How to Clean a Bike Chain with Household Products

By Rachel Lee
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The bicycle’s chain is essential for transferring the energy from your pedals to the wheels. A dirty chain can get in the way of powering your bike and undermine your performance. It also puts excess pressure on your body.

Can you clean a bike chain with household products? Yes, you can! You can save money by using many items that are around the house. However, you can’t just use anything; some products might damage your chain or drivetrain. They also might be harmful to your health or the environment.

You might think you need to spend a lot of money on high-products and chemicals to clean your bike chain. However, homemade or household products can be superior to manufactured ones because they tend to be safer. They also are less harmful to the environment.

Household Products For Cleaning a Bike Chain

Use protective gear.

Consider wearing gloves because bike chains can get very dirty. You also should also wear gloves to protect against anything that could irritate your skin. Old clothes, such as overalls, are also a good idea because old grease can leave permanent stains. If you use an aerosol degreaser or any other spray that contains acetone, you should wear eye protection.

Don’t shy away from the dish soap.

Dish detergent is a low-cost alternative to brand-name cleaners and degreasers. Citrus soap works very well. Choose a dish soap that is more liquid, and don’t bother with bar soap. Keep in mind, however, that dish soap might not be as effective as a powerful solvent in breaking down grease.

Stock up on citrus cleaner.

This kind of heavy-duty cleaner is available at large home improvement stores. A citrus cleaner might be what you need to remove road tar, bugs, or pine sap. Keep the citrus cleaner off your tires because it could damage the rubber.

Search your home for brushes.

These tools are great for removing gummy debris from a chain. You might have a cleaning brush sitting in your mudroom or garage. If not, purchase one with firm bristles. Use an old toothbrush to get into small crevices when cleaning the chain and drivetrain.

Get creative to remove grease and dirt.

Rags are handy for wiping away excess lubricant. Floss a rag between chainrings to clean hard-to-reach places, or use cotton swabs. Look for old t-shirts that you don’t wear anymore. Also, you can get good use out of old dish sponges for a few months.

Don’t throw out that wire hanger.

This simple household object can keep your hands relatively clean. If your chain is immersed in a pan or bottle of degreaser, you can use the hanger to hook the chain and lift it out.

In a pinch, certain household products can serve as chain degreasers. Some cyclists use kerosene, barbeque lighter fluid, or gasoline. It’s always essential to wear a gas mask or headscarf over the face to avoid breathing in the odors. Keep in mind these products are not good for the environment.

Make your own degreaser.

Start with 2 cups of warm water. Mix in 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 20 drops of lemon essential oil. Pour the mixture in a spray bottle. Be sure to wipe away the degreaser with a damp towel. If you don’t have essential oil, lemon juice will work.

Know which products or cleaners can do more harm than good.

For example, avoid rust removers or any detergents that are acid- or alkali-based. This warning doesn’t apply to anything that has citric acid.

Steps to Cleaning a Bike Chain

1. Set up your cleaning equipment.

Grab two clean pans or buckets and fill them with water, and add dish soap. Gather your other cleaning products, degreaser rags or sponges, and wire hanger.

2. Stabilize the bike.

A bike stand makes cleaning and maintaining your bike easy, and it improves your ability to inspect the chain, drivetrain. When your bike is on the stand, you won’t accidentally bump it and cause it to fall over. If you don’t have a stand, set the bike upside down on the handlebars and saddle. Alternatively, hook the saddle nose over a clothesline or wire fence. A kickstand will not be stable enough.

3. Snap a picture.

No matter how seasoned you are at bike maintenance, it’s always a good idea to take a picture of the chain’s position on the drivetrain before you remove it. It’ll serve as a reference for putting it back on later. A picture is a good idea if you’re not experienced with bike mechanics or if you don’t replace the chain very often.

4. If you want, remove the wheels.

To maintain tension on the drivetrain, you can install a chain keeper like this , which is a placeholder for your chain when you don’t have the rear wheel’s cassette. Some cyclists like using a chain keeper because it prevents the chain from slipping off or folding upon itself. However, it’s okay to skip this step.

5. Inspect the chain for grime and wear.

Before removing the chain, see if there is excess dirt or muck to remove. Also, look for signs of wear or damage. If you have a chain checker like this, this is a good time to see if the chain is stretched enough to warrant replacement.

6. Locate the master link.

This link contains the pin that you slide out to release the chain. Most chains come with a master link that makes removal and installation easy. If your chain doesn’t have a master link, consider installing one; it only costs about $15.

7. Degrease the chain.

Do this before removing the chain to remove excess filth. Pour liquid degreaser into a spray bottle and coat the chain. Leave it on for a few minutes to let it do its job. Another option is to use an aerosol degreaser, which provides enough pressure to remove a lot of the dirt. Repeat this degreasing process if you still see extra dirt and grime. Be sure to rinse off the degreaser. A bicycle chain cleaning system will also be a great option for cleaning your bike chain. It provides a complete cleaning solution for cleaning bike chains, rear cogs, and chainrings

If you still see too much grease and dirt on the chain, remove it for more intensive cleaning. To remove the chain, slide out the pin from the master link, and then turn the crank to run the chain through the drivetrain until it’s free. Grab an old piece of a newspaper where you’ll place all nuts, bolts, and smaller pieces.

8. Immerse the chain in a degreaser.

If the chain is dirty enough to remove, a household product will probably not be sufficient. Use a plastic bottle or tub and pour in the degreaser, and then soak the chain. If you’re using a bottle with a screw-top, use a wire hanger to hook the chain and drop it in. Shake the bottle gently for a few minutes, or longer if the chain is very dirty.

9. Remove the chain from the degreaser solution.

With the hanger, hook and lift the chain out of the bottle and immerse in hot water to remove all the grease and degreaser. Dry the chain completely by squeezing out all the moisture with a clean cotton rag or old t-shirt.

10. Reinstall the bike chain.

Don’t put the chain back on until it’s completely dry. Using the picture you took earlier as a guide, you’re ready to reinstall. First, reattach the master link to the chain. Second, position the two ends of the chain so they’re between the two wheels, or where the wheels would normally be. Connect both ends by sliding the master link pin back into place.

11. Check the chain again.

Feel the master pin with your fingers to make sure the slots are even; there shouldn’t be any warping or buckling. Turn the crank to make sure the chain threads smoothly through the drivetrain.

12. Let it dry.

The chain needs to be completely dry before the lubrication goes on. If you wash the rest of the bike, let it dry as well before doing any more cleaning or maintenance.

13. Lubricate the chain.

To lubricate properly, hold the lube bottle at the top of the chain’s middle pin. As you turn the pedals, apply a continual, thin stream of lube to the chain. You only need to turn the pedals for one revolution. Be sure not to over-lubricate the chain; doing this will attract excess dirt and grime on future rides.

Related Questions

How often do I have to clean the chain?

It’s a good idea to clean your chain every 200 miles or about every week. If you ride in wet conditions, you should clean the chain more often. You also can eyeball the chain; it needs cleaning if it’s caked with dirt or muck, or if it leaves a “tattoo” on your leg after every ride. Regular cleaning will help make your chain last, and it’ll give you opportunities to see link damage or stretching.

Can I clean the bike chain without removing it from the drivetrain?

It’s okay to clean the chain while it’s on the bike, especially if you’ve just finished riding on wet roads, or if there isn’t that much grime or dirt. To get the best clean, use a pan with hot water and dish soap. Use a clean cloth soaked in the soapy water, all the while turning the pedals to move the chain. Degrease only after drying the chain completely.

What if I don’t have a lot of time to clean my chain, or I’m out of degreaser or detergent?

No problem! If you need a quick clean, you only need a clean, lint-free cloth and your favorite chain lube. First, wrap the cloth around the chain, and then pedal backward to remove the dirt and grime. Keep pedaling until the cloth mostly comes clean. Baby wipes are a good alternative to a cotton cloth.

What kind of chain lubricant should I use?

Consider using a good quality lubricant to guard against friction loss and to protect the rest of the bike. Use a lube that is highly fluid for easy application, as well as biodegradable. To prevent lung irritation and breathing problems, use an unscented lube.

How do I keep from damaging my bike during cleaning?

When cleaning the chain, take care of the rest of the bike while you’re at it. Make sure you don’t mix your tools and rags so that you don’t accidentally apply drivetrain grease to the frame. Also, steel wool and abrasive sponges will scratch the frame. If you use a hose, don’t use too much pressure because it can damage the bearings.

How does a chain cleaning device work?

This useful tool has internal rotating brushes that automatically scrub the chain’s rollers and links. The cleaning device is also handy for containing the cleaning mess and for brushing on the degreaser.

How can I clean my bike chain if I live in an apartment and don’t have a garage?

You can do your cleaning inside your apartment if you have enough room to set up the bike stand and set out your equipment. Lay down a tarp to contain the mess. An alternative is to go to a self-service car wash, which recycles all fluids.

Related Article:
How Long Does a Road Bike Drivetrain Last?
Why Does My Bike Chain Slip When I Pedal Hard?
Folding Clincher or Wire Bead? Choose the Best for Your Bike!