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How to Get Rust Stains Out of Clothes: Our Top Tricks

Rust stain on clothes.

Rust stains in the laundry are one cleaning task we don’t anticipate, and they’re often more challenging than you’d expect. Common sense stain removal techniques don’t always work on rust, setting you up for a disappointing experience when you try your typical tricks.

You don’t usually need specialty commercial rust removers to handle tough stains. In many cases, they only demand a few clever DIY ingredients and an educated approach. The simplest solutions are often the most effective. If stubborn brown and orange marks are ruining your shirts and messing up your day, here’s everything to know about how to get rust stains out of clothes.

Is That a Rust Stain on Your Clothes?

Rust stains aren’t common, and they don’t always appear in the same way as most blemishes. Grass on the jeans, blood on your shoes, or spaghetti sauce on the carpet are accidents anyone might expect during the day. And sure enough, rust can randomly find its way onto a pair of pants or a shirt whenever you rub against a corroded surface. But ironically enough, rust stains also often appear while cleaning our clothes.

From the water source to the washing machine, rust can occur in several places that might affect your laundry. Sediment can accrue in plumbing, or the washer could become worn out and rusty. If you’re on well water, iron levels above the EPA’s National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations may put your washable fabrics at risk of frequent rust stains.

Whatever the cause, an orange-brown mark on your clothes out of the washer means there’s potentially a deeper issue that needs attention. It also means you need to be careful how you clean.

How NOT to Clean Rust Stains

When your clothes come out of the washing machine rusty, popping them in the dryer is the last thing you should do. Like most stains, you shouldn’t apply dry heat to rust on your clothing, as the dryer will likely set it permanently. 

More importantly, you want to avoid chlorine bleach. From practical experience, we know this generally isn’t the most effective or safest way to clean most stains. Enough people have had rust stains set because they used bleach, so we think you should skip it entirely.

Two Techniques to Remove Tough Rust Stains

Acids are generally the right choice for tackling rust stains. Many usable acidic substances are in everyday household items. Many people have successfully removed rust stains from clothes with cream of tartar and baking soda mixed in water. Even potatoes, with their high amounts of oxalic acid, can make a handy rust cleaner for various materials.

There are several possibilities, most of which are likely sitting in your kitchen right now. For convenience and efficiency, our top picks use three classic DIY solutions – lemon juice, distilled white vinegar, and table salt.

1. Lemon Juice and Salt

Removing rust stains usually only requires lemon juice, table salt, and time. Sprinkle salt onto the stained fabric. Squeeze the juice from a fresh-cut lemon over the salt until the stain is well-saturated. Let it dry in the sun, and most of the rust stain should lift. Rinse with cold water and launder as directed on the care tag.

You can also try lemon juice by itself, as salt is primarily there to facilitate the reaction that loosens the rust. After washing, always check the fabric before tossing it in the dryer, or allow it to air dry. If you put it in the dryer, there’s a chance the stain could set in the fabric permanently.

2. Distilled White Vinegar and Salt

White vinegar is the foundation for several safe and effective DIY cleaning methods around the home. Irritating rust stains are one area where it shines brightest. Sprinkle table salt onto the stained fabric. Saturate it with white vinegar, and let it dry in the sun. Wash in cold water, and check that the stain is gone before drying.

Clean Stubborn Rust Stains with a Commercial Rust Stain Remover

A commercial rust remover is an excellent investment if rust stains are a common hassle around the house. Although they aren’t the safest options, chemical rust removers are your best bet when lemon juice and vinegar aren’t refreshing your stained fabric. The following products work on clothing and numerous surfaces around the home, including rust-stained tubs and sinks:

  • Safe on colorfast fabric
  • Septic safe
  • 69% of customer give five-star ratings (as of May 7, 2023)

Whink Rust Remover

  • Safe on colorfast fabric
  • Septic safe
  • 82% of customer give five-star ratings (as of May 7, 2023)

While these cleaners can remove rust stains, they use relatively aggressive chemicals. As toxic materials, they demand extra safety precautions. You’ll need rubber gloves and protective gear to prevent injury. Spare a few seconds to spot-test the cleaner on an inside seam to ensure it doesn’t discolor your garment.

How Do You Remove Dried Rust Stains?

Dried rust creates the toughest stains on clothing, but you can often get excellent results from only lemon juice and salt. After you loosen the stain, your washing machine can eliminate any remaining discoloration. For non-washable fabrics, you may need to reapply your lemon juice or vinegar cleaning fix until the stain disappears entirely.

Does Vinegar Remove Rust Stains?

Distilled white vinegar, like lemon juice, has a weak acid that reacts with the oxidized rust stain to form a soluble salt and water. Though generally safe on clothing, vinegar can create rust and corrode metal and mineral materials. But it’s also one of the most straightforward and low-risk methods for refreshing surfaces around the home. The crucial step after cleaning rust stains is to rinse away any remaining vinegar to keep it from causing damage to metal or stone.

Does Dawn Remove Rust from Clothes?

Dawn dish liquid is the secret behind most stain-removal hacks. On light, fresh rust stains, it’s certainly better than nothing. But with something as unique as rust, it’s not necessarily the best option out of everything available in the kitchen. Before reaching for the dish liquid, try vinegar or fresh-squeezed lemon juice and salt.

Will WD-40 Remove Rust Stains from Clothes?

Boasting 2,000 uses, WD-40 has a guaranteed use in virtually any household, including dealing with tricky sticky rust. But for clothing? That’s one place we wouldn’t recommend using it, primarily because it could leave fresh oil stains behind. Stick with vinegar or lemon juice for stained clothes, and save the WD-40 for your rusty hinges and bolts.

What Is the Best Rust Remover for Clothing?

A commercial cleaner like Whink is the best rust-removal option for colorfast or white clothing. Treat stains with lemon or white vinegar and salt before opting for a more toxic solution. If you must resort to a more aggressive cleaner, ensure you follow the instructions to the letter. Spot-test the rust remover in a hidden area, and always take the proper steps to prevent accidental skin contact or inhalation.

What Solution Removes Rust Stains from Clothes?

Our first choice for removing rust stains from clothing is one of the gentlest all-around cleaners in the house. Lemon juice is cheap and effective, a true miracle worker when you’ve got tough stains to manage. Incorporate hot water and salt to spur on the chemical reaction to give yourself the best chance of quickly refreshing the fabric.

Commercial rust removers like Whink are also highly effective. With the added cost and toxic ingredients they contain, these products should rarely be your go-to option. But when you’ve tried everything to rescue your favorite clothing articles from a stubborn rust stain, we think the extra investment is well worth it.


Noah Hoit