The best degreaser: cleanliness made safe and easy
Used for stripping the grit, grime and grease from a well-pedalled drivetrain, degreaser is a staple chemical of any keen cyclist’s maintenance kit. However, unlike the endless marketing propaganda that follows chain lube selection; degreaser is left in the corner, a dirty product that few brands actively promote. So which is best? It’s a question tech writer Dave Rome sought to answer..
- Pick a chemical based on cleaning method
- Consider health and environmental impacts
- Bio-degradable can still be toxic
- Avoid harsh, high PH chemicals
- Always wash degreaser off with water
- Favourite Degreasers: Pedro’s Pig Juice & Degreaser 13, Smoove Prep, Finish Line Citrus.
As dish soap is to dishes, degreaser is the secret sauce in achieving a clean drivetrain.
If you’ve let your chain run feral and it’s not something you’d want to touch, it’s time for the degreaser. I set out to evaluate degreasers based on three parameters: efficient grease removal, human safety, and environmental safety. I then looked at different degreasing methods, from brushing it straight on the chain to obsessive ultrasonic cleaning, as these methods all call for different products.
If you simply want to know the best degreaser for general cleaning, I can strongly recommend Pedro’s Pig Juice. And the best way to avoid the regular need for degreaser in the first place is by selecting a great chain lube.
Degreasers are chemicals designed to break down oils and grease that are resistant to water. Most degreasers are alkaline in nature (high PH) and use solvent agents, often petrochemical or alcohol based. Other degreasers will be acidic (low PH), such as those which use natural citrus acids. While less common, there are more neutral degreasers free of solvents, such as water or plant-based cleaners.
Whole bike washes or cleaners, such as the pink stuff from Muc-Off, will have some mild degreasing capability but are not intended to strip oils and grease like a true degreaser. If you’re going to the trouble of degreasing your drivetrain, pick the right tool.
With hundreds of different degreasing products on the market, testing them all just isn’t plausible. To narrow the field, I reached out to select members of our team along with a few career pro mechanics and industry experts who have honed their craft over the years and asked for what they’ve found to be best.
From there, I took a number of those suggestions and put them to the test. I looked at which degreasers broke down the grime of a filthy chain with little manual input. And then I tested to see which of these degreasers would kill grass, a reasonable stand-in for environmental safety.
Knowing what’s in a degreaser
There is an international solvent measurement standard, known as Kauri-butanol value (Kb value). It’s useful in seeing where various raw chemicals rank, for example, D-Limonene, a component of the oil in citrus fruits holds nearly double the solvent rating as mineral spirits. However, very rarely is the base chemical sold in its pure state. Most are diluted at varying percentages. So while a non-toxic degreaser based on D-Limonene should be more efficient than mineral spirits, if the maker is diluting the D-Limonene by 96%, it’s going to be far weaker.
Checking Manufacturer Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) is a good way to see what’s inside specific degreasers. Most common degreasers are shipped and so MSDS reports are available with a quick Google search. However, do keep in mind that the ratios or combinations of chemicals used often dictate how well a product will actually work.
Bio-degradable does not make it safe
Speaking with Jason Smith, formerly of Friction Facts and now CeramicSpeed, the degreaser market is rife with confusing and misleading statements. As Smith points out, many degreasers are sold on the idea of being non-toxic and/or biodegradable, but those two things are not the same.
An item may biodegrade, but it can still be toxic to its user and the environment. Additionally, the term “organic” in relation to degreasers doesn’t mean much. For example, Benzene is an organic compound and also a known carcinogenic. Similarly, don’t assume a “non-hazardous” sticker makes it safe, this classification is typically used in order to save on transport costs.
A whole feature could be written on this aspect, but in short, if you’re likely to wash your bike anywhere near nature or near drains, then look for something that is marketed as both non-toxic and bio-degradable. If the chemicals you’re using don’t offer such claims, then seriously consider wearing gloves, be aware that the fumes can be toxic, and dispose of the chemicals responsibly (most councils offer dangerous waste disposal free of charge).
Bicycles have unique needs
Most industrial environments choose heavy and often unhealthy alkine solvent degreasers for grease-cutting efficiency and with little regard to other factors. However, for bicycles, degreaser is often used where braking surfaces, rubber seals, anodised components, greased bearings and delicate paint are within dripping distance. These unique demands often require a chemical that won’t cause more harm than good. However, knowing what that is can be tough.
“The fastest and most efficient chain degreasers found in local bike shops contain the heavy petroleum/hydrocarbon derivatives. Most degreasers of this type contain heptane, acetone, naphtha, and/or alcohols. These solvents are very aggressive when it comes to dissolving chain lubricants and the contaminants adhering to the lubricant. Some examples of these hydrocarbon-based degreasers are Finish Line Speed Degreaser (Heptane, Acetone, Ethanol), White Lightning Clean Streak (Naphtha, Heptane), Morgan Blue Chain Cleaner (Naphtha), and Muc Off Dry Chain Degreaser (Naphtha). Naphtha is a slightly more volatile version of mineral spirits,” explains Jason Smith.
“Most heavy hydrocarbon solvents can damage bike frame paint finishes. They do a great job dissolving the chain greases, and also paint. Naphtha [as is Mineral Turpentine] is commonly found as a paint thinner in hardware stores. The chances are that an alternative solvent is easier on paint finishes.”
Non-toxic chemicals aren’t in the clear, either. Simple Green degreaser is a common go-to, and is made more popular by the fact that it is readily available in bulk. However, its potent citrus-base is known to fade anodising, something Chris King Components specifically warns against. Similarly, Shimano and Campagnolo have (quietly) warned against using such degreasers as it can attack the low-friction coatings found on premium chains.
The main lesson here is that most degreasers on the market have the potential to cause finish or component damage if misused. Washing your freshly cleaned components with water is a good way to prevent issues, as is avoiding products made for industrial applications.
The best drivetrain degreasers
I tested a small handful of popular degreasers with segments from the same disgustingly dirty chain, letting them sit for an hour with occasional agitation before rinsing with water. I also tested them undiluted on grass (30ml of each). The outcomes of these tests are based purely on qualitative results, such as visual cleanliness, perceived grittiness of the chain and how brown the grass went.
Do take these non-scientific results with a greasy grain of grit as I found some degreasers really showed their strength once agitation and/or water was added to the mix. For example, Pedro’s Degreaser 13 is basically an undiluted version of the company’s Pig Juice, and yet, it’s thick viscosity meant it didn’t fare so well in my stationary test, whereas Pig Juice cut through more efficiently, and really showed promise once rinsed off. In the case of both of these non-toxic products, the degreasers work by cutting down to the metal and containing the oils, while adding water acts somewhat like the solvent and draws away the mess. In most cases, degreasers don’t work so well without water to wash away the mess.
Of the degreasers tested, Morgan Blue Chain Cleaner, Finish Line Citrus, Pedro’s Pig Juice and Smoove Prep all offered a finish that was satisfactorily clean. The Morgan Blue left a dull residue on the metal (and contains Naphta), while the other three Citrus-based cleaners left a brighter finish.
In this chart, each scale is from one to five. Five is better — more clean, and less dead grass.
As you can see, Pedro’s Pig Juice is both very effective and left our grass unscathed.
Smoove Prep was the absolute best with a near spotless chain and no noticeable residue. This combination degreaser and soap-based cleaner is designed to not leave any oily residue and allow for a good application of the wax-based Smoove chain lube. However, it’s not the most eco-friendly option and while you don’t need to use much of it, it’s sold in a relatively tiny bottle.
Certainly, the results prove that Pedro’s Pig Juice is worth its reputation. Not only is it safe to use, it does an impressive job of cutting through tough grime. However, it’s also not cheap and so diluting Pedro’s Degreaser 13 may produce an even better value, albeit more laborious, option.
According to Jay Seiter of Pedro’s, the staff uses a mixture of both Pig Juice and Degreaser 13 wherever possible. The Pig Juice was initially intended as a ready-to-pour degreaser for use inside their Chain Pig chain cleaner, while the more viscous Degreaser 13 offers more power and sticks without dripping. “Apply Degreaser 13 to the cassette and chainrings using the Toothbrush. Then run Pig Juice in the Chain Pig (chain cleaning device) on the chain, rinse the Chain Pig out, and run it again filled with water. Next add a little water to the brush bristles and quickly scrub at the cassette and chainrings to further activate the Degreaser 13. Finally, give everything a rinse with water and dry with rag.” I can attest that this results in a stunningly bright drivetrain.
What do we use? Our global tech editor James Huang has been using Pedro’s Pig Juice to do on-bike cleans. He says it “smells nice, supposedly won’t kill me, and works well.” Our founder Wade Wallace hasn’t changed his opinion in nearly a decade, “Baby wipes for quick clean and Park Tool citrus degreaser for a real clean.”
Jay SyCip, design manager at Chris King is another proponent for Pedro’s Pig Juice. He says his company chooses it because it’s milder on components than many other options. And according to Pedro’s, this is because it’s a “solvent-free” product (as is Degreaser 13).
Speaking with Win Allen, a pro race mechanic and owner of Win’s Wheels, he shares a similar opinion in using a degreaser that’s environmentally safe. “If I’m working on grass, I never want anyone to be able to tell I was working there. As part of Pedro’s testing to show how safe/eco-friendly the Degreaser 13 was, it was poured directly on a patch of grass, it never harmed that grass, that’s what I’ve used since.” Interestingly, my grass testing showed differently, and while Pedro’s Pig Juice caused no harm, 30ml of undiluted Degreaser 13 led to some browning.
Shimano officially recommends the use of dish soap and warm water, a cheap, safe and well-proven method. While dish soap is perfect for cleaning a lightly soiled chain, you’ll quickly see it beaten by more stubborn grime.
Personally, I was always a little less loyal to a specific product and have found cleaning success with most bike-specific degreasers on the market. My experience is similar to Jason Smith’s, in that the stuff that cuts the grease the fastest is often the stuff you want to avoid using.
Degreasers and disc don’t mix
Use degreaser with care around disc brakes. Many degreasers contain oils that can wreak havoc on your braking performance, and even if they don’t, the spray from dirty degreaser will have your brakes screaming and your ears bleeding. Learn more about this in our FAQ to disc brakes.
Following the ultimate guide to chain cleaning, your choice of degreaser should match your chosen cleaning method.
On a scale from five (clean) to zero (greasy mess), this method gets you to around a two.
Simply using a rag and lube, the lazy method is more about prevention than it is about cleaning. For this method, the suggestion is not to use any chemicals other than the lube. Dripping on fresh lube will loosen grease and allow for manual rag cleaning. If you must spray on something, look for a chemical that dries without residue, bicycle disc brake cleaner or similar is popular in this situation.
This clean involves using either a brush and/or chain cleaning device along with degreaser and water (and a chain keeper). As the chain is being cleaned on the bike, you want a degreaser that’s safe on finishes. Likewise, you don’t want a degreaser that will aggressively attack the rubber seals in your bottom bracket or pulley wheels. And most importantly, it’s likely you’ll be doing the clean over grass or near a drain, and so you want a solution that’s environmentally safe – your bike isn’t worth dead marine life.
Certainly, there’s a long list of petroleum-based degreasers that work extremely well, but please consider the environmental impact for where you’ll be using them.
Chemicals for a Thorough clean
This is the method that ensures a pro-level clean where parts will look new afterward. To achieve this, the parts are typically removed from the bike and cleaned separately, with a chain quick link used during re-asssembly. The use of an ultrasonic cleaner has become popular, but it can also be done with a simple container, bucket or similar method of holding degreaser.
Given you’ll be removing the parts, there’s more freedom in the chemicals you can use. And while typically more expensive than mainstream chemicals, the degreasers suggested above will work perfectly too.
So what are mainstream chemical options? One example is Mineral turpentine as used by our Australian tech editor, Matt Wikstrom. “No fuss, never fail”, tells Wikstrom. Though do be warned, Mineral turpentine, or “turps”, is often also sold as paint thinner and so should be used carefully around painted surfaces and handled with extreme care – it’s poisonous.
Personally, I’ve long used low-odor kerosene (Naphtha-based, toxic) in my parts washer. Being a petrochemical, like turps, you need to be aware that’s it’s highly flammable, not good for skin contact and needs to be washed off the part thoroughly. Otherwise, it’s an effective cleaner that I’ve found to be less aggressive than other popular petrochemical-based degreasers. And assuming you have a sealed washer to keep it in, it’ll last for years before requiring disposal.
When not using Pedro’s Pig Juice for on-bike cleans, James Huang uses a safer, aluminum-friendly version of Simple Green and does so in a large ultra-sonic cleaner.
With a successful service business, Win Allen’s workshop is fitted with a premium electric heated parts washer (SmartWasher SW-23). “The degreaser is heated, which makes getting any brand of chain lube or bearing grease off very easy. In it is Ozzy Juicy SW-4, the most powerful degreaser that is safe on all materials.” What makes this product so unique is that it’s bioremediating, it effectively breaks down contaminates itself.
Jay Sycip says they use a similar thing at Chris King’s headquarters, with a Simple Kleen parts washer as the pick for the eco-sensitive company.
Whatever chemical you choose, you’ll need to wash it off afterward. For example, Win finishes his process by flushing the components in a large ultrasonic cleaner with heavily diluted Dawn dish soap – something that’s eco-friendly and safe on parts.
Obsessively clean chemicals
The methods above will get a drivetrain impressively clean, but there’s a step further for those looking to do submersion chain waxing or use an ultra-fast wax lube where a residue-free, bare-metal finish is required. This obsessive level of detail will only apply to a very small segment and it’s only relevant to the chain, other drivetrain components will be clean enough with the methods already covered.
Jason Smith, the original creator of the Molten Speed Wax recipe, details his methods. “If I need to get a chain stripped and sterile, for, say, cleaning chains between lube tests where every bit of the previously applied lubricant has to be removed, I use Ultrasonic cleaners and heavy hydrocarbon/petroleum-based solvents. Specifically, multiple baths of odorless mineral spirits (OMS) and then follow that up with an alcohol or lacquer thinner bath. The OMS does a great job dissolving any pre-existing coatings, lubes or contamination. The alcohol or thinner then acts to remove any residual film left over by the mineral spirits. But this is in the lab and not really suitable for home use.”
Personally, I do the steps detailed in the thorough process (including something similar to Win’s ultrasonic cleaner flush), and then finish it off with the chain shaken in a jar of methylated spirits. This is a proven method to get a chain ready for its initial submersion waxing (boiling water works to clean off the wax from then on).
Still with me?
I never used to stress about what was in my cleaning chemicals and only recently have I started to pick products with low or no toxicity. Given this, brands such as Pedro’s and Green Oil (not tested) should be applauded, and at least for the former, it seemingly works every bit as well as more potent products.
Jason Quade, a former pro race mechanic and owner of Abbey Bike Tools summarises degreaser choice well. “The more careful you are about putting the lube on and what lube you use, the lazier you can be in taking it off.”
If you carefully consider your lube choice, how much of it you use and how well you wipe off the excess, you’ll only rarely (if ever) need to use degreaser, and when you do, you’ve got plenty of options. But whatever you choose, consider the seals in your bearings and those in the ocean.