Mountain Bike Chain Lube Alternatives — Ultimate List
There’s a reason why a well-oiled mountain bike performs optimally. It’s because the oil lubricates joints and other moving parts so that friction is reduced and the metal components aren’t constantly grinding against each other and wearing down. Of course, there are specific oils that are designed especially for particular parts of the bike, and using the oil the manufacturer recommends is important. But what if you don’t have the exact lubricant that is suggested? Can you use mountain bike chain lube alternatives? Let’s find out.
Mountain bike chain lube alternatives include household grease, cooking or olive oil, bike oil, machine oil, chainsaw oil, Vaseline, and 3-in-1 oil. Bike chain lubes are, however, designed to protect against rust and are easier to apply, which is where many DIY lube alternatives fail.
Using a different type of oil or grease on your bike chain when you don’t have anything else available is fine, but is not a permanent solution. Oils have different viscosities and adherence properties which means some will perform better in one area and badly in another. For example, while one oil may be easier to apply another might be more water-resistant. This article will take an in-depth look at the different types of bike chain lubes and their best uses, as well as the properties of alternative bike chain lubes, and their pros and cons when applied to a bicycle chain.
What Is Bike Chain Lube?
The four most popular bike chain lubricants are wet lube, dry lube, wax lube, and ceramic lube. Wet lube is wet when applied and remains wet and greasy on the chain. Dry lube, on the other hand, is wet when applied to the chain, and later drys to a waxy residue. Dry lube needs more frequent application because it wears off faster than wet lube. Wet lube is best used on bikes that will be ridden in wet conditions with lots of puddles and mud, while dry lube is best used in dry weather conditions.
Bike chain lube is a Teflon-based solution that reduces friction on the chain and ensures smooth cycling and gear shifting. Wet lubes contain a mixture of Teflon and petroleum distillates or synthetic oils and polymers, while dry lubes contain a combination of Teflon and paraffin wax.
Wet lube is usually thicker and tackier than dry lube, which is generally thinner and requires shorter intervals between applications. Chain lube not only improves the durability of your chain but also impacts the longevity of the chainring and the derailleur. Our article about how to fix a chain that keeps breaking takes an in-depth look at the effects of improper lubrication and how this takes its toll on your bike’s performance on the trail. Furthermore, we've put together a list of tips to quickly fix a mountain bike chain that is skipping, so be sure to take a look at that one too.
A newer bike chain lubricant that is gaining popularity with mountain bikers in recent years is ceramic micro-particle lube or nano lubricant. As this article from the International Journal of Precision Engineering and Manufacturing-Green Technology explains, nanotechnology overcomes the environmental problems commonly associated with traditional lubricant additives like sulfur, chlorine, and phosphorus. Nano lube like this combines the best features of wet lube and dry lube, allowing the nanoparticles (or ceramic particles) to evenly coat the entire chain while providing longer-lasting adhesion than dry lube.
Similarly, be sure to read our related article explaining how to lube a mountain bike chain for more detailed information. Also, you might find interest in learning the differences between mountain bike wax and chain lubes. So be sure to check out that article too.
Why Use Bike Chain Lube?
Bike chain lube prevents the chain from crunchy and grinding on the chainring and stops premature wearing on the drivetrain. If you notice that pedaling has become more difficult and the chain is making a squeaky or metallic noise, then your chain probably needs lubrication.
Use bike chain lube to make gear-shifting easier and smoother, reduce friction on the drivetrain, and maintain the integrity of the chain so that it lasts longer. Chain lube prevents the chain from screeching and grinding because it greases the chain links and joining pins so that they roll fluidly over the chainring.
Our article about how to fix a noisy grinding bike chain offers helpful troubleshooting tips to diagnose the problem as well as a step-by-step guide to fix it.
Reason 1. Chain Lube Allows Gears to Shift Smoothly
When a rider selects a higher or lower gear according to the speed and type of terrain, the derailleur moves the chain from a smaller ring onto a larger ringer, or vice-versa. This movement up or down the cassette can create friction because both the ring and the chain are made from metal.
A metal object (like a chain) rubbing or pushing against another metal component (like the sprockets) can have a grinding effect unless there is lubrication to make the movement easier. This video from GNC tech explains how gearing on mountain bikes works and will help clarify why lubricant is essential to ensure smooth gear changes.
Reason 2. Chain Lube Reduces Friction Between the Chain and Chainring
The chain is constantly moving around the chainring as the pedals are rotated, which means the chain links are making continuous contact with the chainring sprockets with each rotation. This metal-on-metal rubbing causes friction which can wear down the drivetrain components quicker. Lubricant offers a protective layer to the metal so that the chain moves steadily.
As the chain rolls over the chainring the pins that join each chain link pivot to allow for the circular movement. Lubricant makes the pivot motion smooth and frictionless so that the chain doesn’t seize up and get stuck on the ring.
Reason 3. Chain Lube Maintains Bike Chain Integrity
A lubricated bike chain is a healthy bike chain, which then translates to a well-maintained mountain bike. Because the chain comes into contact with all the components directly related to pedaling and forward propulsion it is essential to make sure it is well lubricated as explained in this video tutorial by Luke Silbernagel.
A dry chain that creaks and grinds against other components will cause wear and tear on the drivetrain—not to mention that a dry chain is more prone to rust and to break suddenly. This article from ARPN Journal of Engineering and Applied Science, explains why chain lubrication is important for rider safety as well as pedaling efficiency and improved speed.
In order to appreciate this reason, be sure to read our related article explaining how much a mountain bike chain costs with comparison charts for additional information. And if somehow you find yourself with a tangled up chain, be sure to take a look at our article explaining how to untangle a mountain bike chain for some tips and tricks.
What Is the Best Chain Lube For Mountain Bikes — Different Types of Chain Lube?
The accessories and bike care products you use on your mountain bike are largely determined by the type of trail conditions and how frequently you ride. A rider who rides more than three times a week will need to lubricate their chain more often because the friction will rub the lubricant off. While a bike that traverses drier trails will need a less robust lubricant, it will need to be reapplied more often.
A universal chain lube with Teflon is best for everyday mountain bike use because it is easy to apply and lasts long. Use wet chain lube for better chain protection in wet and muddy conditions, dry lube for sand and arid trails, wax lube for dusty trails, and ceramic lube for wet and dry conditions.
In this video from Simple Mountain Biking, Eddies pits various chain lubes against each other to determine their wear protection, sling offcast, sand repellant, and water-resistance capabilities.
His results conclude that Demond Tech Original Lube had the best wear but failed in the sand and water-repellant tests. This Rock ‘n Roll Gold Lube and This Purple Extreme Lube were two of Eddies’ three favorite lubes because they performed well in the wear and water-resistance tests. He determined that This Muc-Off Dry Lube was the best at reducing friction, and performed relatively well in the sling and sand repelling tests.
Now let's take a closer look at the four types of mountain bike chain lubricants:
1. Wet Lubes
Wet lubes perform well in wet and muddy riding conditions because they have specialized solutions that contain synthetic oils and polymers to repel moisture. Wet lube is the preferred lubricant for riders who ride long distances because they last longer and need to be reapplied less frequently.
Because wet lubes stay moist after application they can attract dirt on dry trails which will result in a chain that is laden with sand and debris, making the chain crunch and grin against the chainring. Only use wet lube if you anticipate riding through muddy puddles or in rainy weather.
This article from lube manufacturer, Muc-Off, explains how to properly lubricate your bike chain and also has an embedded video that you can follow along with to apply your lube correctly without hassle or waste.
2. Dry Lubes
Dry lubes are wet when applied but later dry to a thin film that isn’t oily. They typically contain Teflon or other fluoropolymers and small amounts of synthetic oils which ensure they are less viscous and more fluid during the application process.
Dry lubes like this are not effective at repelling water and mud because they are not thick and their adhesion time is shorter than wet lubes. But dry lubes do offer superior sand and dust resistance for riders who enjoy riding on dry trails. Dry lube will need to be reapplied more often because it is thinner than other lubes. You may notice that your chain starts to squeak if you applied dry lube and have to ride through several puddles because it wears off quickly.
This bike maintenance guide from the bicycle product manufacturer, Finish Line, explains the various types of lube and when to use them, as well as other bike cleaning solutions and maintenance products.
3. Wax Lubes
Wax chain lubes like this are wax-based lubricants that are applied to the chain in a liquid form but then dry to a waxy film that is not oily or sticky. They typically contain boron nitrate and Teflon which ensures better adhesion to metal components and reduces friction. They are considered to be the superior lube solution for both wet and dry riding but take longer to apply.
Wax lube must be applied to a thoroughly cleaned and degreased chain for maximum performance. It must also be worked through all the cogs across the cassette so that the wax can penetrate all components of the drivetrain.
As this article from Oneridecycling.co.uk explains, the wax lube must be warmed up first and then applied to the chain as it moves through the cassette, working from the smallest cog to the largest. This will ensure the wax lubricant seeps into all the chain links and pins, as well as forms a protective layer around each sprocket.
4. Ceramic Lubes
Ceramic lubes like this consist of various compositions, but most contain nano-sized platelets of ceramic boron nitride and micron particles of fluoropolymer. These compounds provide the ultimate friction reduction on metal bike components to improve their wear and longevity.
Ceramic lube also dries to a thin and smooth film, and will not attract dirt and grime that can stick to the chain and weigh it down, because ceramic lube is not wet or sticky. This type of lube is also well-suited to all weather conditions because it is effective at repelling both sand and water. It is also long-wearing and riders can enjoy many riding miles before reapplication is necessary.
Proper lubrication will ensure your chain moves smoothly around the chainring and through the cassette and will reduce chain breaks. Our quick and proper chain maintenance guide offers helpful tips to protect your chain and reduce damage to other bike parts.
Popular Chain Lubes Summary
|Product||When to use it||Amazon Link||Price|
|Wet Lube||Wet trails or rainy weather||Pedro's Enduro Wet Chain Lube||~$20|
|Dry Lube||Dry trails without muddy puddles||Squirt Lube Chain Lube||~$20|
|Wax Lube||All weather conditions. Use as a complete and deeply penetrating lubrication method for long rides that have dry and wet conditions.||Finish Line Wax Bicycle Chain Lube||~$15|
|Ceramic Lube||Use on all types of terrain, especially for long rides.||Tactikel NST, 30ml - Multi-Purpose Hybrid Ceramic Lubricant||~$25|
What Is an Alternative For Bike Chain Lube?
There may be times when you are out riding and your chain starts to grind, making pedaling more difficult. This is a good indication that the chain lube has worn off. Or maybe you’re getting ready to do an off-road ride and you realize your chain lube is finished and the local bike store isn’t open so you can’t buy some. There are some lubrication alternatives that could work on your chain but they must be used sparingly and with caution so that there is no long-term damage to your bicycle components.
Mountain bike chain lube alternatives include household grease, cooking or olive oil, bike oil, chainsaw oil, machine oil, Vaseline, and 3-in-1 oil. These quick and cheap solutions can help temporarily reduce friction but must be thoroughly cleaned off and replaced with specialty bike chain lube to prolong the chain’s lifespan.
We recommend that all serious and hobbyist mountain bikers carry at least a basic toolkit when out riding for emergency repairs or tweaks. Our mountain bike tool kit essential guide offers some suggestions on what tools and products to take on a ride, and our article that provides handy mountain bike tool bag ideas explains how to attach a toolkit to your bike frame without impeding aerodynamics and comfort.
1. Household Grease
Household grease comes in two main types; food-grade and non-food-grade. Food-grade means it is safe if accidentally ingested, while non-food-grade is unsafe for consumption, and medical attention should be immediately sought if ingested. This also means that if these non-food-grade substances accidentally get into your nose or eyes, you should contact poison control immediately to ask for assistance and next step actions.
Non-food-grade household grease like this SIL-Glyde can be used on a bike chain in a pinch. It has a viscous gel-like consistency that can be easily applied to the chain with minimal dripping and spills and will reduce friction. It is intended for use in automotive and mechanical shops, so it will provide good protection to a bike chain, but it may become gummy and encrusted with sand if used on a dry track.
Food-grade grease like this Super Lube won’t drip or evaporate easily so it can be used on a bike chain. It is meant for use on squeaky door hinges, stuck locks, or as an anti-seize on nuts and bolts. Though it says food-grade this doesn’t mean it is meant for eating, only that it is safe if accidentally ingested. It doesn’t have adequate rust protection for bike chains, and its water resistance is limited, but it can be a temporary solution to grease a bike chain.
2. Olive Oil or Cooking Oil
Mountain bikers who are out riding might not have chain lubricant in their backpacks, but they will almost certainly pass a food truck or restaurant on the way. As this thread on Quora illustrates, many cyclists have used olive oil or cooking oil as an emergency lube without incurring any damage to their drivetrains. As they say, “any oil is better than no oil.” But be warned, using cooking oil on your chain will mean that you have to stop more often to reapply it.
3. Bike Oil
Bike oils like this often come in degreaser and lubricant combinations, so you get a 2-in1 cleaner and lube. These will work fine if you ride easier trails with less debris and mud because they are less resistant than specially designed dry and wet chain lubes. Using a 2-in-1 lube and cleaner will cut down on the time it takes to clean and lubricate your bike. The problem with using a 2-in-1 bike oil is that they offer a superficial clean and lubrication but won’t provide the full lube adhesion benefits that you’ll get with wax or ceramic lubricant.
4. Chainsaw Oil
Chainsaw oil like this has rust protection so it can be applied to a bike chain. The problem is that it is very fluid and will be difficult to apply without spilling and dripping. Because chainsaw oil is thinner than bike chain lube it won’t last long on the trail and will need to be reapplied frequently. It won’t have much chain sling and is somewhat water repellent, but it really can’t compare to a good-quality wet chain lube like this Muc-Off Wet.
5. Machine Oil
Machine oils like these ones that are used for sewing machines and treadmills are a good substitute for bike chain lubes because they thoroughly coat moving parts, are rust-resistant, and don’t leave a gummy residue. Their downfall, when compared to bike chain lube, is their inability to repel water. They do reduce friction and prevent corrosion caused by grinding metal, but because they are meant for use inside machines that will never come into contact with water, they don’t have the nanoparticles that chain lubes do.
6. 3-In-1 Oil
Multi-purpose oils or 3-in-1 oils like this are suitable alternatives to bike chain lube because they offer rust protection, but they don’t adhere to the chain as well as bike chain lubes do. 3-In-1 Oils are runnier than bike chain lube, so they are messy to apply and will have a lot of chain sling when riding.
This not only means you will need to apply oil more often but that you could find yourself getting sprayed with loose oil particles as you cycle. Mudguards can help reduce the amount of oil that reaches the rider, and our article about whether you need mountain bike mudguards or not will explain their benefits in more detail.
Imagine you’re out riding, far from any urban areas and your chain starts to grind. There is no lube in your saddle toolkit. But you do have a lip balm in your pocket. A Vaseline product like lip balm will work in an emergency, but it will need to be cleaned off with a deep-cleaning degreaser when you get home.
This vaseline is a petroleum-based jelly that is meant for use on human skin, which this article from The International Journal of Cosmetic Science explains, so it doesn’t have the rust protection and lubrication properties necessary for a bike chain. Vaseline will also attract a lot of dirt which will stick to the chain, and may make it harder to pedal. This is why it is at the bottom of the list of chain lube alternatives.
Summary of Bike Chain Lube Alternatives
|Mountain Bike Chain Lube Alternative||Features||Amazon Link||Price|
|Household Grease||Easy to find in a hardware store. Has some rust protection.||Tri-Flow TF23004 Clear Synthetic Grease||~$20|
|Cooking Oil/Olive Oil||Easy to find at any restaurant when out riding.||Kirkland Signature Organic Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil||~$30|
|Chainsaw Oil||Protects against rust and reduces friction||Sun Joe Swj-Oil Premium Bar, Chain and Sprocket Oil, All-Season Chainsaw||~$10|
|Bike Oil||Easy to clean and apply, especially when purchased as a 2-in-1 degreaser and lubricant||Finish Line 1-Step Cleaner and Lubricant||~$10|
|Machine Oil||Reduce friction and don’t leave a thick sticky residue||Liberty Machine Oil||~$10|
|3-In-1 Oil||Offers rust protection and reduces friction||3-in-one - 120049 Professional Grade Pneumatic Tool Oil||~$10|
|Vaseline||Convenient to use in an emergency||Vaseline Blue Seal Series||~$10|
Can I Use WD40 On My Bike Chain?
Using WD-40 could actually do more damage than good. This substance is formulated to break through grease and rust so it would actually be doing the opposite of what you want a lubricant to do.
Do not use WD40 as a chain lube on a bike chain because it is predominantly a rust dissolver and solvent which means it will strip away other lubricants on the bike drivetrain causing a metal-on-metal grinding that will damage the bike components.
WD40 was developed for use on circuit boards to prevent corrosion but gained popularity over the years as a multi-purpose lubricant. It helps stop squeaky hinges, and open rusted padlocks because, according to this article from Wired.com, one of its key ingredients is Dimethyl Naphthalene, which is a solvent. This ingredient breaks down rust and is an effective cleaning agent, but it is also the reason why WD40 will dissolve all protective lubricants on the bike.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Mountain Bike Chain Lube Alternatives
Bike chain alternatives are a quick solution when you urgently need to lubricate the chain and don’t have chain lube available. They aren’t intended for long-term use because often they don’t have the special combination of rust protection, muck repellant, and lubricating properties that chain lubes have, but they will suffice in a pinch. The trick to lubricating your bike chain with an alternative is knowing how long they will stay on the chain before you need to reapply them.
The pros of using mountain bike chain lube alternatives are their availability and affordability. The cons of using lube alternatives are they are not intended for long-term use because they lack the proper adhesion properties, lubrication, water resistance, and rust protection that bicycle chain lubes offer.
Advantages of Chain Lube Alternatives
Pro 1. Accessibility
Bike chain lube alternatives like household grease, chainsaw oil, machine oil, multi-purpose oi, and bike oil are readily available in local hardware and DIY stores, as well as online. They are used for many tasks other than lubricating chains, so they are more likely to be found in most people’s garages.
Bike chain lube alternatives like olive oil and cooking oil are sold in every grocery store and desperate riders can even ask cooks in food trucks to give them a small squirt of oil for their bike chains if necessary. Vaseline or lip balm is also one of those everyday items that most people carry in their pockets, though this lube alternative should only be used in a true emergency.
Pro 2. Price
Other than olive oil, most other bike chain lube alternatives are inexpensive. And because they have other uses besides chain lubrication, people generally feel they are making their money stretch by buying one multi-use product.
Disadvantages of Chain Lube Alternatives
Con 1. Incompatibility With Mechanical Bike Parts
Typical household lubricants don’t have the rust protection and water-repellant properties that traditional bike chain lube has. The nanoparticles in bike chain lubes effectively coat each moving component to prevent friction and reduce wear. Chain lube’s viscosity allows it to flow into each crevice without drippage or waste.
Con 2. Inefficiency
Bike chain lube alternatives don’t thoroughly coat the chain because they are either too liquidy or too tacky. Lube alternatives like cooking oil, machine oil, chainsaw oil, and 3-1 oil can’t stick to the chain long enough to remain in place during a long riding session and will need frequent reapplication. Conversely, lube alternatives like Vaseline and household grease are too sticky and will leave a gloopy residue on the drivetrain that will attract debris and cause excessive stress on the chain.