These stubborn stains aren’t necessarily the result of rust problems in your plumbing system or even in the water authority’s pipelines. Any water with a sufficiently high iron content can leave these stains behind over time, even if the water tastes normal and appears to be clear. So if you live in an area with lots of iron deposits underground, that iron is probably leaching into the groundwater and could potentially lead to these troublesome porcelain stains.
It usually takes a good amount of contact between rusty water and porcelain for tough stains to appear, so you’re most likely to see this in areas where there’s always standing water, like your toilet bowl. If there’s a brownish ring around the water line or brown streaks leading down from the outlets where water flows into the bowl, these may be rust stains that won’t come clean with the usual toilet cleaner and scrub brush.
In sinks and tubs, the place where these stains most frequently form is in the little ridge around the drain. If you have a leaky faucet, there may also be brown stains right where the water drips.
You may need a plumber’s help in identifying and correcting the underlying issue. If it’s rusty pipes or a rusty hot water heater, you’ll need to replace those items to stop the flow of rusty water. And if it’s coming from naturally occurring iron-rich water, installing a water softening system can help bring the problem under control.
As for cleaning those stains, you have your work cut out for you — over time, severe rust stains can permanently etch themselves into the porcelain. But if you’re up to the challenge, try these trusted remedies:
Abrasive scouring pads. The rough side of a standard two-color kitchen sponge may be all you need to lift away light stains, but there are also versions of this product that are designed specifically for tough stains on toilets and tubs. This is a good first choice because there are no chemicals involved (which is eco-friendly) and high quality scouring pads can usually be cleaned and reused several times.
Pumice. The airy, crumbly volcanic rock is renowned for its gentle scouring abilities, and there are a few pumice products that are ideal for removing rust stains from porcelain. Try using a pumice stick or scrubber designed for porcelain and tile — much like with a scouring pad, you’ll need to apply some elbow grease, but you’ll save money in the long run with multiple cleanings per product.
Lemon juice and salt. If you don’t have either of the above-mentioned products on hand, you may still be able to clean those stains without taking a trip to the hardware store. A wet paste of lemon juice and salt is a potent combination that can effectively attack rust stains if given time to penetrate. It doesn’t form a sticky paste, so it’s tough to use this technique on a toilet bowl, but it works great on flat surfaces like sink and tub drains. Let the mixture soak for at least 15 minutes or up to several hours, then scrub away with a toothbrush.
Chemical cleaners. If those environmentally safe scouring techniques don’t work for you, you can always try a chemical cleaner — but your everyday cleaners won’t cut it. Even bleach is a poor match for tough rust stains. Look for a cleaner that contains hydrochloric acid and is safe for use as a tub and tile cleaner. Follow the safety instructions carefully, as these products are hazardous if mishandled.