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Stainless Steel - Cleaning, Care and Maintenance

The following courtesy of AZO Material.

The attractive and hygienic surface appearance of stainless steel products cannot be regarded as completely maintenance-free. All grades and finishes of stainless steel may in fact stain, discolor or attain an adhering layer of grime in normal service. To achieve maximum corrosion resistance the surface of the stainless steel must be kept clean.
Provided the grade, condition, and surface finish were correctly selected for the particular service environment, fabrication and installation procedures were correct and that cleaning schedules are carried out regularly, good performance and long life will be achieved.
The frequency and cost of cleaning of stainless steel are lower than for many other materials and this will often out-weigh higher acquisition costs.

Why Maintenance is Necessary

Surface contamination and the formation of deposits are critical factors that may lead to drastically reduced life. These contaminants may be minute particles of iron or rust from other non-stainless steels used in nearby construction and not subsequently removed. Industrial, commercial and even domestic and naturally occurring atmospheric conditions can result in deposits that can be quite corrosive. An example is salt deposits from marine conditions.

Working environments can also create more aggressive conditions, such as the warm, high humidity atmosphere above indoor swimming pools. These environments can increase the speed of corrosion and therefore require more frequent maintenance. Modern processes use many cleaners, sterilizers, and bleaches for hygienic purposes. All these proprietary solutions, when used in accordance with their makers' instructions are safe, but if used incorrectly (e.g. warm or concentrated) can cause discoloration and corrosion on the surface of stainless steels. Strong acid solutions (e.g. hydrochloric acid or "spirits of salts") are sometimes used to clean masonry and tiling of buildings but they should never be permitted to come into contact with metals, including stainless steel. If this should happen the acid solution must be removed immediately by copious water flushing.

Maintenance During Installation

Cleaning of new fabrications should present no special problems, although more attention may be required if the installation period has been prolonged. Where surface contamination is suspected, immediate attention to cleaning will promote a trouble-free service life. Food handling, pharmaceutical, and aerospace applications may require extremely high levels of cleanliness.

On-Going Maintenance

Advice is often sought concerning the frequency of cleaning of products made of stainless steel, and the answer is quite simply "clean the metal when it is dirty in order to restore its original appearance". This may vary from once to four times a year for external applications or it maybe once a day for an item in hygienic or aggressive situations. In many applications, the cleaning frequency is after each use.

Good Housekeeping During Manufacturing

Stainless steel can be contaminated by pick-up of carbon steel ("free iron") and this is likely to lead to rapid localized corrosion. The ideal is to have workshops and machinery dedicated to only stainless steelwork, but in a workshop also processing other steels avoid pick-up from:

  • Tooling used with other metals
  • Grinding wheels, wire brushes, Finishing belts
  • Steel storage racks
  • Contamination by grinding or welding sparks
  • Handling Equipment
  • Adjacent carbon steel fabrication

Cleaning Methods

Stainless steel is easy to clean. Washing with soap or a mild detergent (Dishwash Super 12 or Handy K-10) and warm water followed by a clean water rinse is usually quite adequate for domestic and architectural equipment. An enhanced appearance will be achieved if the cleaned surface is finally wiped dry. Specific methods of cleaning areas in Table 1.

Sections below give passivation treatments for removal of free iron and other contamination resulting from the handling, fabrication, or exposure to contaminated atmospheres, and pickling treatments for removal of high-temperature scale from heat treatment or welding operations.

Passivation Treatments

  • Grades with at least 16% chromium (except free machining grade such as 303), 20-50% nitric acid, at room temperature to 40oC for 30-60 minutes. (Stainless steel cleaner used neat)
  • Grades with less than 16% chromium (except free machining grades such as 416), 20-50% nitric acid, at room temperature to 40oC for 60 minutes. (Stainless steel cleaner used neat)
  • Free machining grades such as 303, 416, and 430F, 20-50% nitric acid + 2-6% sodium dichromate, at room temperature to 50oC for 25-40 minutes.

Pickling Treatments

  • All stainless steels (except free machining grades), 8-11% sulphuric acid, at 65 to 80oC for 5-45 minutes. (Pool Acid diluted 3 parts water 1 part Pool acid)
  • Grades with at least 16% chromium (except free machining grades), 15-25% nitric acid + 1-8% hydrofluoric acid, at 20 to 60oC for 5-30 minutes.
  • Free machining grades and grades with less than 16% chromium such as 303, 410, and 416, 10-15% nitric acid + 0.5-1.5% hydrofluoric acid, at 20 to 60oC for 5-30 minutes.

"Pickling Paste" is a commercial product of hydrofluoric and nitric acids in a thickener - this is useful for pickling welds and spot contamination, even on vertical and overhanging surfaces.

Table1. Methods of Cleaning Stainless Steel


Cleaning Agent


Routine Cleaning
All finishes

Soap or mild detergent and water (Preferably warm)

Sponge, rinse with clean water, wipe dry if necessary. Follow polish lines.

All finishes

Soap and warm water or organic solvent (eg acetone, alcohol, methylated spirits) (GP Clean, Meths)

Rinse with clean water and wipe dry. Follow polish lines.

Stubborn Stains and Discolouration.
All finishes.

Mild cleaning solutions, specialty stainless steel cleaners. (Stainless Steel Cleaner, OXY Stain away)

Use rag, sponge or fibre brush (soft nylon or natural bristle. An old toothbrush can be useful). Rinse well with clean water and wipe dry. Follow polish lines.

Lime Deposits from Hard Water.

Solution of one part Oxy stain away 6 parts water.

Soak in solution then brush to loosen. Rinse well with clean water.

Oil or Grease Marks.

All finishes.

Organic solvents (eg. acetone, alcohol, methylated spirits, proprietary "safety solvents"). GP, Heavy duty cleaner or Meths)

Baked-on grease can be softened beforehand with ammonia.

Clean after with soap and water, rinse with clean water and dry. Follow polish lines.

Rust and other Corrosion Products.

Embedded or Adhering "Free Iron".

Rust stains can be removed by adding one part of Stainless steel cleaner to nine parts of warm water or 1 part OXY Stain away with 6 parts water) Leave for 30 to 60 minutes, then wash off with plenty of water, and flush any drains thoroughly. See also previous section on Passivating.

Rinse well with clean water. Wear rubber gloves, mix the solution in a glass container, and be very careful with the acid. (see Precautions for acid cleaners)

Routine Cleaning of Boat Fittings.

Frequent washing down with fresh water. Maintenance clean with Stainless steel cleaner, for hull stains OXY Stain away mixed 6 part water to 1 part OXY Stain away.

Washing is recommended after each time the boat is used in salt water.

Cooking Pot Boiled Dry.

Remove burnt food by soaking in hot water with detergent, baking soda or ammonia.

Afterwards clean and polish, with a mild abrasive if necessary. See comments re steel wool.

Dark Oxide From Welding or Heat Treatment.

"Pickling Paste" or pickling solutions given on previously.

Must be carefully rinsed, and use care in handling (see Precautions for acid cleaners).

Scratches on Polished (Satin) Finish.

Slight scratches - use impregnated nylon pads. Polish with scuffs dressed with iron-free abrasives (Mega scrub) for deeper scratches. Follow polish lines. Then clean with soap or detergent as for routine cleaning.

Do not use ordinary steel wool - iron particles can become embedded in stainless steel and cause further surface problems. Stainless steel and "Scotch-brite" scouring pads are satisfactory.