Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed strange orange marks on my clothes. They look like rust stains. Where are they coming from? My clothes aren’t made of metal! These stains are everywhere, even on my best shirts. I guess I’ll have to wash them again. But how do you get rust stains out of clothes?
Rust stains can be removed by using a mix of cream of tartar and hydrogen peroxide or vinegar. The stains are caused by iron deposits in the water. Rusty appliances and old water pipes will also cause staining. Laundry additives will help reduce rust stains and prevent damage to clothing.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the causes of rust stains. From how to treat them to how you can get rust stains out of clothes and avoid them.
What Causes Rust Stains on Clothes?
There’s nothing more frustrating than finding weird orange marks on your clothes after you’ve washed them. Especially if you only washed them to get rid of smells, and now they are dirtier than before they went in.
Those strange stains are rust marks. They find their way onto your garments in one of two ways. While you are out and about, the first might have rubbed up against some rusty metal. Either on a gate, a fence, or even your car.
Next, the stains can appear because of the wash. Something in the machine may have caused the rusty blotches on your favorite shirt. Let’s take a look at some of the main causes of rust stains on clothes.
Rusty Water Pipes
Depending on the age of your home, you may find you have some antiquated pipework. Although pipes in modern houses tend to be plastic, pipes in older houses would have been made from cast iron.
It may surprise you to know that cast iron pipes were still being used up until the 1980s, not just in houses either. Some city water systems still contain cast iron pipework. The problem with cast iron is it has a really bad habit of rusting.
When the rust chips off, it can flow down the pipes with the water, ending up inside the drum of your washing machine. This is one of the biggest causes of rust stains on clothes.
Water Heaters and Tanks
Another problem for older houses is the age and condition of the water heater or water tank. Although water containers like heaters tend to have a definitive lifespan, they aren’t always replaced when they need to be.
Over time rust accumulates in the water heaters, which can be made from a mixture of steel, copper, and even cast iron. This build-up of rusty residue can leave the water tank through the pipes.
When it does, you have a nice little river of rust heading straight for your washing machine. If you’ve suddenly started seeing rusty marks on your washing, it may be time to change your water heater.
This is one you won’t have much control over. As mentioned above, many city water systems are made from cast iron. Sometimes the aging metal water lines need maintenance. Messing with them can cause little bits of rust to break away and travel towards your faucet.
Maintenance can include replacing bits of broken pipework or even back-flushing. This is where water is forced through the system to clear out any sediment buildup. You’ll probably get a notice from your city to tell you to boil your water before drinking. They want to make sure you get rid of any misplaced nasty bits floating about.
That’s not something you can do for the water heading for your washing machine, though. The disrupted sediment and rust will meander undeterred towards your next load of washing. Leaving little orange excrement as it goes.
In a similar way to maintenance on pipework, an earthquake can disturb ancient pipes causing rust flakes to fall into the water. Depending on the ferocity of the quake, the ground can have a moderate wibble to a shake registering 6.5 on the Richter scale.
Both extremes can have a disastrous effect on your washing. Even a slight ground heave can send shivers through rusty pipes like ripples through orange jello. Only unlike jello, those orange bits tend to fall off the pipes and make a beeline for your washing machine.
Worse, the amount of shaken rust could be significant enough to turn your water a deep rusty orange. If you find it’s your water going orange rather than your washing machine, you may have to fix some ancient pipes. Call a plumber to get your system checked out.
Droughts can cause no end of problems, from tinder-dry vegetation to a lack of water for animals. A lesser-known fact is droughts also upset the waterworks.
A lower level of water than usual can cause sediment to be dredged up from the bottom of the pipes. This sediment can contain rust particles, especially in older pipes made from iron.
What little amount of water you have will be flowing across the disturbed sediment, picking it up as it goes. Depending on how long your drought has lasted, the color of the iron-enriched debris is likely to range from brown and icky through to bright orange.
There’s only one place this colorful mixture is going. Straight through to your washing machine to leave a multitude of orange blobs on your garments. The annoying part of drought-induced rust damage, there’s little you can do to alleviate the problem. Other than using rust prevention remedies in your washing machine or washing your clothes less often.
Washing Machine and Dryer
Drums in modern washing machines are made from stainless steel. That’s because stainless steel is less likely to suffer from rust. Older machines aren’t so lucky. Many of them have drums that can and do go rusty. The same goes for old dryers.
As with some of the other points above, the age of the metal item is a large contributor to your chances of getting rust spots on your laundry. Old washing machines and dryers are no exception. They may still work after 20 years of heavy use, but are your old machines excelling at keeping your clothes clean?
Or are you adding to your rust problem? If you are using older machines, check the drum for damage. You might find swapping your washer and dryer for new, energy-efficient models will not only save your washing from the grip of orange doom. But, you’ll also save money on your electric bill.
Bleach is one of those substances that can either clean your washing or ruin it. This depends on how you use it, but bleach can be devastating when it comes in contact with metal.
The problem with bleach is it can react with some metals and cause rust stains. You’ll also find if you try to treat a rust stain by adding bleach to it, you’ll make it worse. You see, bleach will set the rust stain, making it impossible to remove.
If you have rust issues in your wash, step away from the bleach and give it a wide berth. This is one situation where any product, whether it’s bleach or just contains bleach, is best left in the cupboard.
Something You’ve Rubbed Against
As we touched on earlier, this is when you’ve come into contact with something rusty. It could be through your job, especially working on old cars. Or maybe your hobby is fixing up old bicycles.
The rust from metal objects can catch on the fibers of your clothing. They hitch a ride home with you without you noticing. When your clothes go in the washing machine, the rust particles get dislodged and float in the water, leaving rusty stains on the fabrics they brush against. This isn’t always the fabric they came home with, either. It could be your entire wash.
It’s always a good idea to brush your clothing or give it a good shake before putting it in the washing machine. That will loosen off any unwanted rust particles, so they fall off outside the machine rather than in it.
Something in Your Pocket
We’re all guilty of leaving stuff in our pockets. Usually, it’s a tissue that dissolves in the water, leaving annoying white blobs all over the clothes. Particularly dark clothes!
Sometimes metal objects can get left behind. Things like screws, nails, or even keys. When these stay in your pockets through the wash, they can go rusty, causing rust stains throughout the wash.
Always check and double-check your pockets are empty before washing your garment. Not only will it help prevent rust stains, but you’ll also reduce the risk of damage to your machine.
Some areas have high levels of iron in the water. While you might not notice if you are on city water, those with wells might be aware of an issue. High iron means orange water.
If you’ve ever used a sprinkler or a hose in a region with a lot of iron, you may see patches of rust coloring on walls, garden paths, and even cars. This iron can also cause whole garments to turn orange rather than have rust spots.
The best way to deal with naturally high levels of iron is with a laundry additive. If the problem is severe, you may need to contact water purification specialists and seek advice on installing a water softener. Your local Home Depot or city council may be able to help you with this.
How to Get Rust Stains Out of Clothes
Now you’ve identified the causes of rust in your laundry; you’ll want to get the rust stains out of your clothes. There are a few options you can use. Check out our step-by-step guides on the best methods for removing rust stains.
Please note, these solutions work best when the washing is still wet and taken straight from the washing machine. Do not attempt to dry the clothing in a dryer before treating the stains. Hot air will set the rust stains.
1. Cream of Tartar, Baking Soda, and Hydrogen Peroxide
By themselves, these three staples of your kitchen cupboard make fantastic cleaners. Teamed together, they are like the Marvel Avengers of the rust-stain-busting world. This trio cuts through the orange baddie with a combination of natural bleaching agents and acid.
You will need:
- 1 Tsp Cream of Tartar
- 1 Tsp Baking Soda
- 2 Drops Hydrogen Peroxide
Mix the cream of tartar and the baking soda together. Then add the hydrogen peroxide and gently swirl the mixture into a paste.
If you are working with dark colors, test the mixture in an inconspicuous area. When you’re happy, the hydrogen peroxide isn’t going to fade the color of your garment. Proceed to step 3.
Apply the paste liberally to the rust stains. Allow to stand for 20-30 minutes.
Rinse the garment in warm water. Avoid hot water as this will set the stains. Then wash on your normal wash setting in your washing machine.
Once the wash cycle has been completed, check the garment for stains. If they have all gone, leave the garment to air dry. Should there be any stains remaining, repeat steps 1-4 until you are happy all the residual rust has been removed.
2. Lemon Juice and Salt
Lemon juice is acidic and has natural cleaning properties. Salt is a natural stain remover. Combined together, you’ve got Batman and Robin fighting the evil rust with plenty of zap and pow!
You will need:
- 2 Tsp Lemon Juice
- 2 Tsp Salt
- 2 Clean Cloths
Mix the lemon juice and salt into a thick paste. You can use a cup or small bowl for this.
Spread the paste onto the rust stains using a clean cloth. Dab gently to loosen the surface of the stain. Leave for between 5-10 minutes. While waiting, rinse out your cloth.
Wipe away the paste with your freshly rinsed damp cloth. Then, with a dry cloth, pat the area of the stain dry. Once you are happy all the stains are gone, allow the garment to air dry. If some stains remain, repeat steps 1-3 until you are satisfied with the results.
3. White Vinegar
Another kitchen favorite and unsung hero of the cleaning cupboard. White vinegar is acidic and eats stains. You can use this method on clothes and any fibers you can’t wash like those found in carpets.
You will need:
- White vinegar
- Spray bottle
- Hand Towel
- Clean cloth
Place the hand towel down, so it protects any areas you don’t want to get vinegar on. Then, add the vinegar to the spray bottle.
Spray the vinegar onto the rust stains. Try to use a thin stream rather than a mist setting on your spray bottle so the vinegar can stay over the stain.
Using a cloth, dab at the stain to lift the rust away from the material. Don’t rub, as this could cause the stain to spread out rather than be lifted away.
Wash the garment on your usual washing machine setting. Once the cycle is complete, hang the garment outside to air dry in the sun.
For non-washable garments or carpets, use a soft brush to gently lift the residual rust and vinegar away from the fibers and leave them to dry.
Although it probably isn’t the first product you think of for stain removal, WD40 Multipurpose Product is an effective stain buster. So much so even the manufacturers say you can use it to remove rust stains from fabric.
They do, however, say it works best on heavier fabrics like denim. Test a small section of your jeans if you have any special finishes on them to make sure the color isn’t damaged.
You will need:
- WD40 Multipurpose Product
- Wire Brush
Grab your tin of WD40 and spray the rust spot on your fabric. Make sure to soak the stain thoroughly. Leave the garment to soak up the WD40 for about 10 minutes.
Using the wire brush, wipe away the residue. Then wash the garment on your usual washing machine setting.
Hang the garment outside to air dry in the sunlight. Avoid using a dryer as this could set in any remaining residue.
How to Remove Rust Stains From Colored Clothes
When it comes to colored clothing, you need to be careful of keeping the color intact. Some remedies for removing rust stains can also fade the color in your garments. You should always test a small area with any remedy before removing rust stains.
One product you should avoid for colored clothing is lemon juice. It’s too severe for the color and will strip it away. You should also steer clear of hydrogen peroxide as that too will cause your garment’s color to fade.
Consider using vinegar instead. Although it’s still acidic, vinegar is not quite as harsh and will be kinder to colored garments. It’s also one of the better natural stain removers, so it’s a win-win.
Can you Remove Rust Stains After Drying?
It’s not as easy to remove stains after they’ve been in the dryer. That goes for any stains, not just rust. The heat from the dryer can set the stains into the fabric of the clothing. So much so they can become a part of the fibers.
Before you throw the garment out with the garbage, it is worth trying to save it, especially if it is one of your favorites! Just be aware rust stains aren’t guaranteed to come out once your garment has been for a tumble in your dryer.
One of the best methods for working on dried rust stains is using white vinegar. Saturate the rust stains with vinegar until they are thoroughly soaked. Give the vinegar time to work on the stain by allowing it to stand for about 10 minutes. This should help reactivate the stain and allow it to lift away from the fabric. Then, follow the steps in the White Vinegar removal method above.
Unfortunately, it’s a case of having a 50/50 chance of success once the stain is dry. But, at least you’ll have tried.
How to Prevent Rust Stains on Clothes
The best way to prevent rust stains on clothes is to find out what caused the stains. Then, either fix the item or replace it. By removing the offending rusty object, you can stop rust stains from appearing on your garments.
As fabric isn’t prone to rust, it’s always going to be in contact with metal items that cause the stains. You’d be amazed at where the metal can be found too! One place you probably haven’t thought of checking is your closet. Are you still using metal hangers? Upgrade to plastic. Your garments will hang better and be free from rust.
Regularly check any metal shelves or furniture you have. Particularly if it’s something that spends a lot of time outdoors, like patio chairs or tables. Any metal item can rub against your clothing and leave little spots of rust behind. These can end up as stains on your clothes. Keep your metal furniture in tip-top condition. As soon as you see any signs of rust, make sure to treat it and paint your items with rust-preventing paint.
Your washing machine and dryer should be serviced at least once a year. This will ensure they keep rust-free and in full working order. Taking care of your laundry items will help prevent rust stains from taking up residence on your garments. Make sure to clean your washing machine with vinegar and water rinse to prevent any rust buildup between services.
There isn’t much you can do if your rust problems are caused by an external source like city pipes. You can purchase laundry additives that can remove the iron content from the water before it reaches your clothes. We’ll look at a couple of products you can try in the next section.
Best Laundry Products for Rust Removal and Prevention
Now you know what causes rust stains, you can take steps to prevent the damage. Remember, getting rust stains out of clothes is easier to do while they are still wet. So act fast as soon as you spot the stain!