Cleaning rust off metal can be very challenging, but it is not impossible. There are several ways to approach the task of removing rust from metal surfaces. The approach that works best for you will depend on what type of object you are trying to clean and how much rust has built up on the item.
Cleaning Rust off Metal with Household Cleaners
If you are willing to apply a little "elbow grease", you may be able to take care of your rust removal needs using common household cleaning tools and products that you probably already own.
Scrub Away Rust
Depending on the type of metal surface you are trying to clean, you may want to use sandpaper, steel wool, or a wire brush to get rid of rust build-up. Abrasive surfaces can be excellent tools for cleaning rust of metal. Simply scrub or scrape the affected area until the rust begins to disappear. Brush or wipe away the loose rust periodically and continue scrubbing or scraping until all of the build-up is gone.
This option can be effective for surfaces that don't scratch easily, but should not be used on soft metals or any item that needs to have a smooth appearance that is free from scratches. Do not, for example, try this cleaning technique on an expensive stainless steel grill. While you can actually remove rust from a stainless grill using this method, you'll end up with a very costly cooking tool that is marred by unsightly scratches in place of the rust.
Dissolve Rust with Vinegar
Plain white vinegar can be an effective substance for cleaning rust off metal. You can pour or rub vinegar directly on metal items that have become rusty, or soak small items in a container filled with the clear liquid. When the vinegar starts to dissolve the rust, simply wipe the surface clean and rinse with cold water. If additional rust is left behind, repeat the process. If you get to a point where additional applications of vinegar are not resulting in additional rust removal, you may need to try a commercial rust remover or different cleaning method.
Remove Rust with Baking Soda
Add water to baking soda to form a thick paste, being careful that the consistency is not runny at all. Use your fingers or a flat spreader to apply the paste to the rusty surface. Leave the paste on the affected area until it is dry, then dampen and scrub off. You will likely find that some - or even all - of the rust has loosened and washes away. You may repeat this process as long as additional rust removal occurs with each application. If it stops being affected, consider using a different cleaning technique or a commercial rust removal process.
Commercial Rust Removal Products
There are a number of commercial rust removal products. While there are some natural products, most cleaning solutions designed to remove rust are made with phosphoric acid. This chemical solution reacts with rust, converting it to a water soluble compound that can be scrubbed away quickly and easily. Even though these types of cleaners can make short work of cleaning rust off metal, it's important to be aware that they are quite toxic. If you opt to use this type of rust removal agent, pay close attention to safety and follow the detailed instructions provided on the package exactly. You will likely need to wear gloves and a mask, as well as a long-sleeved shirt and long pants when working with this type of cleaning product.
Keys to Rust Removal Success
Take steps to remove rust from metal surfaces as soon as you notice it starting to develop. The longer rust sits without being removed, the more damage it does to the metal and the harder it will be to eliminate. As soon as you see rust stains start to develop, go ahead and try to remove the discoloration. Not only will cleaning be easier when the rust is new, you will minimize the potential for damage to your metal item.
Once you choose a rust removal cleaning method and you have taken care of the current problem, you will want to take steps to keep the rust from coming back in the future. Use a metal primer designed to prevent rust to seal the area that you have cleaned, then follow up with a coat (or two) of paint. Additionally, consider if something in the environment that can be changed led to the rust problem to start with and make changes if it is possible and appropriate to do so.
The ideal solution to keeping metal surfaces free from rust is to take preventive measures that can keep them from becoming rusty in the first place. Rust tends to form on metal as a result of prolonged exposure to moisture, so it's important to do your best to keep your belongings dry and out of the elements as much as possible. For example, keep your car clean and waxed, and store it in a garage or under a quality car cover.
Place a felt lined cover made of heavy vinyl over your barbecue grill when it is not in use. Dry your cast iron pans thoroughly before storing them, and season them regularly by rubbing them down with cooking oil. While not all rust can be prevented, being careful with your metal belongings can reduce the frequency with which you will have to deal with this particular type of cleaning challenge.