With different kinds of auto-cleaners seemingly doing the same job, which can be used interchangeably?
Grime, gunk and grease. No matter what your car, you’re bound to have to tackle some of these sticky, unsightly substances— especially if you’re ever looking for that perfect showroom-finish engine bay.
In fact, it’s not just under your hood—hard to clean areas under wheel wells, around suspension components and pretty much anywhere else that has a remote link to being mechanical will, over time, get caked in layers upon layers of dirt. If you’ve tried using soap and water, only to find your efforts at removal futile, maybe it’s time you called in the big guns: specialist cleaning sprays.
But, not all of these sprays were created equal. At your local auto parts store, you're likely to be confronted with a barrage of bewildering options. It would appear that a specialist cleaner exists for just about every part of a car—even those not on show!
Is there a significant advantage to each of these different cleaners? Is it all just marketing hype? Do you really need to shell out extra? To find out, let’s take a look at three of the most commonly found specialized auto-part cleaners in the market.
Three’s a Crowd: Brake Cleaner vs Carb Cleaner vs Throttle-Body Cleaner
The three most common forms of automotive-part cleaner are brake cleaner, carburetor cleaner and throttle-body cleaner. While they do mostly the same function (clean grime off of car parts) there are a few key differences worth exploring below.
Brake, Carb and Throttle Body Cleaners at a Glance
Cutting through grime quickly and easily with minimum effort.
Cleaning grease with little-to-medium effort.
Cleaning sensitive parts of a car’s engine or electronics.
Unpainted surfaces, plastics, rubber gaskets and O-rings.
Cleaning brakes or areas that require friction.
Cutting through stubborn dirt and grime.
Quick-drying, powerful dirt-busting formula.
Milder composition and less offensive odor
Safe to use on sensitive areas of a car, such as coated parts.
Best Alternate Uses
Degreasing exterior engine parts (outside of engine block) and suspension components.
Cleaning components that include rubber and plastic, such as items of trim, or under-hood hoses.
Best used on sensitive areas that have electronic contact points but are dirty, such as the exterior housings or sensors.
What is Brake Cleaner
Brake Cleaner is great for ensuring your car's drums, pads and discs are as clean as a whistle. But it's a great cleaner for a multitude of other uses as well. It's great on metal parts and is guaranteed to be either oil-free or without the risk of leaving an oily residue. It also dries within a few seconds thanks to its alcohol base, which makes it great for cleaning and identifying suspected leak points.
But it’s not recommended for everything. While fine on unpainted metal surfaces, due to its aggressive nature, brake cleaner isn’t recommended for painted ones. You run the risk of damage if brake cleaner residue is left on any painted surface for too long. And, although it depends on the specific brand of cleaner used, some have been known to cause damage to plastics and rubbers.
Check the warnings on any can of brake cleaner before use. By nature, they can be harmful to your lungs, and breathing them in can lead to serious concerns. If using liberally then consider using a respirator or other form of PPE. It is also not recommended to clean any engine parts with brake cleaner; if combusted, the resultant fumes emitted from the tailpipe can be toxic.
What is Carb Cleaner
Just as the name implies, carb cleaner is for that: cleaning carburetors. Carburetors are found on older non-fuel injected vehicles. They combine fuel and air before combustion, but can commonly become clogged requiring specialist cleaning.
Carb cleaner is differentiated from brake cleaner by being oil-based as opposed to alcohol-based. This means that it will not evaporate as quickly. It also means that a degree of oily residue is expected to be left over, making it unsuitable for cleaning parts that require friction to work at optimum—for instance, brakes. If you were to use carb cleaner on your brakes it could lead to grabbing, squeaking and even reduced stopping power.
That said, though not as aggressive as brake cleaner, it remains a great option for cutting through common dirt and grease. In many cases, it may be the safer option, although accumulated dirt would likely require some agitation before rinsing or wiping it away.
What is Throttle-Body Cleaner
A throttle-body is a valve on modern fuel-injected cars that controls the amount of air taken in pre-combustion. As such it’s common for it to get dirty, and a specialized spray will help you clean it.
While largely similar to carburetor cleaner, there’s one vital difference in the chemical composition. Modern throttle bodies are lined with a coating that prevents the buildup of oil and other deposits. This coating, however, can be easily stripped if using the wrong chemicals. Brake cleaner and some carb cleaners are just too strong to be used on throttle bodies.
In addition to this, throttle bodies and the related ancillaries surrounding them often have electronic sensors. Using the wrong type of chemicals can damage delicate sensors beyond repair, leading to expensive replacement parts.
With all of that in mind, of the three auto-part cleaners listed here, a throttle-body cleaner is often considered the mildest cleaning agent. It may cut through a degree of grease and grime, but will not be as effective as carb cleaner nor brake cleaner.
In conclusion, yes, there’s certainly a degree of interchangeability when it comes to auto-part cleaners. But it’s not as straightforward as you may have initially thought. But, if you use care and common sense, you can easily choose the right product or products for the task at hand, without having to worry about the consequences.