How to Remove Rust Stains from Clothes and Carpet

Rusty toy car
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Rust stains are some of the most difficult stains to remove from clothes. It takes time and patience and, unfortunately, sometimes it is impossible. But give these tips a good try before giving up!

Rust Stains on Washable Clothes

Commercial rust removers found in grocery stores and online are effective and safe for most fabrics. Check the product ingredients label; the important ingredient in these removers is an acid; usually oxalic or hydrofluoric acid. The remover ingredients combine with the iron and loosen it from the fabric, then hold it in suspension in the wash water. The compounds are poisonous if ingested, extremely toxic and can burn skin and damage appliance finishes. Use them carefully according to the manufacturers' directions, and rinse the clothes thoroughly. Any acid remaining in the fibers deteriorates fabrics so add a second rinse.

For a much less toxic treatment, go natural. Lemon juice and salt will often give great results. Sprinkle salt on the rust stain then squeeze fresh lemon juice onto the salt and spread the garment in the sun to dry. You should have no problems with white or ecru fabrics. But. test on a seam or inconspicuous spot to see if fading or bleaching occurs on colored fabrics that may not be colorfast

A paste can also be made from one teaspoon of cream of tartar, one teaspoon baking soda, and a few drops of hydrogen peroxide. Apply the paste to the stain and allow to work for 30 minutes before rinsing away. Wash the fabric as usual.

Rust stains cannot be removed by normal laundering and using chlorine bleach will make them permanent. If the stains remain after treating, repeat the steps. Do not put the stained clothing in the dryer because high heat will set the stains. 

Rust Stains and Dry Clean Only Clothes

If the garment is labeled as dry clean only, point out and identify the stain to your professional cleaner. Home removal methods will not work and may damage the fabric.  

Is It Really a Rust Stain?

Some rust-colored stains are not caused by rust. Caramelized sugar and benzoyl peroxide (acne medicine) stains look like rust. Do a bit of investigating before treating the stains.

What Causes Rust Stains on Clothes?

If the stain really is rust, it is often important to track down the source of the problem and prevent the stains from happening again.

Rust stains from corroded metal furniture, locks, walls, or cars are easy to track down. But rust stains can also seem to appear frequently on laundry for no reason. This could be happening due to two problems:

  • A water source loaded with iron bacteria causes ugly discoloration and stains on kitchen and bathroom fixtures, as well as on dishes and laundry.
  • Rusty water heaters, pipes, or water storage containers usually cause sporadic rust stains.

If the problem comes from iron bacteria, there ways to treat the water. Rusty pipes and water heaters should be replaced and the staining will often disappear. 

remove rust stains from clothing
Illustration: Alison Czinkota. © The Spruce, 2018

How to Remove Rust Stains from Carpet and Upholstery

Rust stains usually appear on carpet when metal furniture legs or decorative items get damp and leave a stain. Immediately remove the rusting item from the carpet and do not put it back until all of the rust on the item is removed and the carpeted area is completely dry.

Use a dull knife to scrape away any visible rust to loosen it from carpet fibers and use a good vacuum to remove the loose rust particles.

In a small bowl, mix two tablespoons of dishwashing soap and one tablespoon of household ammonia in two cups of warm water. Dip a clean white cloth into the solution and saturate the rust stained area. Let this sit for at least five minutes. Blot with a clean dry white rag. Move to a clean area of the rag as the rust stain is transferred from the carpet.

If any rust stain remains, make a thick paste of table salt and lemon juice (about 1/4 cup table salt and one teaspoon lemon juice). Apply the paste to the stain and let the mixture sit on the stain for at least two hours. Blot away with a damp, white towel. Allow the carpet to air dry. Vacuum to lift carpet fibers. Repeat the steps if necessary.

If rust is transferred to upholstery, use the same cleaning solutions and techniques recommended for carpet. Take care not to oversaturate the fabric because excess moisture in the cushion or filling can cause problems. Consult a professional upholstery cleaning company if the upholstery is silk or vintage.