How to Remove Rust Stains From Toilets, Tubs, and Sinks

rust in the sink

The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 15 - 28 mins
  • Total Time: 2 - 12 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Streaks of orange rust stains are not attractive in toilet bowls, sinks, tubs, and shower stalls. Keeping the stains at bay requires regular cleaning with the right types of products. All-purpose bathroom cleaners will not remove rust stains effectively, and using chlorine bleach can even cause rust stains to become permanent.

Acid-based products are most often used to remove rust stains from finished surfaces like bathroom fixtures. The acids can be mild like citric acid (lemon juice), acetic acid (distilled white vinegar), tartaric acid (cream of tartar), or stronger, like the hydrochloric and sulfuric acid found in commercial rust remover products. The acid reacts with the rust to help loosen its bond to other surfaces.

Sodium hydrosulfite, a salt compound, is found in most powdered commercial rust removers and works well on fabrics, stone, and finished surfaces like porcelain. Gentle abrasives like baking soda and pumice can also help loosen rust particles from porcelain.

What Causes Rust Stains

On uncoated metal surfaces, rust appears when iron and oxygen react with moisture to form iron oxide. That explains the rust stain left on the sink's edge by a shaving cream can or razor blade. But the rust stains found near sink and tub drains and toilet bowls are caused by water that contains high levels of iron particulates, iron bacteria, or iron plumbing pipes, rusty water heaters, or untreated metal components in toilet tanks. 

The stains appear most often in homes located in hard-water areas that use well water. The combination of iron bacteria and the minerals in the water can cause the rust particles to cling to the porcelain or enamel surfaces of bathroom fixtures. Unfortunately, the stains will reappear after cleaning unless the water is filtered or treated with a water-softening system.

How Often to Clean Rust Stains on Toilets, Tubs, and Sinks

During the regular weekly cleaning of the bathroom, pay extra attention to the areas prone to rust stains. It is also helpful to thoroughly dry sinks, tubs, and showers after each use before the rust particles in the water have a chance to settle on the surfaces.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Scrub brush
  • Old toothbrush
  • Toilet bowl brush
  • Spray bottle
  • Microfiber cloth

Materials

  • Lemon juice
  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Cleaning vinegar
  • Cream of tartar
  • Salt
  • Baking soda
  • Pumice powder or stick
  • Plastic food wrap
  • Commercial rust remover

Instructions

  1. Use the Power of Citric Acid

    The citric acid can be from fresh lemons, limes, grapefruits, lemon or lime juice, or even powdered citric acid available from grocery and drug stores. If you are using a fresh citrus fruit for scrubbing, dip the cut edge in salt or baking soda to provide a gentle abrasive to scrub the rust-stained area.

    For heavily stained areas, mix a paste of lemon juice and baking soda and apply it to the rusty area. Cover the paste with plastic wrap to keep it moist and let it sit for at least an hour to help break down the rust particles.

    If using citric acid powder, make a paste with a few drops of water and apply it directly to the stained area. Use a scrub brush or old toothbrush and some elbow grease to scrub away the stain.

    Tip

    When treating rust stains in a toilet bowl, flush the toilet and then immediately turn off the water to prevent the bowl from refilling. This will make cleaning the rusty areas easier and keep your cleaner from becoming diluted.

  2. Use Distilled White Vinegar

    The acetic acid in distilled white vinegar is effective in removing rust stains. Just like citric acid, it can be used weekly to help keep rust stains from becoming permanent. While food-grade distilled white vinegar can be used, cleaning vinegar with a higher acidity is better for tough rust stains.

    For weekly cleaning of sinks, tubs, and shower walls, spray the vinegar on the rust stains. Use a scrub brush to clean the area and then rinse well.

    For weekly cleaning of rusty toilet bowls, add one to two cups of vinegar to the bowl and scrub with a toilet brush. For old stains, empty the toilet bowl of water and pour undiluted vinegar into the bowl and let it sit for at least two hours (overnight is better). Scrub well and rinse with fresh water.

  3. Try Cream of Tartar

    Unless you are a meringue lover or baker, you may not have cream of tartar in your pantry, but it is a good rust remover. Cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate) is a powdered form of tartaric acid usually used to help stabilize whipped egg whites and act as a leavening agent in baked goods.

    Sprinkle it on the rust-stained areas of sinks and tubs before scrubbing with a dampened nylon-bristled brush. Make a paste with a few drops of water for applying to shower walls or toilet bowl stains. Just like with other acids, give it time to work and keep the paste moist by covering the area with plastic wrap.

    Tip

    Keep your old toothbrushes to use for scrubbing in tight areas around plumbing fixtures. You'll be happy to have them on hand.

    using zud scouring cleanser

    The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

  4. Add Gentle Abrasives

    Gentle abrasives like baking soda, table salt, or pumice powder can be used alone or with any of the acid cleaners. They are gentle enough to prevent damage to the porcelain, fiberglass, or enamel finishes of bathroom fixtures. For the best results, always wet the stained surface with water or cleaner and keep the area wet while using the abrasive.

    Pumice is a naturally occurring volcanic rock and is available in powder or solid form. Pumice sticks or stones can be used to scrub away rust, limescale, and hard water stains.

    pumice stick

    The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

  5. Use Commercial Rust Removers

    There are dozens of commercial rust removers like CLR on the market that work very well to remove stains. Some are harsher than others, so take time to read labels carefully, follow the directions, and store and dispose of the products properly.

Tips to Prevent Rust Stains on Toilets, Tubs, and Sinks

  • Bathroom rust is often the result of iron-rich hard water, especially well water. Installing a filtration system or water softening system will help prevent future stains.
  • Cans and decorative storage containers that have metal rings on the bottom (e.g., shaving creams, air fresheners, hair sprays, and cleansers) can quickly rust thanks to the moisture in bathrooms and stain surfaces. Store these items in a cabinet away from the bathtub and sink.
  • Wipe down the bathtub and sink after each use to remove iron residue in water droplets.
  • Fix plumbing leaks promptly. Even a small drip from a faucet can cause rust stains to build up quickly.
  • Inspect toilet tank interiors. Older toilets may have metal components in the tank that are corroded and rusty. Replace these items with non-corrosive PVC components.
    Article Sources
    The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
    1. "7 Cleaning Mistakes to Avoid." Association of Residential Cleaning Services International.

    2. "Selection and Use of Home Cleaning Products." New Mexico State University.

    3. "Map of Water Hardness in the U.S." U.S. Geological Survey.