Clean Bike Chain with Dish Soap? Explained!


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Getting outdoors with debris and dirt being thrown up constantly does mean your bike chain can get very filthy! You should be aware of how to deal with that mess before it begins to hamper the way in which your chain will function.

But this then leads to a problem. If you search online, there’s a good chance you will come across a multitude of apparent ‘solutions’ that will get your chain all sparkling and looking brand new.

But here’s the grizzly truth – getting your chain too clean, or using the wrong materials, can lead to problems. 

But it needn’t be like that!

Instead, cleaning your bike chain is a lot easier than people fear. There are just a few simple steps to work through, that work every time. Here’s the short version:

Dish soap is the best item for cleaning bike chains. It breaks down grit and grime without being too abrasive, and without completely removing the necessary grease on the chain.

In this post, I’ll look at the following:

  • The problems of over-cleaning
  • The best way to clean your chain while still attached to your bike
  • The best way to clean it when removed from your bike
  • Why clean your chain
  • The absolute best substance to use to clean it
  • Alternative ways to clean it

Let’s get into it…

How to clean a bike chain with dish soap

The Problems Caused by Over Cleaning

So if you go ahead and over-clean your bike chain, then there’s every chance you will manage to strip the chain of the lube applied to the chain during manufacturing.

This will open up a whole world of problems and issues for you to deal with, and it’s something you want to avoid.

By accidentally stripping the lube applied by the factory, it means your chain is more likely to rub and not run smoothly. This can damage the chain leading to it potentially snapping, and needing to be replaced.

It’s crazy to think this can happen simply because you have tried to do the right thing, but don’t stress as we will make sure you know how to clean your bike chain in the correct way.

The Importance of Cleaning Your Bike Chain

There are various reasons why cleaning your bike chain is so important, and I’m not talking about it from an aesthetic point of view.

Instead, you need to think about several practical reasons as to why you need to understand how to clean your bike chain. [Source]

Basically, by cleaning your chain it means it’s capable of working better than if it was clogged up by grease and dirt.

It moves more smoothly, as you would expect, and it stops additional pressure and stress from being applied to different parts of the chain.

By simply cleaning the chain, it will prolong its lifespan, and you should also find it runs more quietly than before.

Those are some pretty convincing reasons why you need to think about taking greater care of your chain.

Is Degreaser An Option For Cleaning Bike Chains?

So a quick side note here, and it’s all about degreaser. Now, you may be aware that part of the problem with your chain is a build-up of grease, so it makes sense you may want to go ahead and buy a degreaser. However, just hold onto that thought for a moment.

Most degreasers on the market will do the job they are intended for, and that is to remove all the grease. That’s not what you want when it comes to your chain.

A degreaser has the ability to remove all of the actual lubricants that you will find inside those chain rollers. Also, if you thought you could just replace that by dropping some oil back in, then you may want to know it doesn’t work like that.

You see, it’s impossible to fix it in that way. Instead, you would actually be required to strip things down and basically leave it to soak in a pool of lubricant to even hope to get it back to the factory standard.

So, avoid degreaser. It’s not that it’s doing anything wrong as such. It’s just doing what it’s designed to do, and that’s not something we want.

So, Does Dish Soap Work?

Dish soap is a great item to use when it comes to cleaning. However, as with any such item, knowing how to employ it in the correct way is essential.

It’s actually great that something as basic as soap is capable of working and making a difference. It saves you going out and buying some expensive items that, in all honesty, don’t do much different from normal soap.

Dirty bike chain
Using simple materials such as a brush and dish soap will always beat more complex solutions

Thankfully, you have just a handful of steps to work through when it comes to cleaning your chain.

Also, you can clean the chain while it is either still on your bicycle, or after it has been removed. In the interest of being fair, I will look at both.

Dish soap has the amazing ability to break down grease and grime without being too abrasive.

Also, it’s not tough enough to completely strip the chain back to its bare bones. It just cannot do that.

But, let me just say, you do need a few other tools alongside dish soap. There are just a handful of other items that you will need in order to complete this task.

Tools You Will Need

In order to correctly clean your bike chain, you will only require several tools to correctly complete the job. Of course, you will require dish soap, and any brand or type will do as they are all capable of generating the same end result.

The first thing you need is either a pan or bucket. That’s because you need something to hold the water and dish soap mixture.

Also, you will require several cloths, and you must make sure they are clean. 

Having clean cloths is especially important for the rinsing part. Also, use older ones for the initial wipe where you don’t mind them looking filthy after it. There’s a good chance you will be wiping off a whole lot of mess, and this stuff will stick to the cloth.

Finally, you need a brush of some kind to scrub the chain.

This can involve any type of brush. Some people have used toothbrushes, while others have even used a toilet brush.

The main thing here is the brush must have relatively stiff bristles that are thin enough to get into the inner workings of the chain. Anything that is too soft will be unable to remove that dirt and grease, so you would be really wasting your time.

Apart from that, the only other thing you will require is bicycle chain lube. Use whatever one you like as long as it’s capable of coating the chain prior to you getting back on and using your bicycle.

Cleaning a Chain When Still On a Bicycle

If you don’t want to remove the chain from your bicycle, which is completely understandable, then you will still be capable of cleaning it to a reasonable standard.

In this instance, you need a pan or bucket and fill it with some hot water, and throw in some dish soap. You want to mix it together in order to make a solution.

Get a clean cloth, and soak it in the solution. Then squeeze out some of the water, and use the cloth to initially wipe the chain down on your bicycle.

Be aware that after this initial wipe, on the part of the chain you have access to, it does mean you need to advance the chain. To do this, use your hand to push on the pedals slightly, and move the chain around. 

The aim here is for you to be able to eventually wipe the entire chain by rotating it. This is important as you should not be missing any part.

After you have wiped it, you need to rinse out the cloth and do so in clean water. You want to make sure all the soap has been removed from the cloth. Once you have achieved this, wipe the chain to remove the soap and dirt.

Finally, you want to dry the chain using a clean cloth. Not only is this better for the chain, but it also gives you the opportunity to see any parts you may have missed with the initial clean.

Removing dirt from bike chain
Using a toothbrush is a simple way of removing grit and dirt from a bike chain

Cleaning a Chain After Removing it

If you do decide to go down the road of removing the chain from your bicycle, then the approach is slightly different from that mentioned above. 

You still need to make that solution in a bucket or pan. That part doesn’t change. However, you then place the entire chain in the solution.

After you have submerged the chain in the solution, leave it there for a couple of minutes. That’s all it’s going to take in order to get this chain clean.

Once those couple of minutes have passed, you want to remove the chain and get a rough brush and scrub the chain with just a little bit of elbow grease.

You want to do this to get into all of the different parts of the chain, but don’t go 100% on it. That will only increase the chances of you damaging the chain.

Once you have scrubbed the chain, put it back into the solution. Leave it there for another minute or so before lifting it back out and rinsing it. This is the point where you can see if some parts are still clogged with too much grease or debris. 

After you have soaked it for this second time, remove it, rinse it again, and then dry it with a clean cloth. You should see a major difference in how clean your chain is compared to how it looked before you started.

Dealing with Your Chain After Cleaning it

But don’t think for one second that you just need to clean your chain with dish soap and you are good to go. Actually, that’s only part of the entire process.

If you effectively wash your bike chain and remove that build-up of grease and jump straight back on, what do you think will happen?

Odds are that you will run into mechanical problems, and it’s obvious as to why.

What you need to do is indulge in some aftercare, and that’s going to involve some bike chain lube.

It’s important that you go ahead and coat the entire chain in lube, and try to make sure you don’t miss out on any parts. Also, don’t be sparing when it comes to applying the lube. 

After coating everything, take a cloth and wipe away the excess to prevent pooling. You will need less than you think, so don’t be surprised if you do see some excess lube on the chain.

But wiping it with a cloth can also push some of that lube into other parts of the chain, and that’s a good thing. 

Oh, and it’s also advisable to wear gloves doing this. That lube stuff can be tough to deal with, and you certainly don’t want to have too much of it on your hands.

Overall Conclusion

Caring for your bike chain should form a key part of your bicycle maintenance. Using dish soap in order to get things clean is undoubtedly the best approach. 

However, don’t forget the aftercare where you apply new lube to the chain. Failing to do this will undoubtedly shorten the life span of the chain, and you will only be creating trouble for yourself in the future.

Also, do remember what we had to say about degreaser and solely relying on that to get things clean. It’s not a good approach as you need to be on top of how to use the degreaser to stop it from destroying your chain.

Martin Williams

Martin has been tearing up all sorts of trails on a range of bikes ever since he was young. He once cycled across France, and once fell into a canal on a hybrid. He writes about everything to do with cycling on our site. You can find out more about him at bicycle2work.com/about-martin-williams/

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