Is Brake Cleaner Safe on Rubber or Plastic?

As a car owner, you know the importance of keeping your vehicle well maintained. Part of regular maintenance involves cleaning components like brake pads, rotors, calipers and more. Brake cleaner is often the go-to product for removing grease, grime and brake dust quickly and effectively. However, this powerful solvent raises the question – should you be spraying it freely on rubber hoses or plastic parts?

The short answer is no. You need to exercise great caution when using brake cleaner around non-metal components. But why? What’s the science behind this concern? And what are some alternative options? This article will explore those questions so you can make informed decisions when using brake cleaner on your car.

Here’s a quick answer:

No, brake cleaner is generally not safe for use on rubber or plastic car components. The powerful chemicals like acetone and xylene can cause rubber to swell, crack, and leak over time. Plastics also risk damage through cracking, warping, melting, and discoloration when exposed to brake cleaner. Use extreme caution and test on small areas before spraying brake cleaner on any rubber or plastic car parts.

Why Brake Cleaner Can Damage Rubber and Plastic

Brake cleaner contains highly potent solvents like acetone, toluene and xylene. This chemical makeup is what gives brake cleaner its incredible grease-fighting capability. However, those same chemicals can wreak havoc on rubber and plastic. Specifically:

  • Rubber: The chemicals break down the oils in natural rubber components, causing them to harden and eventually crack. This leads to leaks in critical parts like hoses, gaskets and seals.
  • Plastic: Certain plastics dissolve when sprayed with brake cleaner, while others simply become brittle and discolored. More aggressive reactions involve warping or full-on melting. Yikes!

Neither scenario is good news for your vehicle’s systems and can lead to some unpleasant repair bills.

Not All Plastics Are Created Equal

Plastics vary wildly when it comes to chemical resistance. Some aftermarket parts are specifically engineered to withstand harsh solvents, while others practically melt at the sight of them!

Familiarize yourself with these common plastics and how they fare against brake cleaner:

  • EPDM rubber: Safe to use
  • Nitrile rubber: Avoid use
  • ABS plastic: Avoid use
  • PVC plastic: Avoid use
  • Polypropylene: Safe to use
  • Polyethylene: Safe to use

For a handy visual summary, take a look at this brake cleaner compatibility table:

MaterialSafe with Brake Cleaner?Notes
RubberNoCracking/deterioration
PlasticDependsTest first
MetalYesCompletely safe
PaintNoWill damage
GlassYesSafe

Clearly plastics fall into the “depends” category. The diverse properties mean you must identify the exact type of plastic on your car before spraying it with brake cleaner. Still unsure? Don’t take chances. Test on an inconspicuous area first and look for any damage after a few minutes.

Safer Alternatives to Brake Cleaner

The good news is several suitable brake cleaner alternatives exist which are safe on plastic and rubber:

  • Degreaser – Use an automotive-specific degreaser for moderate grime removal
  • Soap and water – Tackle light grease with good old soap and water
  • Parts cleaner – Great for components not requiring brake cleaner’s intensive solvents

Sure, the above won’t blast grime away quite as aggressively. But they still get the job done without risk of component damage. For most DIYers, a degreaser offers the best middle ground of cleaning power vs component safety.

Stay Safe When Using Brake Cleaner

Sometimes you really do need hardcore brake cleaner to finish the task at hand. If you decide to use it, protect yourself with these essential tips:

  • Wear nitrile gloves and safety glasses
  • Only use in well-ventilated areas
  • Never spray near electrical components
  • Clean spills ASAP to avoid paint/surface damage
  • Dispose of brake cleaner responsibly after use

Exercising reasonable care goes a long way to preventing harm when using heavy solvents. Remain in ventilated areas so you don’t inhale dangerous fumes. Protect your eyes and skin from accidental contact. And never spray willy-nilly near plastic trim pieces or rubber hoses!

Choose the Right Cleaning Tool

As with any maintenance job, selecting the proper tool is paramount – and brake cleaner is rarely the ideal all-purpose choice some assume it to be. Before grabbing that familiar red can, consider the job at hand. Will a less aggressive cleaner work instead? Does my car contain plastic or rubber components vulnerable to brake cleaner damage?

Asking these simple questions will guide you to make smart cleaning choices. Sometimes it is brake cleaner. Other times, an alternative cleaner gets the same results without unnecessary risk. Protecting your vehicle starts with having the right cleaning tools handy for different scenarios.

The Takeaway on Brake Cleaner Use

In your ongoing quest to keep your car’s parts meticulously clean, brake cleaner seems like an easy one-stop solution. Unfortunately, its incredibly harsh solvent makeup can wreak havoc on vulnerable car components like rubber and some plastics. Always identify materials first before spraying them down with brake cleaner. Consider gentler alternatives like degreasers too.

And if brake cleaner is absolutely necessary? Use with extreme care alongside proper protective gear. Respect the product, and your vehicle’s many parts will thank you!

FAQ

1. Is it okay to use brake cleaner on plastic interior pieces like dashboards or trim?

No, brake cleaner can damage many interior plastics by causing discoloration, cracking, or melting. Use an interior cleaner instead.

2. What about cleaning rubber hoses under the hood with brake cleaner?

Avoid this. The chemicals in brake cleaner break down rubber components over time, leading to leaks and cracking. Use a degreaser designed for hoses instead.

3. Can I spray brake cleaner on plastic headlight covers if they are cloudy?

Do not spray directly on plastic headlight covers as it can severely damage them. Use a DIY headlight restoration kit specifically made for cloudy plastic covers instead.

4. Is it safe to clean wheels made of plastic composite materials with brake cleaner?

Generally no – brake cleaner dripped on plastic composite wheels can stain them and make visual imperfections like scratches more pronounced over time. Rinse wheels first before using a cleaner made for wheels.

5. What are the signs of damage if I accidentally got brake cleaner on a plastic or rubber part?

Signs include visible discoloration, soft spongy feeling, cracking, leaking fluids, melting, warping, peeling or bubbling on the surface. If you notice any of these, replace damaged parts immediately.

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