You might not think stainless steel finishes on appliances like this refrigerator can rust, but they can.

As anyone who owns stainless steel appliances knows, stainless—in spite of the promise of its name—is not immune to staining. Smudges, fingerprints, and water spots are inevitable with stainless refrigerators, ranges, dishwashers, and other kitchen appliances.

Unfortunately, rust can be, too. That’s right: Stainless steel can rust. Tiny spots or streaks of rust can appear on the stainless steel finish of your appliances, marring its smooth, silvery surface, not to mention its premium looks.

Don’t fret. Rust is treatable. And the right maintenance habits can minimize the chance of rust developing in the first place.

How Is That Even Possible?

Stainless, an iron alloy that contains chromium, might include other elements, such as nickel.

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“The chromium in stainless helps form an invisible layer on the surface that prevents moisture from reaching the iron,” says Austin Wilde, senior manager of supplier quality stainless steel at GE Appliances. “If this layer is breached or degraded to the point where moisture reaches the underlying steel, rust will occur.”  

What causes that layer to degrade? The wrong cleaning products, for one.

“Cleaners with high amounts of bleach can cause corrosion, especially in crevices where cleaner can become trapped and remain in contact with the stainless for a long period of time,” says Tracy Rock, an engineer for KitchenAid. Abrasives, such as steel pads or steel brushes, can also damage the surface. 

Stainless is also vulnerable to rust if something goes wrong in the manufacturing process. For example, impurities that get embedded in the stainless surface during the production process can later corrode. 

Is Some Stainless More Rust-Resistant?

Maybe, maybe not. Manufacturers have different things to say about this.

Both GE and KitchenAid say that nonmagnetic stainless steel grades (such as 304, which contains nickel) tend to be more rust-resistant than magnetic stainless steel grades (such as 430). Joseph Spina, a spokesman for Electrolux, says that 304 stainless is less likely to corrode.

Samsung says that all grades of stainless steel are susceptible to rust if not properly maintained. Bosch concurs.

And Jeannine Washkuhn, a representative for Sub-Zero and Wolf, says it’s the quality of the stainless that makes a difference: “Rusting is quite rare with the high grades of stainless that we use.”

Preventing Rust Spots on Stainless

Follow the maintenance advice in the owner’s manuals for your kitchen appliances or on the manufacturers’ websites. Here are some universal do’s and don’ts from manufacturers:

Do wash stainless with mild soap, using a soft, clean cloth; then rinse. Dry with a soft, clean cloth.  

Don’t use disinfectants, abrasives, or cleaners that contain bleach, alcohol, ammonia, or chlorides, all of which can harm stainless. 

Do check ingredient labels on cleaning products you use near your stainless appliances. If you have a tile floor, for example, you should know that some grout cleaners are a potential threat to stainless steel. Samsung warns on its site that the fumes alone from muriatic acid—an ingredient found in some grout cleaners—can damage a stainless finish. 

Don’t use steel wool or scrub pads. They can scratch the surface, leaving it vulnerable to moisture. Also, fragments of steel wool can become embedded in the stainless finish and rust. 

Do wipe appliances with a stainless cleaner regularly. Most contain mineral oil, which helps shield the steel’s protective layer.

Don’t wipe stainless with a used dishrag. “It can contaminate the surface with food oils,” Wilde says. “These can be acidic and are detrimental to the protective layer on the steel.”

How to Remove Rust Spots

You can get rid of rust spots with a stainless cleaner or stainless brightener, such as Bar Keepers Friend. Or you can make a paste of baking soda and water, and apply it with a soft cloth, rubbing gently in the direction of the grain. Samsung says to use 1 tablespoon of baking soda to 2 cups of water, while Kenmore says to mix equal parts.

It’s best to follow the instructions for your appliance brand, or call the manufacturer’s customer service line for advice specific to your model. Once you’ve removed the rust, rinse with clean water and a soft cloth, then dry.

Keep an eye on areas where you’ve seen and cleaned off rust;  these spots are more likely to rust again in the future.  

Shopping for Kitchen Appliances?
Our buying guides for dishwashersrefrigerators, and ranges are a good place to start. Then check the ratings to find out how hundreds of appliances performed in our tests.