Advanced Metal Knowledge

Does stainless steel guarantee rust protection?

Stainless steel is widely considered and known for its rust protection and resistance to discolouration, tarnishing, and rust, which can sometimes pose unexpected challenges when it corrodes. Shouldn’t stainless steel, as its name implies, remain corrosion-free?


In reality, stainless steel is best described as corrosion-resistant rather than entirely corrosion-free. While it remains corrosion-free in most environments, particularly indoors, exposure to highly corrosive elements like chlorine can lead to corrosion, although at a slower rate compared to carbon steel.

The Influence of Location on Stainless Steel Corrosion

When encountering corroded stainless steel, the first consideration is often the location. In most cases of corrosion, a phenomenon known as “tea staining” occurs, leading to a brown discolouration on the surface. Tea staining primarily results from exposure to salt, making it a concern up to 20 kilometres inland from the coast due to the constant presence of salt in the air. It’s also prevalent on roadsides due to winter salt spreading.

Unlike rust, tea staining doesn’t compromise the structural integrity of the steel but is unsightly. To mitigate tea staining, using higher-grade stainless steel, such as 316, is recommended. These grades incorporate additional alloyed elements to combat chloride ions in salt, the root cause of tea staining.

The Role of Stainless Steel Grades in Corrosion

As mentioned earlier, opting for high-grade stainless steel like 316 protects against tea staining. However, a more cost-effective option is 304-grade stainless steel. While it works well for applications in inland or sheltered locations, it’s susceptible to a form of corrosion called “pitting” in salt-rich environments. Pitting is similar to tea staining but more severe, as it can penetrate beneath the protective chromium oxide layer, potentially causing structural damage similar to rust in carbon steel.

In general, higher chromium content in stainless steel correlates with lower susceptibility to rust.

Effect of Maintenance on Stainless Steel Corrosion

In addition to selecting the appropriate grade, regular maintenance is vital for corrosion prevention. Maintenance can be proactive or reactive.

Proactive maintenance involves washing stainless steel with a soap and water solution. In harsh marine environments with elevated salt content in the air, more frequent cleaning, akin to washing windows, is required. In such situations, higher-grade stainless steel is advisable.

Reactive maintenance entails using a commercial cleaner to remove the protective chromium oxide layer, followed by washing with soap and water. Although counterintuitive, this process prompts the formation of a new, uncontaminated chromium oxide layer that enhances rust protection.

Stainless steel, while susceptible to corrosion in harsh environments or due to mechanical damage, possesses the advantage of regenerating the protective chromium oxide layer with proper cleaning and sufficient chromium content, attributes found in both 304 and 316 grades.

How Stainless Steel Combats Rust

The key to stainless steel’s rust resistance lies in its chromium content. All stainless steel contains at least 12% chromium, a crucial element absent in carbon steel. Chromium reacts with oxygen in the air, forming a thin protective layer of chromium oxide on the steel’s surface. In carbon steel, iron content reacts with oxygen to create iron oxide, commonly known as rust. In stainless steel, the chromium oxide layer acts as a seal, preventing the iron content from coming into contact with oxygen, thus providing rust protection.

It’s important to note that if the chromium content falls below 12%, the protective chromium oxide layer will not form effectively.


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In conclusion, stainless steel offers enhanced corrosion protection compared to mild steel but cannot guarantee absolute rust prevention. When in doubt, it’s advisable to specify a higher-grade stainless steel. Implementing a regular maintenance program for cleaning exposed external architectural fittings is also recommended to maximize the lifespan and appearance of stainless steel products.



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