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Got Black Stuff On Your Rims? Understanding & Removing Brake Dust from Wheels

By Tire Agent Staff

May 10, 2023


Cleaned your car recently? Your wheels and tires are the closest things to the road, so odds are they’re probably the dirtiest part of your vehicle. For this reason, it’s usually best to hand-clean rims with soapy water and a microfiber towel.  

During cleaning, you may have noticed dark dust around the spokes of your wheels that is tougher to get off. This is called brake dust. Good news: It’s completely normal. Bad news: it can damage your wheel finish. 

So what is brake dust? What can and should you do about this? What’s the best way to prevent brake dust from damaging your rims?  

Brake Dust: What is it? How do I Clean it Off?

When you press the brake pedal on your car, a brake pad clamps down on the rotor disc of your vehicle. This rotor is attached to the wheel hub that connects to your wheel. The friction of the brake pad contacting the rotor will cause it to slow down and stop spinning. For this reason, the brake pad is made up of a variety of soft semi-metallic materials that are designed not to damage your wheel rotor. 

If you’ve owned a car for an extended period of time, you know that your brake pads have to be regularly replaced every 10,000 to 20,000 miles, although some can last 30,000 or more miles. This is because that friction will slowly wear down your brake pad over time. If you're a hard braker, you'll replace brake pads more often. If you allow yourself a longer braking distance and don't slam on your brakes often, you'll better extend the life of your brakes. 

A byproduct of the brake pad wearing down is small pieces of steel fiber scratching off when you press the brake pedal. This “debris” from the brake pad contacting the rotor is incredibly hot due to friction. This hot debris will sometimes land on your wheel and adhere to the outside finish, creating black dust that’s a bit more difficult to clean off. 

Cleaning brake dust is a matter of having the right tools for the job. Before you start, make sure your wheels are cool. Then, rinse off your wheels with a high-pressure water hose. If there’s still brake dust on your wheels, you’ll need to scrub it down. The longer you go between washings, the more the brake dust build up, so make this a regular part of your car-washing routine. 

If you have aftermarket rims that have a special finish, such as chrome or powder coat paint, follow the manufacturers' directions for cleaning solutions. 

To do this, you’ll need some wheel cleaner, a soft brush, and a washcloth or mitt. Don’t use any strong chemicals as those will damage your wheel’s finish. Ideally, find some spray-on wheel cleaner that’s designed to get rid of dirt, grime, and brake dust. Then use your wheel brush to gently scrub the dust off your wheel. Don’t use a steel-bristle brush because that will scratch your wheels. After you’ve scrubbed the dust free, wipe it down with your washcloth and rinse again to remove any excess grime. 

Is Brake Dust Bad?

Brake dust is a normal byproduct of pressing the brakes on your vehicle. Some amount of brake dust on your wheels is completely normal. But, brake dust can be corrosive and can cause damage to parts of your vehicle if not regularly and properly cleaned. 

Chrome rims, in particular, are susceptible to damage by brake dust. A chrome coating is strong and resistant to damage and corrosion, but it’s also very soft. Hot brake dust can burn into chrome wheel finishes and create vulnerable areas for your rim to start corroding. Check out our article on caring for chrome rims to learn how to deal with brake dust on chrome. 

Regardless of your wheel finish, if you’re noticing a buildup of dust on your wheels or haven’t washed off your wheel in a while, it means it's time to clean it to prevent worse damage. 

During your cleaning, brake dust should be about the same across all tires that have brake pads attached. Most cars have 4 brake pads, so the dust should be about the same on all 4 wheels. That said, look for significantly more brake dust on one wheel compared to the others. That’s a sign that a brake pad, rotor, or brake drum has a serious problem, and it's time to call your auto shop.

If you have excessive brake dust on your front wheels, take your vehicle to an auto professional and ask them to check your brake rotors. 


Can You Prevent Brake Dust?

If you’re concerned about brake dust damaging your wheel, there are a few options available to prevent it altogether. 

    • Brake dust shield - a physical component that’s mounted between your rotor and wheel. Can sometimes affect brake performance.
    • High-end brake pads - ceramic or organic brake pads don’t use as many metal components in their construction that will flake off and cause wheels to corrode. These will be more expensive than traditional brake pads. 
    • Brake dust repellent - a spray that’s applied to the outside of your wheel and will repel brake dust, dirt, and other road grime. Check your wheel manufacturer's warranty and care to make sure repellent works with your rims.
    • Advanced finish - similar to brake dust repellent, an advanced wheel finish or coating can be applied to your wheels to stop dust from sticking to your wheel. An example is a ceramic wheel coating that’s traditionally used by race cars.

Photo Sofiia Shunkina |

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