also removes accidental grease and oil from new brake pads and shoes during installation. 

Q: Will brake cleaner damage paint? 

Yes. Some brake cleaners contain acetone, methylene chloride, and other solvents that damage paint. Acetone can damage some plastics. Chlorinated brake cleaner without methylene chloride might be OK, but it’s far better less expensive to play it safe. Protect all painted and plastic surfaces from brake cleaner overspray.

Q: Can I use brake cleaner to remove brake dust from my wheels?

A: Don’t do it. Most automotive wheels wear paint or a protective clear coat over the aluminum alloy. Chlorinated brake cleaners can contain paint-melting methylene chloride. Non-chlorinated brake cleaners are full of aggressive solvents and acetone that damage paint and plastics. Use hand dishwashing soap or wheel cleaner to clean your wheels. 

Q: Can I use brake cleaner on electrical parts and connectors?

No. Acetone and other brake cleaner chemicals can damage plastic connectors, wire insulation, internal electronic components, and even lift conductor traces off printed circuit boards. Use a dedicated electronic parts or electrical contact cleaner on all electrical parts and connectors. 

Q: Can I use WD40 as a brake cleaner?

No. Not now, not ever. For the thousandth time, no. Never spray WD40, lubricant, or lubricating cleaner on your brakes. Oils and greases of any kind will permanently damage your brake pads and rotors and result in a dangerous reduction in brake performance. Do not use WD40 on brakes. 

Q: Can I clean other parts with brake cleaner?

Yes and no. Brake cleaner is proven safe for brake parts or any parts shared with the brake system. Using brake cleaner to clean nuts and bolts, clips, hardware, or other metal parts is OK. Brake cleaner is also fine for cleaning clutch parts and clutch friction material dust.

Q: How do I dispose of used brake cleaner?

Use a metal catch tray or pan to collect the brake cleaner and let the excess liquid evaporate. Bonus: Grab a brush and reuse the leftover brake cleaner to pre-clean extra grungy nuts and bolts. Never pour used brake cleaner on the ground or into drains. 

Final Thoughts

Non-flammable chlorinated formulas like our best overall winner CRC Brakleen Non-Flammable Brake Cleaner are time-proven favorites. Pick it up by the case or the gallon if the law allows; you’ll save a bundle. Newer non-chlorinated blends are improving, but formulations and availability vary. Relatively new 50-state legal formulas blur longstanding distinctions between chlorinated non-flammable and non-chlorinated flammable types. 

Brake cleaner that meets VOC or CARB air quality standards is by no means less toxic to humans. The best way to determine what’s in your brake cleaner is to check its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) or Safety Data Sheet (SDS). The documents usually come with the product, or are easy to find by entering brand+product name+part number+MSDS or SDS into your favorite internet search engine. 

Brake cleaner is an essential tool, and many shadetree mechanics use it for a variety of uses. Still, the fact is the stuff comes an many, many types and varieties. The majority of them are harmful, toxic, and/or flammable. And most will ruin materials like paint and plastic. Before you mess with it, make absolutely certain you’re using the right product for your needs — and when using it, exercise extreme caution.

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