diy: citrus cleaner/degreaser

I loooove my bike. I love it. I really do. The only problem with bicycling everywhere, though, is the fact that the chain, gears, and frame tend to get a teensy bit … well, I’ll just show you.

Notice the black gunk on the chain? How about the fabulous streak on the frame right behind the front derailer? Delicious, right? Don’t lick it. I know it’s tempting. But don’t.

Unfortunately, a lot of the products on the market for degreasing bicycle chains tend to have really, really adverse effects on the environment (and if they don’t jive with the dirt they’re dripping onto, they probably won’t jive with the environment on a human organism, either). They’re made from petrochemicals – that is, chemicals derived from petroleum/oil production and refinement – and as such, you probably don’t want that stuff to end up on your skin by accident. Not only that, but they can get pricey. Some degreasers can cost as much as $10 per bottle, and if you’re a cheapo like me, you probably see a price like that on a little bottle and go “hahaha! Wait. Really?”

A few months ago, I was trying to put together a little how-to guide for simpler living in my town. While it didn’t take off as I wanted it to, there were a few things in there that definitely have a home on this blog. Like homemade degreaser. I originally intended to promote it as a replacement for most surface/oven cleaners on the shelves (and this stuff’s been around much longer than these companies), but I tried it on my bike chain and gears in about June, and – yep, you guessed it – it worked like a charm.

So, what’s in it? How is it made? Where does it come from? Is it witchcraft?

It has two ingredients, both of which can be found easily at any supermarket: distilled white vinegar and citrus fruit peels. (Okay, so you might not be able to buy just the peels. But you won’t see me complaining about having to eat citrus fruit. Yes, this homemade degreaser will even ward off scurvy if you let it.)

In order to make it, all you do is fill up a big jar (like one of those monstrous pickle jars from a wholesale store) as much as you want with citrus peels. Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit. Then, you pour the vinegar on top of the peels until they’re all covered, but not so much that they’re drowning in it. Just cover ’em. Last, place an old, clean washcloth (or a cheesecloth if you want to be all fancypants) over the top of the jar. That way, you still have a source of oxygen for the process that makes the cleaner, but you won’t let any huge foreign particles in the jar. Let it soak for about a month. Strain out the peels, dilute with a little water.

That’s it. I’m serious. That is the secret behind all the really good citrus cleaners out there. You pickle some fruit peelings. I know, right?

It’s not witchcraft, inasmuch as science isn’t a form of witchcraft, which is highly debatable to me at times. Speaking of, SCIENCE AHEAD: The reason it works so well is a chemical compound in the peels called limonene, which is one of the chemicals (terpenes, for you geeks) responsible for giving citrus fruit its citrus-y smell. Limonene is an extremely powerful solvent and is particularly good at binding to petroleum-based greases – y’know, what a lot of us use on our bike chains. The vinegar extracts the limonene from the orange peels, and what you have left is a concentrated, delicious-smelling cleaner that will degrease the crap out of your bike chain. And it’s mega-cheap. And it’s completely non-toxic. And you can use it to clean literally everything in your house.

Did I mention it was cheap? Oh, okay. Just checking.

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