Iron Stains in the Laundry
Iron in the water supply is a common problem and a very real nuisance in
doing the home laundry. Iron can get into water in two main ways: 1) iron
may be dissolved and picked up by groundwater used for the home water supply
as it seeps naturally through soil and rock. If groundwater for use in homes
has much dissolved iron in it and is used without treatment to remove the
iron, it causes ugly discoloration and stains on kitchen, bathroom and
laundry fixtures and equipment, as well as on dishes and laundered items. 2)
Iron deposits can build up inside pressure tanks, water heaters and water
pipes. It occasionally breaks loose, causing rusty water to flow when
faucets are first opened. This happens especially when city or household
water lines are disturbed (e.g., moved, replaced, back flushed, or repaired)
and rust breaks loose from old pipes. Low water reserves and accumulated
sediment in the lines may also cause rust. Such incidents are short term and
temporary and generally cause more trouble in the laundry-yellow, orange or
brown stains deposited on clothes-than elsewhere in the home.
Whether iron in the water occurs naturally or as a result of iron
build-up in the pipes, prevention of problems caused by the presence of the
iron is generally easier and more successful than attempts to cope with
problems it causes after they happen.
What To Do If Iron Occurs Naturally in the Water Supply
If the level of iron in the colorless, soluble form is small (less than 3
milligrams per liter or 3 parts per million), a mechanical water softener
can generally remove the iron along with other hardness minerals. Another
alternative is to hold the iron in suspension by use of a phosphate feeder
For moderate iron levels (3-10 parts per million), a green sand filter or
oxidizing filter may be adequate, but should be carefully sized to meet
household water needs to avoid maintenance problems. For example, a
temporary breakthrough of red, untreated water may occur if the system is
expected to treat large quantities of water.
For very large amounts or high concentrations of iron (more than 10
milligrams per liter) a chlorination/filtration system treats water before
it enters the lines. The chlorination/filtration system has two main parts-a
chlorinator and a filter. An automatic chlorinator, generally using
household chlorine laundry bleach, releases chlorine into the water system.
The chlorine does two important things: It kills iron and disease-causing
bacteria and it changes (oxidizes) colorless, soluble iron to insoluble, red
iron particles that can be removed from the water by a filter in the system.
Such an iron treatment system should be installed on the main water lines in
the house before the water passes through the water softener and the water
Laboratory tests are recommended in all cases to determine iron and other
mineral concentrations and water quality concerns. Have your water tested by
an independent laboratory to determine what level of iron
and form occurs in your water supply. The method of iron control is
influenced by the amount of iron present, what form it is in, and other
water treatment needs. Take your water analysis report and consult with a
reliable dealer to provide proper equipment, installation, and service.
Check with the Ohio State University Extension office in your county for
publications on water testing and treatment information.
If it is not possible to pass the water through a water softener, a
phosphate feeder, or a chlorinating filter, reasonably acceptable laundering
results may be possible by:
Read product label information and ingredient list since formulations
change frequently. More than one formulation is made under the same brand
- using a non-precipitating packaged water softener (usually contains
phosphate) along with the usual amounts of regular detergent. Use amounts
recommended in instructions on the water softener package. Be sure to use
the compound in the rinses as well as the washes.
- Another alternative would be to launder with a phosphate detergent (in
areas where this is permitted) and oxygen bleach. Such bleaches have label
indicators "color safe" or "all fabric bleach;" or check labels for
ingredient terms such as sodium perborate tetrahydrate, or sodium
What To Do If Rusty Water Is in the Household Water Lines
Iron stains that occur on clothes during laundering in rusty water can be
easily prevented. Simply check the water for discoloration before
doing the laundry. Run water from faucets near the washer, or start
filling the washer with water before putting in the clothes to be washed. If
the water is discolored, don't put clothes into the washer. Instead, without
a load of clothes, let the washer fill and run through the wash and rinse
cycles to clear the water lines. Also, it may be necessary to flush toilets
and open other faucets in the house to clear all the discolored water from
the water pipes.
Note: In some situations, community flushing of hydrants or work on water
lines may cause water quality problems for an extended period of days. In
this case, it is advisable to delay laundering in the home until flushing to
clear lines can be completed.
What To Do If Iron Stains Do Occur on Clothes
If you notice rust or iron stains on clothes when taking them from the
washer, don't dry them in the dryer before treating the stains. Heat sets
the stains and makes them difficult or impossible to remove. Here are some
things to try: 1) rewash the clothes immediately in clear water with a heavy
duty detergent. If the water in your water system is still discolored, do
re-laundering at a coin-operated laundry or at another residence where the
water is clear.
Caution: Do not dry stained items in a dryer, do not iron them before
treating the stains, and do not use chlorine bleach. Heat and chlorine
bleach make the problem worse.
If the stain is not removed by the first method, try a more drastic
2) Launder with a commercial rust remover (such as RoVer
, Rit Rust
, or Whink
). The important ingredient
in these compounds is an acid-usually oxalic or hydrofluoric acid. The
remover ingredients combine with the iron and loosen it from the fabric,
then hold it in suspension in the wash water. The compounds are poisonous if
ingested. Use them carefully according to the manufacturers' directions, and
rinse the clothes thoroughly. Acid remaining deteriorates
Commercial rust removers are intended for use only on white or colorfast
fabrics. Test colored clothes for colorfastness before attempting to remove
rust stains with commercial removers. Caution/Danger: Commercial Rust
Remover Products contain oxalic or hydrofluoric acids or other chemicals
which can cause skin or eye irritation, burns, or poisoning. Use with care
and according to the product package.
How To Test For Colorfastness
Follow any instructions for colorfastness testing provided on rust
remover product package. If no instructions are given, follow the procedure
To determine the effect of an iron stain remover on the dye in a fabric,
test the fabric with the remover in the concentration recommended for iron
stain removal. If you can control the spread of the solution, put a drop of
the solution on the edge of a seam allowance or the edge of a hem (let out a
short length of the hem) which would be hidden inside the item. Let stand
for one or two minutes, then blot dry. If no color change occurs, the dye is
probably colorfast to the iron stain removal compound and it should be safe
to use on that fabric. (You may prefer to be safe and just snip off a small
piece of the fabric from the inside seam or hem allowance of a stained item
for testing fastness of the dye.)
Rinse clothes well after treatment with iron stain removers!
Note: Another iron stain situation unrelated to water quality occurs
due to deterioration of the washer inner basket. Small areas near basket
holes may show chipping of enamel, allowing the basket to rust. During the
spin cycle, clothing comes in direct contact with this surface, and rust is
deposited or transferred onto clothes. Stains may not be noticeable until
dried, or may even "mysteriously" appear later in storage due to oxidation
of the iron (rust). Stains may appear as small pin-points scattered over a
portion of the garment, or as larger, stained areas about the size of a
dime. In this case, the source of the rust must be corrected through repair
or replacement of the washer basket. Stain removal procedures for stained
clothing are similar to those suggested for other iron stains.
Special thanks to Karen Mancl, Extension Specialist, Agricultural
Engineering, for review and input to this fact sheet.
Reference to commercial products is made with the understanding that no
discrimination is intended or endorsement implied.