Why your wheels are turning brown and how to clean them

If you’re having issues with your alloys always turning brown then you’re in the right place. In this article, I explain professional tips and tricks on how to maintain your pride and joy.

Why are my rims turning brown?

Wheel rims turn brown due to brake dust. Brake dust is exactly what is says, its dust created from braking. The dust is created when the brake pads make contact with the brake discs. This causes very fine particles to break off and adhere to your rims.

Unfortunately for those on the quest for having a permanently spotless car, getting brake dust on your wheels is just a part of driving and you can’t avoid it.

Why are my rims turning brown?
Audi Alloy with Brown Staining

Fortunately, there are some easy ways to fix this issue. After reading this article you will no longer have to worry about your rims turning brown.

Whether you have plastic wheel covers or alloy wheels, I will show you some great ways to remove brake dust.

Removing brake dust from plastic wheel covers

Removing brake dust from plastic wheel covers is something people may out off as people believe plastic to be a very fragile material, which of course it can be that’s why I would definitely recommend using an acid free wheel cleaner (such as Custom Wheel Cleaner by Autoglym) as not to damage the plastic.

I would be tempted just to spray the product directly onto the plastic wheel covers and wait around 10-20 seconds before blasting off with a pressure washer or a hose as in most occasions this will be sufficient to remove the brake dust.

However, if you haven’t cleaned your car in a long time and the wheels are particularly bad you may need to get a wheel brush or if you don’t have one to hand a toothbrush or paint brush will be ok. Or even a microfibre cloth to wipe the brake dust.

Plastic Wheel Trim
Brake Dust on Plastic Wheel Trim

Then simply scrub or agitate the stubborn areas before rising off. And be sure to dry the plastic wheel covers as not to get any unsightly water spots!

Also remember to drive the car either 1 metre forwards or 1 metre backwards (this is roughly half the diameter of the wheel). This results in you rotating the wheels 180 degrees and allows you to see the part of the wheel which was previously as the bottom. I do this to ensure all the wheel has been thoroughly cleaned and no brake dust is remaining.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend using a sponge for this due to the risk of scratching the surface. As the dirt can get trapped in the pores of the sponge which can cause fine scratches when moving the sponge over the plastic wheel cover.

Brake dust on alloy wheels

Brake dust easily builds up on alloy wheels compared to plastic wheel trims. It can also be a little more difficult to clean off alloy wheels.

This is partly because there is more surface to clean. But also, brake dust sticks to alloy wheels more than plastic trims and it tends to show up more.

Having said that, many people love their alloy wheels. With their shiny, sporty looks and their durability it’s easy to see why so many people opt for alloy wheels.

Brake dust on alloy wheels is not the end of the world. It just requires a little more maintenance to keep them looking great.

How do you remove brown stains from alloy wheels?

The best way to remove most brown stains from alloy wheels is simply by using a quality wheel cleaner and wheel brushes. This should be followed up with a decent pressure washer to help bast off those troublesome areas.

If you don’t have a pressure washer you can try using a hose. However, a pressure washer really does come into it’s own when removing stains from alloys.

Always make sure the alloys are cool to touch as using any sort of wheel cleaner on hot alloys may affect the chemical reaction and may cause permanent damage.

Many people use an acid wheel cleaner, but I would only recommend this in certain situations and for certain types of wheels. Acid wheel cleaner can permanently damage alloy wheels due it’s corrosive nature.

Removing stains from alloy wheels – step by step

If you were to clean your wheels on a regular basis (let’s say twice a month) I recommend an acid free wheel cleaner. The product I use is called Custom Wheel Cleaner by Autoglym. (The professional product is called Acid Free Wheel Cleaner.)

Some of the wheels may require more brushing than the others.

Spray Acid Free Wheel Cleaner On Bentley Alloy wheel
Using Wheel Brush
Nylon Brush (left) and Barrel Brush (right)
Rinse off wheel cleaner
Thoroughly Rinse Off Wheel Cleaner

Again, a useful trick is to drive the car 1-meter forward or backwards (to allow the wheel to turn 180 degrees) and repeat the process to ensure the brown stains have been cleaned from all over the alloy.

Other wheel cleaning products on the market are designed to turn the alloys purple when in use. These are commonly known as Iron Removers. The product turns purple due to a chemical reaction when making contact with brake dust or other contamination turning it turns purple which can make it easier to differentiate between brake dust, iron, and dirt. But for me I find these products requires more time to agitate and isn’t very cost affective.

Iron Fall Out Remover
Iron Fall Out Remover on Volvo Alloy

What causes excessive brake dust on front wheels?

You may have noticed that your front wheels always seem dirtier than your rear wheels. This is because the majority of cars do most of their braking from the front, so more brake dust is being generated on the front wheels. This is generally not something to worry about.

However, if you notice one wheel has substantially more brake dust or if there is excessive brake dust on the front wheels you may have an underlaying issue. This could mean the brake caliper isn’t doing its job properly and should be looked at professionally.

Front Alloy on Audi
Front Nearside Alloy on Audi A3

It generally means that the brakes are causing too much friction and are not operating optimally. Also, the lifespan of the brake pad will typically be significantly shortened.

There are a number of issues which could be causing excessive brake dust including:

It could be any one of these issues or a combination of them that is causing the problem. A professional mechanic should be able to quickly diagnose the problem and fix it before it gets any worse.

How to remove caked on brake dust from alloy wheels

Regular washes definitely play off when it comes to cleaning your wheels. However, if you haven’t gotten around to cleaning your car in a while or have just purchased a second-hand car you may have noticed the brake dust is rather stubborn to remove.

However, fear not! If the alloy has more stubborn areas these can often be removed by following the steps below. The process is similar to the normal one but using a different product.

How the process varies if that you may have to repeat it a few times to get to your desired result.

From my experience of detailing cars professionally, the best product I have used to remove caked on brake dust from alloy wheels is called Clean Wheels by Autoglym. (There is also a product from their professional line called Acid Wheel Cleaner which is exactly the same.)

This is an acidic wheel cleaner so should be used with lots of care. Only use this product if your wheels are really bad and do not leave the product on the alloy for longer than 30 seconds.

Additionally, I do not recommend using an acid wheel cleaner on any of the following wheels:

Alloy Barrel
Alloy Barrel

If your alloy wheels fit into any of the categories above I would recommend only using an acid free wheel cleaner. The downside is you may need to repeat the process several times to achieve the desired result.

Removing caked on brake dust from alloy wheels – step by step:

If you wheels are suitable for an acidic wheel cleaner then follow the step by step instructions in this section.

Clean Wheels by Autoglym rapidly removes baked on brake dust from heavily soiled wheels. I have also found that this wheel cleaner requires less time to agitate the brake dust. However, if you are to use other products please read the manufactures guide carefully as it may vary.

I would recommend cleaning one alloy at a time, so the wheel cleaner doesn’t get chance to dwell. Since the product we are using is acidic, it can corrode the alloy wheels if left for too long. I recommend never leaving it on for longer than 30 seconds.

Some wheels may require more agitation with the brushes to get rid of the more difficult or heavily caked on areas.

A useful trick is to drive the car 1-meter forward or backwards (to allow the wheel to turn 180 degrees) and repeat the process to ensure the brown stains have been cleaned from all over the alloy.

Removing tar spots from alloy wheels

If after thoroughly cleaning your alloy wheels you can still see some black dots (often found in the crevices of the alloy or surrounding the tyre valve) its most likely to be tar and not brake dust.

For this, I would definitely using a good Tar and Adessive remover to remove the ar spots from alloy wheels.

Tar Dots on Alloy
Tar Dots on Alloy

The majority of tar removers I have used recommend spraying directly onto the area and waiting for the tar to run. Then impregnate a Terry Cloth (or an old coarse towel) with the same product and wipe off. But again, please read the manufactures guide.

How do you clean brake dust off of chrome rims?

Chrome wheels are definitely one way to make your car stand out. But whilst they are a dazzling addition to your car, they do require a bit more of a careful approach when cleaning.

Chrome is a soft metal compared to other alloys. And this seems to make it easier for brake dust to affix itself to them. And with the metal having a reflective finish unfortunately brake dust becomes even more noticeable.

Regular cleaning with the correct product is really the only way to keep your chrome wheels in the best condition.

I would recommend using Autoglym’s Custom Wheel Cleaner, but if you are to use other products make sure they are pH neutral and safe for chrome alloys.

How do you remove brake dust from matte black rims?

Cleaning matte black wheels should be approached in the same way in terms of method/ technique, but I would recommend using cleaning products that do not contain and silicone as this may make your alloys dry a bit blotchy.

Cleaned Matte Black Alloy

Also, in general black alloys can be notoriously trickier as you cannot always see where the brake dust and/or dirt is when its wet. Making it harder to see if you’ve removed it all. However, saying this I would always approach them with the same products and technique.

But if you do notice you have missed areas, you can always use a quick detailer to spray onto a cloth and wipe off the areas of dirt.

How do you keep brake dust from sticking to alloy wheels?

Coating your alloy wheels with a decent ceramic coating would make your alloy wheels stay cleaner for longer and make the cleaning process much easier.

Ceramic Coating Being Applied to Alloy Face

Is brake dust bad for wheels?

Brake dust is not only a nuisance, but it can also damage your alloys if left for an extended period of time as the brake dust can corrode the metal alloy.


I’m Hannah, a professional detailer and the person behind My Classy Car. Over the past few years, I’ve been on a journey to learn as much as possible about detailing cars to a showroom finish.

I’ve made My Classy Car to share everything that I have found out with other car enthusiasts across the world.

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