While it’s a common assumption that stainless steel can go long periods of time without a proper cleaning, this type of metal truly needs regular TLC. Although stainless steel has a higher resistance to exposure than other metals, it can become discolored and even corroded over time. This is usually due to a compromise in its passivity layer.
Any stainless steel that contains 12-30% chromium forms a passivity layer that acts as a shield against corrosion. Made of chromium oxide, this layer blocks oxygen diffusion (movement) to the steel’s surface and keeps corrosion from spreading both internally and externally.
Regular cleaning and maintenance is, by far, the smartest way to keep the passivity layer intact and prevent corrosion. Luckily, stainless steel is relatively easy to maintain, so you’re not in for a frustrating job that’s going to be time-consuming.
In this guide, we’ll go over tips, tricks, and methods you can use to ensure your stainless steel continues to look pristine.
Part I: Cleaning Methods
- For Routine Cleaning. Most of the time, stainless steel is cleaned quite easily with warm water and a soft cloth. If you’re cleaning sheet metal, a hose or power washer that spouts warm water will do the trick. On slightly tougher jobs, feel free to use household items like vinegar and chloride-free detergents.
Here at Monarch, we like to make use of a light glass cleaner and a very soft rag. Stove top or generic stainless steel appliance cleaners also do a great job.
- For Tough Stains and Discoloration. Tougher jobs require a more aggressive technique than run-of-the-mill cleanings, so it may be necessary to enlist the help of a commercial cleaner like 3M Stainless Steel Cleaner or Bar Keeper’s Friend.
Many commercial cleaners contain phosphates, synthetic detergents, and alkalis which are very effective on severe soils and tarnishes. When using these types of cleaners, make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely for best results.
- For Extracting Grease and Oil. If you’ve got a big cleaning job to do and greases and oils are presenting a problem, then alkaline-based cleaners, also referred to as caustic cleaners, are your best options.
Alkaline and alkaline chlorinated cleaners are great for removing greases and oils because they contain wetting and chelating agents that allow tough residue to be “displaced” from the surface of the steel and then more easily extracted when combined with water.
Part II: Maintaining the Finish
Naturally, you’ll want to maintain the piece’s finish as best you can over time. For a brushed finish, this can typically be accomplished with simple household items like baking soda, flour, or vinegar. You can apply these products to any stainless steel piece to give it a quick yet effective polish, though it might take a little elbow grease to get the exact look you’re going for.
Let’s have a brief look at each one:
- Baking Soda. Since baking soda is non-toxic, inexpensive, and widely available, it makes a fantastic alternative to chemical metal polishers. For this method, mix baking soda with water to make a paste and apply it to the piece with a soft sponge.
- Flour. While flour doesn’t produce the same results as professional grade materials, it does make buffing and polishing a less time-consuming process. Simply apply the flour to the piece with a soft cloth and then start buffing. Remember to rinse thoroughly after you’re done, as flour can easily get stuck in any crevices present in the piece.
- Vinegar. Although vinegar’s acidic nature can corrode stainless steel, it works well when you dilute it with water. Apply distilled white vinegar with a soft cloth for best results.
Part III: Things to Keep in Mind
- Rinse, rinse, rinse. Always remember to rinse everything thoroughly after a cleaning. Leftover residue from cleaning solutions can damage a stainless steel finish, so it’s essential to make rinsing part of the routine.
- Generally speaking, you should avoid chloride-containing cleaners like disinfectants and bleach. These can easily break down the passivity layer and cause pitting and rusting.
- When caring for stainless steel, you’ll also want to avoid highly abrasive cleaners like steel wool or abrasive sponges. These leave particles in the surface of the steel that can rust over time.
- Wearing gloves will help you avoid smudging the material with fingerprints and skin oils as well as protect you from any harsh chemicals used in the cleaning process.
- Never leave stainless steel to soak in solutions that contain chlorine, vinegar, or table salt, as long-term exposure to these can damage it.