How to Remove Rust and Food Stains From Stainless Steel

Cleaning Methods to Use in Order

Kitchen sink
Image Source / Getty Images

Despite the fact that it is called stainless steel, this workhorse material for kitchen appliances, cookware, and surfaces can also stain from time to time. On a stainless steel kitchen sink, for example, you may have had a cleaning mishap that left brown corrosion or rust stains on the metal. Stains can also sometimes result when a spray cleaner is applied to the metal but is not rinsed away properly. Another mistake you can make with stainless steel includes exposure to chlorine bleach or the chemicals in oven cleaners, which can cause stains. These stains can be stubborn, but there are ways to clean them. 

Here are three do-it-yourself methods you can try. Run through these solutions in order, the solutions that are least likely to damage the stainless steel are first.

Stain Type Chemical-based 
Detergent Type Dishwashing soap
Water Temperature Hot

Project Metrics

There are a few factors to keep in mind before removing the stain.

  • Working Time: 5 minutes
  • Total Time: 15 minutes

Before You Begin

Stainless steel is a steel alloy that contains a minimum of 10.5 percent chromium. Chromium gives the steel its corrosion resistance. Rather than oxidizing and discoloring when exposed to air or water, chromium reacts to form a thin protective coating to stainless steel. Although this protective layer can be scrubbed away, the protective film quickly reforms, which is why stainless steel surfaces seem indestructible in a kitchen, giving it the name "stainless" steel.

This shiny material can be scratched fairly easily. This is less problematic with a matte-finish surface, like that found on some sinks, but shiny stainless steel requires some care in order to remove stains without scratching the finish.

Examine your stainless steel surface and determine if it has a grain pattern. While the metal itself is solid, the process by which the manufacturer polished the surface may leave it with faint directional scratches. Whenever you scrub at a stainless steel surface—even if using so-called "non-scratch" pads—instead try to gently rub at the stains in the same direction as whatever grain is already present on the surface.

What You'll Need

Supplies

  • Boiling water

Tools

  • Kettle
  • Paper or microfiber towel

How to Remove Stains With Steam Cleaning

Many stains will be lifted from stainless steel by the action of steam vapor. 

  1. Heat Water

    Heat water to boiling in a kettle with a spout that will allow you to pour it.

  2. Place Towel on Surface of Stain

    Place a paper towel or microfiber towel over the stained surface.

  3. Pour Hot Water on Towel

    Pour enough of the boiling water onto the paper towel to wet it. Allow its steam to work for 5 to 10 minutes.

  4. Rub Surface Along the Grain

Once the surface has cooled, rub the surface with the paper towel, moving with the direction of the grain. If this does not remove the stain, try the next solution. 

How to Remove Stains With Baking Soda and Dish Soap

Baking soda mixed with liquid dish soap can make a good paste to gently rub out stains. Baking soda is a very fine abrasive that is unlikely to seriously scratch the stainless steel surface.

What You'll Need

Supplies

Tools

  • Paper towel or soft microfiber cloth
  1. Mix Baking Soda and Dish Soap

    Apply the mixture of baking soda and liquid dish soap to a microfiber cloth or another soft cloth, then rub at the stain, moving back and forth in the same directions as the grain in the metal. 

    Do Not Use Harsh Abrasives

    • Do not use standard abrasive cleaners on stainless steel and prevent them from contacting the metal.
    • Never use steel wool, wire brushes, or other abrasive cleaning tools on stainless steel. Non-scratch vinyl scrubbing pads can be used. 
  2. Rinse and Towel Dry

After rubbing, rinse the stainless steel surface thoroughly, and towel it dry. Examine the surface. If this has not removed the stain, try the next technique.

How to Remove Stains With Vinegar

What You'll Need

Supplies

Tools

  • Soft towel or cloth
  1. Pour Vinegar on the Surface

    Pour a little white vinegar or apple cider vinegar onto the stained surface.

  2. Let Sit

    Let it sit for a few minutes; the gentle acid in the vinegar may lift out the stains.

  3. Rub Stain the Direction of the Grain

    Rub the stain with a soft cloth, following the grain of the steel.

  4. Rinse and Towel Dry

Rinse thoroughly and dry the surface with a clean towel. Examine the stained area; if discoloration still is present, you should consider a commercial product.

illustration of ways to remove stains from stainless steel
Illustration: Kelly Miller. © The Spruce, 2019

As a last resort, if the stains still do not budge, try a stainless steel cleaner and polisher. Barkeeper's Friend is one such powder formula that can clean without excessive scratching. Be sure to follow the directions, rinse thoroughly, and towel dry.