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Carb Cleaner vs. Brake Cleaner – Which Should You Be Using?

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In the automotive world, messes happen. Cars can be a dirty business when it comes to performing repairs and maintenance work. So, most mechanics try to keep the best cleaning solutions on-hand when things get grimy.

Two of the most common cleaning solutions on the market are carburetor cleaner and brake cleaner. Now, although their names suggest they are cleaning solutions for specific parts, both of these items can be used to universally clean other parts effectively.

carb cleaner vs brake cleaner
Photo by Chris E.

Carb cleaner vs. brake cleaner, which is better? Brake cleaner is the superior cleaning solution. It can be used to clean brakes along with many other parts, where carb cleaner cannot. Carb cleaner would damage the brakes and potentially hinder the vehicle’s stopping ability. Carb cleaner also leaves a residue when used for cleaning purposes, where brake cleaner leaves surfaces without a residue and has a faster drying time. 

Using a carburetor cleaning solution on brake pads and rotors is not an option. It has an oil base, which would lead to contamination and brake pad “grabbing.” Meaning it would latch onto the brake rotors improperly and affect vehicle stoppage.

Carb cleaner is also an oil-based solution, whereas brake cleaner is not and comes in either a chlorinated solution or a non-chlorinated solution. This is an important distinction to note, which we will discuss.

Carburetor Cleaner

The most important note to make when it comes to using carb cleaner is to never use the solution on a painted surface. The paint will come right off.

So, unless you’re looking to do some paint removal, user beware. The solution does a great job of cleaning parts with oil, dirt, grime, and anything else that is causing things to become unclean. 

cleaning car engine

A differentiation between carb cleaner and brake cleaner is that the carb cleaner tends to leave a residue. Some mechanics may not be as concerned with this aspect of the cleaner, whereas others are a little more meticulous about it and want no residue left. 

Initially, the solution was created to clean the carburetors of older vehicles. The carburetor is the part of the car that mixes fuel and air into the internal combustion chamber, thus causing the ignition power behind the vehicle. Over time the particles created would leave deposits all over the inside of the chamber that would have to be cleaned. So, a mixture of potent chemicals was created to remove the particles for proper carburetor function.

Once the proper combination of chemicals was discovered, it was realized that the fluid could be used to clean other parts as well. As long as it was done in a safe manner, as the chemicals can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Carb cleaner is a mix of Acetone, Xylene, Toluene, Methyl Ethyl Ketone, Ethyl Benzene, 2-Butoxyethanol, and propane. So, one can adopt an idea as to why the mixture must be handled with proper care.

Brake Cleaner

cleaning car brakes

Brake cleaner (like carb cleaner) was formulated with a specific purpose. It was created to ensure that brake pads and rotors stayed clean to promote proper function.

But what was discovered is that the solution can be used to effectively clean other parts. One of the characteristics that we have mentioned is brake cleaner does not leave a residue.

So, not only does it do a great job of cleaning off the dirt, grime, and oil, but it leaves nothing behind. Plenty of mechanics and drivers who work on their own cars prefer brake cleaner over carb cleaner for this reason.

What’s amazing about brake cleaner is that when it’s used for its typical purpose, it only has to be sprayed from the can onto the moving parts of the brake system. It cleans so well and cuts through any dirtiness that the chemical compound eats right through.

It also dries quickly, so the car is ready to be driven again a short time after it’s applied to the brakes.

Outside of its primary purpose, brake cleaner does a great job of getting rid of dirt, grime, oil, and other deposits just like carb cleaner does. But it also comes in two distinct types, which are important to take note of as one is safer than the other. 

Chlorinated Brake Cleaner

The first type that was mentioned is chlorinated brake cleaner, which contains Tetrachloroethylene.

If not handled properly and in a safe manner, this type of brake cleaner can be dangerous.

So, a person who has never used it before may need the proper supervision or be advised on its proper use.

Of the two types of brake cleaning solutions, this is the more effective of the two due to the powerful mix of chemicals. The combination of these ingredients boosts the solvent properties of these products, which increases its ability to clean.

Some areas have actually banned the use of such solvents due to their damaging nature if not handled properly.

Non-chlorinated Brake Cleaner

cleaning open car brakes

Although chlorinated brake cleaner is considered to be the more effective of the two, non-chlorinated brake cleaner is also effective.

This also does not make it “safe” or environmentally friendly.

These cleaners also need to be handled with proper care and used in a safe manner. Sometimes the alternate products used in these solutions can be just as toxic.

But the ability to provide an ample cleaning solution has not been lost. One of the more notable differences between the two is that a non-chlorinated cleaner is not a fast-drying solution.

So, a mechanic who isn’t in a rush to get a car back on the road will still find these solutions useful. And for anyone cleaning parts or surfaces other than brakes use non-chlorinated solutions all the time. But user beware, the non-chlorinated solutions are typically flammable.

Brake cleaner is always going to be effective, whether cleaning brakes or otherwise. And even though there are some differences between the chlorinated and non-chlorinated versions, they both serve the same purpose in the end. It all boils down to how meticulous a mechanic wants to be and how quickly they need their product to dry.

Cleaning Rubbers & Plastics

One of the unique properties that also serves to leave brake cleaner as the better option is its ability to clean plastic parts and surfaces. Especially non-chlorinated brake cleaners.

These products typically do not include acetone, which will eat through plastic. So, they’re typically safe.

Some can also be used on rubber, but again make sure no acetone is present. Rubber car parts such as brake lines contain a wax membrane over the outer surface. Anything that can eat through that wax will ultimately eat through the rubber over time as well.

Play It Safe

Using the products we have mentioned in a safe, secure manner is a top priority. Many of the different solutions that have been formulated for motor vehicles are a mix of potentially dangerous chemicals that must be handled with extreme care, or injuries can happen. 

All the different lubrication, fluids, and other concoctions for vehicles are unique. They have a special purpose, and sometimes it’s not so easy to get parts clean when they end up covered in these liquids. Not to mention other types of dirt and grime that end up dirtying up vehicle parts. And with unique motor fluids along with the grime build-up that can happen, a unique product must be utilized to properly clean parts. We’ve gone over some great options for performing the task, just always be sure to handle with care.


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