The right product and technique can cut hard water stain cleaning time
Learn how to remove rust from toilets.
Learn how to remove lime from faucets.
Learn how to remove scum from showers.
If you’re prone to bathroom neglect—or you have stubborn hard water stains seemingly beyond your control—don’t throw in the towel. We’ll show you how to dissolve three frustrating, yet common, water-caused deposits: rust stains and mineral buildup in the toilet bowl, hardened mineral deposits on faucets, and layered soap scum on shower wall tile.
The key to removing tough stains is selecting the right cleaner. See “Cleaners that Work” for a general guide. You won’t have to do much scrubbing; the cleaner will do the work. We’ll show you how to remove hard water stains on china (toilets), metal, tile and grout. Read the product labels, however, when cleaning fiberglass, stone or other plastic surfaces. Use products specifically recommended for those surfaces.
If you want to save hours of cleaning time per month, check out “Tips That Reduce Cleaning Time.” To begin, save time by keeping all bathroom cleaning tools and products in one bucket. Store it in or near the bathroom and out of children’s reach.
Stock the bucket with chemical-resistant rubber gloves, non-scratch nylon scrubber brush, grout brush, old toothbrush, clean soft rag, large sponge, glass cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner and one all-purpose soap scum/mildew/lime deposit cleaner.
It’s the Water
The cause of these bathroom-cleaning challenges is the natural abundant minerals found in hard water, particularly calcium, magnesium and iron. The particles attach to and form a hard scale on practically every surface. And despite filters/systems that “soften” water by removing a majority of these particles, 9 out of 10 homes host some degree of hard water.
Rust-colored stains form when air combines with iron particles. That’s why you see stains below dripping faucets. White crusty scale on faucet spouts and screens is a common buildup of calcium and magnesium. Gray scum layers in the shower area result when soap combines with calcium and magnesium salts and body oil to form a sticky soap curd.
Remove rust from toilet
Turn off the shutoff valve and remove the toilet water
Close the water shutoff valve by turning it clockwise until it stops. Flush the toilet and plunge out as much water as possible.
Pour in the cleaner
Pour an aggressive cleaner (one containing hydrochloric acid; see text below) on a plastic toilet brush and spread it over the entire bowl surface.
Scrub the toilet with a brush
Force the brush tip back and forth, especially along the toilet jets (holes under rim), around the water line and on visible stains. Scrub until stains are gone, reapplying cleaner as necessary, then flush twice.
To make your toilet bowl clean again, start with a dry bowl so water won’t dilute the cleaner. To tackle difficult rust stains, skip your discount-store toilet bowl cleaner and head to the hardware store for a product containing diluted hydrochloric acid (also listed on product labels as hydrogen chloride, HCL or muriatic acid). This is a common active ingredient in such brands as The Works Toilet Bowl Cleaner and Santeen De-Limer & Toilet Bowl Cleaner. And make sure you don’t use a bleach containing product on rust—it will set the stain.
Be sure to use a toilet brush with stiff nylon bristles in a plastic base. Those old wire brushes scratch the bowl. Once the bowl surface becomes scratched or worn, stain removal becomes next to impossible.
Two cautions when cleaning with diluted hydrochloric acid. First, if you use an in-tank cleaner that contains bleach, remove it and flush multiple times to remove bleach residue. A combination of bleach-containing and acid containing products (toilet cleaners) produces deadly vapors. Second caution: Scrub slowly because droplets that splatter outside the bowl can harm carpet, tile, vinyl and your skin. Keep a rag and a bucket of water handy to wipe up spatters. Same goes for setting the bottle down on these surfaces—don’t. And make sure you flush and rinse the bowl immediately.
Before cleaning, turn on vent fan and/or open window and put on chemical-resistant rubber gloves and eye protection.
Tips That Reduce Cleaning Time
- Clean heavily used bathrooms once a week (less dirt = quicker clean)
- Take 10 seconds each day and brush the entire toilet bowl. You don’t have to apply a cleaner (zero stain growth = fast and easy weekly clean)
- Close lid before flushing (keeps mist of bowl contents from exiting the bowl)
- Take a moment to squeegee water off walls after each shower (less scum and mildew buildup)
- Blot water off fixtures with soft cloth (fewer water spots)
- Switch to Zest, Ivory or any liquid soap to reduce soap scum formation
- Once a day, wipe water off faucet, sink and mirror with soft cloth (fewer water spots)
Remove faucet scale deposits
Spray a cleaner on the faucet
Soak the entire faucet surface from base to tip with an all-purpose bathroom cleaner, or use a lime-removing product if the buildup is extremely thick and crusty.
Clean the faucet with a toothbrush
Scrub the surface with an old toothbrush, pushing bristles into crevices on the end of the spout (aerator and screen) and on the handles, as well as at the base of the faucet.
Wipe down the faucet
Once all deposits have been removed, rinse the cleaner off immediately by wiping the entire surface down with a dripping wet sponge. Dry and polish with a soft cloth.
To remove tough mineral scale buildup on chrome faucets, use a product such as Lime-A-Way according to label directions. For weekly cleaning, an all-purpose cleaner such as Comet Bathroom or Scrubbing Bubbles will work fine.
To ensure your crusty faucet will shine again, aside from giving it a vigorous toothbrush scrubbing, Apply and remove the proper cleaner as directed on its label.
If scrubbing doesn’t remove hardened mineral deposits on the aerator screen, unscrew the spout tip by turning it counterclockwise. Soak it overnight in vinegar, then scrub it with the toothbrush and flush with water before reinstalling.
Cleaners That Work
There are five basic types of cleaning chemicals: surfactants, alkalis, acids, solvents and disinfectants. Develop a basic understanding of these and you can pick the right cleaner for any job.
Surfactants, found in almost every cleaning product, help carry the ingredients into tiny cracks and pores. They also help loosen, emulsify (disperse in water) and suspend soils for removal. Alkalis, which have a pH higher than 7, are best at removing (neutralizing) acidic soils, which have a pH less than 7. Alkalis chew up acidic fats and oils (from hamburger grease to body oil to plain old mud), breaking them into smaller particles that can be washed away. Alkaline cleaners range from mild liquid dishwashing detergent and glass cleaner to strong lye (sodium hydroxide) drain openers and degreasers.
Acids work best on neutralizing alkaline soils (tough water stains), such as lime scale, soap deposits, rust and more. Acids break stains into small particles to be washed away. Acidic cleaners range from mild (vinegar, lemon juice) to heavier cleaners such as phosphoric acid (found in toilet bowl and tub/tile cleaners) and hydrochloric or sulfuric acids (found in toilet bowl cleaners).
Solvents such as mineral spirits work by dissolving soils rather than neutralizing them like alkalis or acids. They’re distilled from petroleum or plant products and are mostly used on oily and greasy soils.
Disinfectants, such as quaternary ammonium or pine oil, are added to cleaners that tout antibacterial power. They kill germs that smell, cause disease, stain clothes and spoil food.
Read and follow the label to make sure the cleaner is safe to use on both the faucet surface and the tub, tile or sink surfaces. Do not use abrasive cleaners. Do not use all-purpose cleaners on marble or other natural stone surfaces. Buy a special stone cleaner.
Remove soap scum from tile
Spray a cleaner on the shower tile
Coat the entire tiled surface (grout, caulk and all) with an all purpose cleaner that attacks soap scum. Wait 5 to 10 minutes to allow the product to work, which saves your scrubbing elbow.
Scrub with a nylon pad
Remove remaining visible scum and deposits by applying light pressure with a non-scratch nylon scrubber. Reapply product to difficult areas and scrub until clean.
Remove build up on grout lines
Remove stains and deposits on grout or caulk by lightly scrubbing back and forth with a grout brush or old toothbrush. Reapply product as needed.
Squeegee the tile clean
Rinse the entire tiled surface thoroughly with a dripping wet sponge. Push it back and forth across the top of the wall so rinse water streams to the bottom of the wall. Repeat until all cleaner is removed. Then, start at the top of the tile with a bathroom squeegee and move downward to remove as much water as possible.
Numerous cleaners are available to remove soap scum from tile. But if you face layers of soap scum buildup, stick with an effective bleach-containing, nonabrasive product (see list below).
Scum cleaners commonly contain bleach (sodium hypochlorite),which effectively cuts through soap scum and kills mildew. Be sure to read the product label and match it to the material (tile, fiberglass, etc.) being cleaned.
Cleaners That Work
Here are a few examples of recommended effective products based on our research and experience. Granted, there are many products available and you may have your own favorites or remedies.
- Santeen De-Limer & Toilet Bowl Cleaner
- The Works Toilet Bowl Cleaner
- Comet Bathroom spray
- Scrubbing Bubbles with Bleach
Ceramic Shower Tile
- Scrubbing Bubbles with Bleach
- Comet Bathroom spray
Required Tools for this Removing Hard Water Stains Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Safety glasses
Required Materials for this Removing Hard Water Stains Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.
- all-purpose soap scum/mildew/lime deposit cleaner
- Cleaner with hydrochloric acid
- Glass cleaner
- Toilet bowl cleaner
- Toilet brush