How to Restore a Stainless Steel Sink

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Q: My old cleaning lady put something in my stainless steel sink to clean the floors. I don’t know what she used, but now there are whitish spots on the sides and corners. It looks like some of the finish has been removed. How can I refurbish it?

A: Because you mentioned floor cleaner, a customer service rep from a company that makes floor cleaners seemed like a good person to ask. Joni Thompson, who has this role at Holloway House, which makes Quick Shine floor care products, heard a description of your problem and said the deposits could be residue from a floor care product designed to leave a shiny finish or to strip a shiny finish. But these would leave a shiny coating, not white deposits. Once she saw the photos you sent and consulted with a technical expert from the company, she emailed to say she was sure it wasn’t caused by a floor finish. “Maybe comb or just build up,” she said.

She suggested trying a magic eraser, a type of melamine foam sponge that works like very fine sandpaper to remove deposits and only needs plain water. Be sure to rub in the direction of the grain lines of the stainless steel, so that the scratches on the pads blend in. (A pack of two Magic Erasers is $3.29 at Target.)

If a Magic Eraser — or several, given they wear out quickly — doesn’t get your sink clean, Thompson suggested trying a nail polish remover, which should remove paint residue, if it’s what you see. “Stainless steel is very durable,” she noted, so if that doesn’t work, you can try other household cleaners or stain removers, including basics like vinegar or baking soda.

You might even try what Thompson recommended when she first thought a floor shine product or floor cleaner was to blame. Quick Shine Multi-Surface Finish and similar products from other manufacturers contain water-based polymers, which are essentially plastics formulated to remain as a very thin coating on the floor once the water has evaporated. If someone repeatedly sprays any of these products on a cleaning cloth or mop in the sink and doesn’t rinse and wipe the sink thoroughly, the splashes could leave a stubborn residue.

A cleaner that has been formulated to remove polymeric coatings, such as Quick Shine Deep Cleanser, could also do this if someone poured a bucket of mop water into a sink and didn’t clean up the spills. The cleaner would liquefy the polymer on the floor, but the polymer could harden again on the sink once the water has evaporated.

To remove the cured polymer, whether it’s a product intended to leave a shine or to remove it, Thompson recommended using a cleaner containing ammonia or something chemically close to it. Quick Shine Deep Cleanser is ammonia-free, but it’s what Thompson called “an amine product – in the ammonia family but without the ammonia smell.” Or she suggested using Windex Original ($4.99 for a 23-ounce bottle at ace material) or Formula 409 Multi-Surface Cleaner ($4.99 for 32 ounces at ace material). You can also mix your own cleanser using 3 or 4 tablespoons of ammonia with ½ cup of warm water. “Let the cleanser sit for a good two minutes,” Thompson said, then scrub and rinse.

If you want to try other cleaners, read their labels first. The big caveats are to avoid using products that contain bleach or are strongly alkaline, such as oven cleaners or drain cleaners. Stainless steel is stainless – not stain proof – because the metal contains chromium. The chromium on the surface combines with oxygen from the air or water and forms a protective layer of chromium oxide. But chlorine bleach, found in many cleaning products, breaks the bonds in the chromium oxide layer, allowing oxygen to reach the steel and form iron oxide or rust.

Luckily, as Thompson said, stainless steel is pretty indestructible, so if you don’t already have a cleaner or solvent that gets rid of white deposits, you can forego buying a bunch of other cleaners to test. and instead work to scour the crud to reveal the cool stainless steel beneath.

When asked a few years ago how to remove pitting caused by leaving oven cleaner in a stainless steel sink, a representative from Elkay, a sink manufacturer, recommended using a pad. Brown Scotch-Brite ($2.79 at ace material) and a powder cleanser, such as Good friend ($2.59) or Friend of bar keepers ($2.99). Always scrub in the same direction as the grain lines left by the manufacturer when polishing the sink.

Scrubbing to fresh stainless steel is also the remedy when a sink becomes dull and dark because someone has used bleach-based cleaners or fine steel wool instead of a synthetic scouring pad to clean it. Shards of steel wool may break off and become lodged in the grain lines. Steel wool is usually not made of stainless steel, so splinters can rust and make the surface look dark and dull.

No matter how you clean or whatever you use to scrub, keep the sink looking its best by rinsing the metal well, then wiping it with a soft cloth or microfiber cloth, so that water does not linger and begins to form a mineral crust. Once the sink is clean and dry, you can add a few drops of olive oil or mineral oil to a lint-free cloth and buff the sink until it shines. But drying the sink and adding shine are only cosmetic. Stainless steel itself will do without coddling it.

A problem at home? Send your questions to localliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live, and try to include a photo.

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