Is stainless steel really impossible to stain?

By: Chris Opfer

"Stain Less," Not "Stainless"

Despite the hardy protection it affords users, stainless steel is more "stain less" than "stainless." In other words, while the material is highly resistant to discoloration, blemishes and other imperfections, it is not completely impenetrable. Just look at the Gateway Arch, which is starting to show its age with rust and decay as it approaches five decades of welcoming tourists to St. Louis [source: Pistor].

The protective layer of film covering a stainless steel object can break down over time, leading to corrosion and pitting. In addition, chemicals like chloride, hydrogen and hydrogen sulfide often cause the film to stress and crack [sources: International Stainless Steel Forum].


The level of rust resistance provided by a particular steel depends largely on the materials used to create it. The more chromium, the more corrosion protection. The sturdier stainless steels also feature at least 8 percent nickel, which provides further defense against tarnish [source: International Stainless Steel Forum].

For household users, it is important to understand that many metals advertised as stainless steel are actually stainless steel plated. The plate is corrosion-resistant, but is susceptible to damage if cut or scratched deep enough to reach the underlying material. Because the plates can also wear off over time, buyers should clarify whether a particular product is made completely of stainless steel or simply plated [source: Qiu].

Whether plated or not, your stainless steel appliances and other products need to be cleaned. Most of the time good old-fashioned soap and water will do the trick. For tougher stains, professionals recommend a variety of household remedies. A couple dabs of olive oil or window cleaner can remove most of those pesky fingerprints and smudges, while white or cider vinegar will restore shine. Don't use steel wool pads or harsh cleansing powders as they will scratch the surface. If you need to remove burnt-on food from your stainless steel pan, let it soak in warm water and then clean it with baking soda and a nylon scouring pad [sources: Stainless Online].

Author's Note: Is Stainless Steel Really Impossible to Stain?

Stainless steel is a material that we've come to find is "stainless" in the same way that my pants are "wrinkle-free." Sure, these trousers are also clearly marked with a "no-iron" tag, but there are obviously differences of opinion as to when an item needs to be unwrinkled. Trust me, I've thrown those bad boys on fresh out of the dryer and showed up at work looking like I spent the night sleeping under a dumpster. So much for truth in advertising.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Welding Society. "Classifications of Stainless Steel." (June 23, 2013)
  • British Stainless Steel Association. "The Discovery of Stainless Steel." (June 23, 2013)
  • British Stainless Steel Association. "The History of Stainless Steel." (June 23, 2013)
  • Cobb, Harold. "The History of Stainless Steel." ASM International. 2010.
  • Dynamic Fabrication Inc. "Precipitation Hardening Stainless Steel." (June 27, 2013)
  • International Stainless Steel Forum. "The Stainless Steel Family." (June 23, 2013)
  • Pistor, Nicholas. "Gateway Arch showing rust and decay." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Aug. 22, 2010. (June 23, 2013)
  • Qiu, Jianhai. "Stainless Steels and Alloys: Why They Resist Corrosion and How They Fail." WebCorr Corrosion Consulting Services. (June 23, 2013)
  • Stainless Online. "Ask Dr. Steel: 'How Do You Clean Stainless Steel?'" (June 23, 2013)
  • Stainless Online. "Ask Dr. Steel: 'What is Stainless Steel Stainless?'" (June 23, 2013)
  • Styria. "Stainless Steel Applications in Minerals and Industry." (June 23, 2013)