Carb Cleaner vs. Brake Cleaner: What’s the Difference?

Carb cleaner is used to clean carburetors and leaves behind an oily residue, while brake cleaner does not leave residue and can be used to clean most vehicle components.
Written by Andrew Biro
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
As you can probably guess, the main difference between carburetor cleaner and brake cleaner is that the former is designed to clean carburetors, whereas the latter is used to clean brakes—the other important distinction, however, is that carb cleaner leaves behind an oily residue while brake cleaner leaves no residue whatsoever.
Over the course of owning a vehicle, your brakes and your carburetor—if you have one—will get dirty and accumulate grime. If you intend to clean them yourself, you’ll likely run across two types of cleaners: carb cleaner and brake cleaner.
Knowing when to use which cleaner—as well as what sets them apart—will help save you time and money in the long run. That’s why
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Carb Cleaner vs. Brake Cleaner: What’s the difference?

Aside from the obvious—that carb cleaner is used for cleaning carburetors and brake cleaner for cleaning brakes—the main difference between the two is their ingredients, or more specifically, their oil content.
By definition, brake cleaner cannot include any sort of oil, as it would leave behind residue. In contrast, carb cleaner may contain oil and usually leaves residue behind after it dries. This distinction is important because residue can prevent your brakes from operating properly.
Another difference—albeit much lesser—is the versatility of brake cleaner when compared to carb cleaner. You can use brake cleaner to clean various mechanical parts, but carb cleaner is only suitable for cleaning carburetors and other small engines like lawnmowers and snowblowers.

What is carburetor cleaner?

Carburetor cleaner is a petroleum or oil-based cleaning solution designed to rid your vehicle’s carburetor of sludge, gunk, and varnish without damaging its gaskets or other delicate parts.
Carburetor cleaner is usually sold as a spray-on aerosol containing the following ingredients: acetone, methanol, ethyl benzene, toluene, and carbon dioxide—all of which help break down the varnish deposits that accumulate within the carburetor.
Of course, keeping your carburetor clean isn’t something you need to worry about if you own a vehicle built after 1995, as the carburetor itself was phased out during the early 1990s in favor of the fuel-injection system all modern automobiles now use.

What is brake cleaner?

Brake cleaner—sometimes referred to simply as “parts cleaner”—is a powerful cleaning agent used primarily for cleaning the brake discs and other brake system components, but you can also use it to clean various car parts.
Since it is designed specifically for use on brake parts, brake cleaner is oil-free and does not leave behind residue after it dries, which helps prevent your brake pads from sticking or grabbing.
It’s important to note, however, that not all brake cleaners have the same chemical makeup—some brake cleaners contain chlorine while others do not, which changes their qualities in a few notable ways. In any case, you should always wear gloves when using brake cleaner to avoid direct contact with the skin.

Chlorinated brake cleaner

As the name suggests, chlorinated brake cleaner contains chlorine, or rather, chemicals containing chlorinated atoms that help increase the solvent properties of the cleaner, allowing it to cut through grime, caked-on brake dust, and old brake-fluid build-up with ease. This brake cleaner has been around the longest and is usually the preferred option in machine shops, but it also has a higher toxicity than its non-chlorinated counterpart.
Chlorinated brake cleaner is popular because its chlorinated solvents—such as methylene chloride or tetrachloroethylene—make this product extraordinarily fast-drying and non-flammable.

Non-chlorinated brake cleaner

Non-chlorinated brake cleaner, on the other hand, does not contain chlorinated solvents—instead, hydrocarbon solvents—which means it is flammable and does not dry nearly as fast as chlorinated brake cleaner.
This absence of chlorine, however, does not drastically impact the ability to cut through dirt and grime, and you can still use non-chlorinated brake cleaner to clean most metallic surfaces.
It is a common misconception that non-chlorinated brake cleaner is non-toxic or more environmentally-friendly than chlorinated brake cleaner—this isn’t true. Despite nixing the chlorinated solvents, non-chlorinated brake cleaners still contain heavy chemicals like heptane, isopropyl alcohol, acetone, and toluene.
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Can you substitute carb cleaner for brake cleaner?

No, you cannot—carb cleaner should never be used interchangeably with brake cleaner because there is no guarantee that it doesn’t contain oil and won’t leave behind residue. If oily residue gets on your brake pads, it can lead to “brake grabbing,”. This is when the pads improperly latch onto the brake rotors, impeding your vehicle’s ability to stop.

Should you use carb cleaner or brake cleaner?

Generally speaking, you should only ever use carb cleaner to clean your carburetor (if your vehicle has one), whereas you can use brake cleaner to clean your brakes and many other mechanical components. Of course, that’s not to say that you couldn’t use carb cleaner to clean other parts, but there’s no reason to when brake cleaner and other specialized cleaners exist.
That said, there are a few instances where you shouldn’t use brake cleaner as a multi-purpose cleaning agent, including:
  • When the surface is going to be welded or otherwise exposed to very high temperatures—the extreme heat can cause the chemicals in (non-chlorinated) brake cleaner to burn, making them even more toxic
  • When cleaning rubber, plastic, or painted surfaces—some of the harsh chemicals in brake cleaner can damage these materials
In either of these cases, you’d be better off using a non-toxic or weaker cleaning agent to eliminate any lingering dirt or grime.

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Keeping your carburetor and brakes clean is one of the easiest ways to ensure your safety while driving. A healthy car is a safer car, which reduces the likelihood of getting into a costly accident.
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Most carb cleaners have a chemical makeup that includes such chemicals as carbon dioxide, toluene, ethyl benzene, acetone, methanol, xylene, methyl ethyl ketone, and propane. These ingredients can be harmful if inhaled—a real concern seeing as carb cleaner is sold as an aerosol—and can irritate the skin.
Sometimes the obvious answer really is the correct one, as the best use for brake cleaner is going to be—you guessed it—cleaning brakes. Of course, you can also use brake cleaner to clean other objects, such as various underbody or engine parts, but it was specifically designed with your brakes in mind.
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