Best Brake Cleaners: Extend The Life of Your Brakes

Everything you need to know about the best brake cleaners in one handy guide.

mechanic spray chemical to clean brake
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Cleaning your own brakes can be a simple task, provided you have the right tools, knowledge, and safety equipment. Here you’ll find a quick reference guide to brake cleaners, including how to use them safely and properly. We’ll name our top picks for the best brake cleaners and point you in the right direction to get both spotless brakes and a better braking system. 

Best Brake Cleaner Overall: 3M High Power Brake Cleaner
Best Brake Cleaner Value: CRC Brakleen Brake Parts Cleaner
Best Brake Cleaner Honorable Mention: Permatex Non-chlorinated Brake Parts Cleaner

Why Buy Brake Cleaner

  • Extend the life of your brakes. Decelerating in a car is just as important as accelerating. If you’re still saving up for that brake replacement job at your local garage, use a brake cleaner in the meantime to remove harmful debris that can shorten the brakes’ lifespan. Like your car, sometimes, your brakes just need a good rinse.
  • Fix brake squeals and other noises. Small rocks and pebbles may lodge in your brakes and create a high-pitched whine every time you stop. Clean the debris from your brakes to prevent any further unwanted sounds and to help your car stop more efficiently and effectively. 
  • Spruce your car up before you sell it. While brake cleaners should never be used on paint, plastic, or rubber surfaces, you can use them to remove stains from the carpets. Removing old brake dust from the brake components can also show others you’ve taken care of your vehicle as well.
  • Remove brake dust buildup on your wheels. It has been said that we purchase with our eyes. Give your car a visual lift by removing the unsightly black brake dust that can discolor wheels over time. You might need a scouring pad to break the oldest contaminants free.   

Types of Brake Cleaner

Have you ever wondered what’s in brake cleaner? Here’s a breakdown of the different types, no chemical engineering degree required.

Chlorinated

Most of us have experienced chlorine whenever we’ve taken a dip in the pool, but the chlorine found in brake cleaner isn’t quite so friendly. Chlorinated brake cleaner contains chemicals, known as Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs, that allow the cleaner to break down numerous forms of debris. These compounds, as you might imagine, are harmful to your health. When using chlorinated brake cleaner, be sure to use proper safety equipment such as gloves and eye protection.

Non-chlorinated

While they may be a more environmentally-friendly type of brake cleaner, non-chlorinated cleaners can still be detrimental to your health. Non-chlorinated brake cleaners contain chemicals known as “low-toxicity petroleum hydrocarbons,” such as the acetone found in drugstore nail polish cleaner. Just like nail polish cleaner, non-chlorinated brake cleaners tend to evaporate more slowly than chlorinated cleaners.  

Flammable

The other important factor to remember when purchasing and using brake cleaners is that non-chlorinated variants are flammable. It’s actually the heptane and n-hexane that make this type of brake cleaner reactant to flames. Burning oil is never a good sign. If you’re concerned about a potential fire hazard, it’s best to stay away from flammable brake cleaners.  

Non-flammable

Chlorinated brake cleaners are non-flammable. Though the chemicals that comprise this type of brake cleaner are still a danger to human health, they’re not a fire hazard. In fact, even the carbon dioxide used to propel brake cleaners is non-flammable, which is true for flammable brake cleaners as well.

Top Brands

Gunk

Founded by a wrenching family based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, Gunk has been in the automotive business for over 75 years. Their products are geared towards the do-it-yourself mechanic who takes car maintenance into their own hands. Gunk’s brake and parts cleaner is non-chlorinated and affordable in both single cans and full cases.  

CRC Brakleen

CRC Industries just celebrated its 60th anniversary. Operating from their global headquarters in Pennsylvania, CRC Industries creates a solution for everything from automotive and marine applications to metalworking and production. If you’re looking for an alternative to CRC Brakleen's chlorinated cleaners, try a non-chlorinated version instead.

Throttle Muscle

The Throttle Muscle family partnered with the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) to open its doors in 2012. You can find their headquarters in Santa Maria, California. Check out their 50-State-Compliant Non-chlorinated brake cleaner if you’re not a fan of our top picks above.

MAG 1

A sub-brand of Warren Distribution, MAG 1 serves North America and a number of other countries as well. Try the MAG 1 Premium Non-chlorinated brake parts cleaner to see what this company has to offer.

Brake Cleaner Pricing

  • Less than $3: Considered the starting price point for brake cleaners, $3 or less is where you’ll find the weak and watered-down options. Paying $3 for a can of soda might seem outrageous, but it might clean better than most brake cleaners at this level. We recommend you avoid this price range if quality matters. 
  • $4-$6: As with any cleaning product, spending a few extra dollars can both improve the results and decrease your elbow grease output. Most brake cleaners of decent quality will cost about $4 to $6 per can. Chlorinated/non-chlorinated and non-flammable/flammable options make up this price range. 
  • $6-$10: You’ll find top name brands like 3M here. If you’re working on a budget where every dollar counts, stick with this range. Otherwise, it’s worth it to spend a bit more for better quality. 
  • $25-$35: If you’re someone who uses brake cleaner on a consistent basis, check into buying in bulk. You’ll typically find cases of average-grade brake cleaner in this price range.

Key Features

Chemical Makeup

Most manufacturers will differentiate their brake cleaners based on both chemical makeup and flammability. Remember, chlorinated brake cleaners are non-flammable, while non-chlorinated cleaners are flammable. You should wear the proper safety equipment while using both kinds of brake cleaners, but check that you’ve selected your desired type before making your purchase.

Precision Straw

Brake cleaner spray isn’t something you want to apply liberally in every direction. Having a precision straw will help to pinpoint the areas you want to spray, while avoiding those you don’t. Most brake cleaners will come with a short, often red, straw attached directly to the side of the brake cleaner can. However, manufacturers might not always advertise if this straw is included or not, so ask if you’re not sure.

Bottle Size

It may seem like a negligible factor in your purchasing decision, but choosing a slimmer bottle of brake cleaner may help you reach into those tight areas with greater ease and improve your grip on the can as well. By the same token, compare the quantity and price of the brake cleaners you’re considering. How much does each ounce of brake cleaner cost from one brand to another?  

Nozzle Size

Again, it might not be a dealbreaker for you, but choosing a larger nozzle size will help your pointer finger fatigue less quickly. Considering how careful you need to be with brake cleaner around painted, rubberized, and plastic surfaces, having a better grip on the nozzle is important.  

Other Considerations  

  • Disposal. Like motor oil, coolant, and a number of other harmful automotive substances, brake cleaner must be properly disposed. It’s a good idea to purchase a large pan to catch the brake cleaner runoff and to clean your brake parts. Just as brake cleaner will evaporate after a few seconds once it is sprayed out of the can, it will eventually evaporate from the catch-all pan. Never pour brake cleaner down the drain.
  • VOC content. Some states do not allow certain brake cleaners based on the product’s Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) content. Many manufacturers will list the states in which their products cannot be sold, but it’s always best to check with your local government before making a purchase, especially online.    

Best Brake Cleaners Reviews & Recommendations 2019

Best Brake Cleaner Overall: 3M High-Power Brake Cleaner

3M high power brake cleaner
Amazon

3M is a brand well-known in the automotive industry and has a variety of useful products. We chose the high-power brake cleaner as best overall for its multi-purpose formula, price point, and cleaning action. This brake cleaner is non-chlorinated and leaves no residue.

The high-pressure flushing action of 3M’s brake cleaner is what sets it apart from the rest. The brake cleaner itself dries quickly to leave no residue. Because it is non-chlorinated, you won’t have to deal with an unpleasant odor, and the included precision straw makes targeting small, hard-to-reach areas an easy task. It’s still a good idea to avoid plastics and paints, but the multipurpose formula is designed to dissolve contaminants like dirt, oil, grease, tar, etc.

Admittedly, the 3M brake cleaner we’ve chosen is a bit pricier than most, but it’s still relatively affordable when compared to other brands. Like most, if not all the brake cleaners we’ve chosen, 3M’s brake cleaner is ideal for anyone looking to clean their brakes quickly and efficiently.

Best Brake Cleaner Value: CRC Brakleen Brake Parts Cleaner

CRC Brakleen brake parts cleaner
Amazon

Widely available from a number of retailers, CRC Brakleen’s brake parts cleaner evaporates quickly even as it dissolves the toughest grit and grime. This brake cleaner can be used on a variety of brake parts, along with many different tools and machines. 

Depending on where you purchase the cleaner, it lands somewhere in the middle of our price range segments. Though it doesn’t have the brand recognition of others, many consider it a close second to more expensive options. Because it is non-flammable, you won’t have to worry about disassembling your brakes to clean them. We chose the chlorinated version for our best value pick, but CRC Industries also offers a non-chlorinated variant for a comparable price.

You might find the chlorine smell to be a bit strong if you choose the CRC Brakleen brake parts cleaner, but otherwise the solution is easy to use for all experience levels. The red and green labels used by CRC Industries make it easy to determine which type of brake cleaner you’re purchasing as well, so recognizing a can on the shelf is a simple task.

Best Brake Cleaner Honorable Mention: Permatex Non-chlorinated Brake Parts Cleaner

Permatex brake and parts cleaner
Amazon

Permatex’s non-chlorinated brake cleaner might not top our list, but it’s still an option you should consider. Like others, it comes with a precision straw that allows for pinpointed use in tight areas. It can be found in a variety of stores, both locally and online. 

Permatex brake cleaner has a variety of uses, from cleaning brake systems to scrubbing CV joints, tools, farm equipment, and many types of machinery. The aluminum-safe formula leaves no residue and creates little to no runoff during use. 

Permatex is perhaps a brand you’d only purchase on sale. Its cleaner, however, is something almost anyone can use, especially given the included precision straw. The non-chlorinated formula won’t give off a sharp smell, but it’s still a flammable substance, so proper precautions should be taken before, during, and after use.

Tips/Advice

Here are a few tips and guidelines to keep in mind when using brake cleaners:

  • Purchase one more can of brake cleaner than you think you’ll need. If you need it, it’s on hand and ready to go.
  • When purchasing brake cleaner, stick with one brand to use for the entire job. You never know if multiple brake cleaners will react to one another, especially if you mix chlorinated and non-chlorinated formulas. If you don’t like the brand you chose, purchase a different kind next time. 
  • Add shop towels to your list. Having them will help you remove any stubborn residue or buildup on your brake parts—and quickly remove brake cleaner if it happens to get on paint, rubber, or plastic components.   
  • If you’re not sure if you can use brake cleaner on a specific part, read the instructions printed on the can. 
  • Invest in automotive tape and/or plastic to cover painted, rubberized, and plastic areas. It might feel like a hassle, but it’s a good idea that will protect the overall value of your vehicle. Once brake cleaner is atomized, there’s no telling where it may end up. Once the damage is done, it’s very hard to combat the long-term effects. 
  • Gloves, eye protection, and a well-ventilated working space are essential to proper and safe use of brake cleaner. Avoid skin contact whenever possible and wear clothes you don’t care about damaging. Chlorinated brake cleaners can stain and non-chlorinated cleaners are still flammable.

Brake Cleaner FAQs

Q: How should I store brake cleaner?

A: Because it’s pressurized and, for some variants, flammable, brake cleaner of any type should be stored away from heat and moisture. Under the sink is a good place to keep your unused brake cleaner, but the garage is probably your best option. Make sure to keep the cap to protect the nozzle and to prevent it from spraying when you don’t want it to.

Q: What should I do with leftover brake cleaner?

A: You have a few choices here: You can keep it for another day, give it to a friend if they need it, or dispose of it properly. Never attempt to dispose of the brake cleaner by spraying it down a drain or compacting it since the can may still be pressurized.

Q: How long is brake cleaner good for?

A: We don't recommend using brake cleaner that is more than a few years old. Shaking the can and testing the remaining cleaner on a piece of scrap is the best way to determine if the brake cleaner is still good or not.  

Q: What brake problems will brake cleaner reduce/fix?

A: Squeaking and squealing brakes can often be fixed with brake cleaner. Buildup of debris and contamination can be reduced when the brakes are cleaned as well. If your brake pads contact the rotors more efficiently, you may even increase your stopping ability.

Final Thoughts

We named the 3M High-Power Brake Cleaner the best overall for its multipurpose formula and the included precision straw, all at one affordable price point. 

We found the best value, however, in CRC Brakleen’s Brake Parts Cleaner. Readily available in both chlorinated and non-chlorinated formulas, it’s a great option for any budget.

Share your top brake cleaner picks in the comments below.