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Removing Orange Rust Stains from Clothes


You can easily clean away rust stains by using a rust remover product from the hardware store. Then you should figure out why the stains are appearing, so you can prevent them in the future.

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By Mary Gagliardi

When mysterious orange spots appear on your shirts, pants or towels after washing, it’s probably due to rust. These stains should be removed with a rust remover product, a strong acid available at hardware stores.

Once you get the stains out, it’s time to figure out what caused them, and make some changes so they don’t happen again.

First, let’s deal with the stains.

Skip the bleach for rust

Bleach is great for removing many stains, but not this one. In fact, bleach (or any product that contains sodium hypochlorite) is an oxidizer formulated at an alkaline pH, which provides the perfect conditions to oxidize iron and make a rust stain even worse.

Use a rust remover product

Rust removers are very strong acids — that’s why they’re effective. Always follow the label instructions to make sure you use the product safely, and wear heavy duty rubber gloves.

  • First, test for colorfastness. Apply a drop of the product to dampen a hidden area and wait a few minutes before rinsing with water. No color change means the item is colorfast.
  • To remove stains, dampen the stained area with water first, then apply the rust remover product. When the stain is no longer visible, rinse with clean water and then machine wash as directed on the care label.
  • Allow the item to air dry.

Now it’s time to figure out what caused the rust stains.

Inspect your washer for rust

If your washing machine is older, there could be rust on the inside of the washer. That rust can transfer to your laundry, especially if wet clothing isn’t removed immediately after the rinse cycle. This can happen whether or not you use bleach to wash your laundry. Examine the inside of the washer, especially the drain holes in the basket, and look for any signs of rust. Replacing the clothes washer is necessary to eliminate this problem.

Test your water for iron

Even if your water looks clear, it can still contain iron oxide. Use a water test kit to identify any metals in your water, along with their concentrations. Once you know more about your water, it will be easier to fix the problem with a long-term solution:

  • Water softening systems work well for eliminating lower levels of iron.
  • Water filtration systems work well when higher concentrations of iron need to be removed.
chlorine test strips

Prevent rust for the long-term

Whole-house water filters and softener systems aren’t cheap, but they can improve your water quality, especially if you have well water. Installing a long-lasting solution to eliminate iron from your household water will not only give you better laundry results, it can also reduce stains in your sinks and toilets.

Frequently asked questions

Can I use a rust remover product for rust stains on shirts that say “dry clean only”?

No. Take your shirt to a dry cleaner and show them the stain, so they can properly treat it before dry cleaning.

Can I use lemon juice or vinegar to clean rust stains?

Vinegar and lemon juice are weak acids, and typically aren’t strong enough to remove rust stains.