How to Remove Rust Stains from Stainless Steel

Luxurious kitchen
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The first step to maintaining stainless steel rust-free is to keep it dry at all times.

Just the word "stainless" in its name implies the promise that stainless steel won't rust. Yet it can. It even stains. You've almost certainly seen it happen. What's that all about?

First, a little background. Stainless steel is an alloy formed from iron and at least 10% chromium, along with varying quantities of other elements, among them carbon, nickel, manganese, and silicon. Stainless steel resists corroding in damp environments—in other words, it resists rusting—because the alloy forms an inert surface film of chromium oxide that protects the metal beneath it from attack by the oxygen in water and air. Remember the word "resist" in the previous sentence? Stainless steel does corrode when exposed to acidic or basic solutions.

Now, here's a fascinating and important property of stainless steel: The chromium oxide barrier mentioned earlier self-heals when gently abraded or otherwise disturbed. That means there are certain delicate ways you can remove rust on stainless steel and "repair" the chromium oxide layer. Read on for a handful of options. Most of them employ ingredients you already have around the kitchen. You don't have to do all of these techniques—just pick one. As you work on removing the rust, if you find that it's stubborn, just use a little elbow grease. Don't be tempted to resort to more drastic measures such as the ones described in the warning box!

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Distilled White Vinegar

Ah, vinegar, the miracle cleaner—here's another use for it! If the rust is on a utensil, fill a narrow vase of glass with vinegar and submerge the item in it for five minutes, then wipe the rusted area with a soft sponge. Finally, rinse and dry the utensil.

If the rust is on an item you can't dip, put vinegar in a spray bottle and spritz a coat evenly over and around the rusted area. Wait five minutes, then wipe with a soft sponge. Rinse with a damp rag, and finish by drying.

Baking Soda

Mix baking soda and water into a paste. Using a clean rag or an old toothbrush (because it has soft bristles), apply the paste onto the stainless steel. For small rust spots, scrub in the direction of the grain; for large ones, wait an hour, then scrub in the direction of the grain. After the rust is removed, rinse the area with water and a clean rag. Dry the surface. As a final step, clean the surface with a cleaner formulated for stainless steel, following the manufacturer's instructions.

Metal texture background vector illustration
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Notice what looks like horizontal brush strokes or fine scratches in this stainless steel—that's the direction of the grain.

Lime or Lemon Juice

Mix equal parts baking soda and either lime or lemon juice to form a paste. Coat the rusted spot with the paste, and wait 30 minutes. Remove with a damp sponge, then dry the area.

Cream of Tartar

Add a few drops of lemon juice to 1 tablespoon of cream of tartar; mix. Rub firmly on the rusted area using a damp rag, then rinse off and dry.

Oxalic Acid

Cleaners containing oxalic acid, such as Bar Keepers Friend Soft Cleanser or Zud Cream Cleanser, will remove rust. (Make sure to use the liquid product, not the dry one, which contains grit that could scratch and damage the stainless steel finish.) Apply the product with a damp sponge; wait 1 minute, then rub it in the direction of the grain. Rinse with water, then dry the surface.