Rusty Water Laundry Problems and Solutions

Bathtub drain with rusty water stains around rim

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

If you have moved to a new home or suddenly begin to have laundry problems like mysterious stains on your freshly washed clothes, it could be the water you are using. Water that contains high levels of iron can leave clothes with yellow, red, or brown spots, cause white clothes to become yellow, and leave all fabrics feeling stiff.

The source of rusty water is often an inground home well but some municipal water systems also have high levels of iron due to old cast iron water system pipes that are corroding.

Rusty/Red Water

Evidence of rusty or red water problems is usually caused by two sources:

  1. A water source loaded with suspended particles of iron bacteria leaves ugly discoloration and stains on kitchen, bathroom, and laundry fixtures and equipment, as well as on dishes and laundry.
  2. Rusty water heaters, pipes or water storage containers cause staining to be more sporadic. 

Evidence of Rusty or Red Water Laundry Problems

Yellow stains from rust water on clothing

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

How to Fix Rusty Water Laundry Problems

If it is not possible to pass the problem water source through a water softener, a phosphate feeder or a chlorinating filter, laundry results can be improved by using a non-precipitating packaged water softener (usually containing phosphate) along with the usual amounts of heavy-duty laundry detergent. Follow the recommended amounts listed on the package. Be sure to use the compound in the rinse cycle as well as the wash cycle to prevent rust stains.

To remove rust stains that have already occurred on white and colorfast washable fabrics, use a commercial rust remover following product directions. Add an extra rinse cycle to every load to be sure all traces of rust remover are rinsed from the fabrics.


The important ingredient in these compounds is an acid-usually oxalic or hydrofluoric acid. The chemicals in the remover combine with the iron and loosen it from the fabric, then hold it in suspension in the wash water to be flushed away. The compounds are poisonous if ingested. Use them carefully according to the manufacturers' directions, and rinse the clothes thoroughly. Any acid remaining in the fibers will deteriorate the fabrics.

Never put clothes with rust stains in the dryer because the high heat will set the stain and make it extremely difficult to remove. Never use chlorine bleach to remove the stains because chlorine bleach will set rust stains permanently.

A more economical and eco-friendly method for rust removal is to sprinkle salt on the spot and dampen it with lemon juice. Dry articles in the sun, then rinse. Test procedures on a hidden portion of the article first, since the lemon juice may cause a color change. Take non-colorfast fabrics to a commercial laundry for professional treatment.

Use Distilled Water

If you are treating a special garment or table linen to remove rust stains, consider hand washing the item using distilled water unless you have resolved the rusty water problem in your home.

Salt sprinkled and lemon juice squeezed over white shirt with rusty water stain

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

How to Get Rid of Rusty Water

The first step in resolving a rusty water problem is to do a physical inspection of your home plumbing system. A rusty water heater or pipes can leach enough iron into your washer to cause problems. Replacement of the water heater, pipes, or a rusty water storage container may solve the problem.

The next step is to talk to your neighbors and ask if they have the same problem and then have your water tested. Many local water municipalities will perform this service for you at no or a very low cost. You can also purchase water testing kits online.

If the test shows that the level of iron is small, a mechanical water softener will generally remove the iron along with other minerals. Another alternative is to hold the iron in suspension by use of a phosphate feeder system.


It's important to find a qualified company who will test your water and provide a comprehensive plan to treat the water based on your needs. This would need to address discoloration of clothes, fixtures, etc., as well as smell and taste. You can treat whole house and you can provide localized point of use for drinking and cooking.

For moderate iron levels, a green sand filter or oxidizing filter may be adequate. It is important to have a filter sized to handle large quantities of water throughout the house.

For high concentrations of iron, a chlorination/filtration system treats water before it enters the lines. The chlorination/filtration system has two main parts: a chlorinator and a filter. An automatic chlorinator, generally using household chlorine laundry bleach and releases chlorine into the water system.

The chlorine does two important things: it kills iron and disease-causing bacteria and it changes (oxidizes) colorless, soluble iron to insoluble, red iron particles that can be removed from the water by a filter in the system. This type of iron treatment system should be installed on the main water lines in the house before the water passes through the water softener and the water heater.

These treatments which usually require professional installation can be expensive. Always have your water tested by an independent lab before installing any system.