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Dull Stainless Steel? Top 3 reasons why your stainless steel is dull.

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

Un cleaned stainless steel with chemical residue and original staining from installation.

We all know Stainless Steel is an extremely durable material that is used across many industries and for a variety of uses. Stainless Steel can be used for building facades, lifts, escalators, appliances, pharmaceuticals, kitchens, phones, cars and the list goes on.

“A key indicator of when to clean your Stainless Steel is when you clean your windows” – Dr. Graham – Australian Stainless Steel Development Association.

Now, we are not going to bore you with the technical aspects of Stainless Steel and why is it called ‘Stainless Steel’ even though it stains. You’re here because you have Stainless Steel that is tarnished, stained, rusted, dull or not looking as you thought it would look.

Now, it’s likely you would have been sold a lot of products and used a few different cleaning companies and are probably back at square one, if not worse. We’re here to tell you, why in our experience your Stainless Steel is dull, and to help you understand what to do moving forward.

In our experience, Stainless Steel gets tarnished over time due to its nature, exposure to elements and general wear and tear, this is like every other material. However, the 3 factors that accelerate this process are:

Let's Look at these three reasons in detail.


1- Environmental Factors

Environmental factors, simply put, is the current conditions that your stainless steel is living in on a day-to-day basis. This is one of the first factors we look at when inspecting a site. The questions we typically ask first “is the asset in a salty environment near the ocean” and “Is it exposed to high concentrations of pollutions from the vehicles?” and even “Is the Stainless Steel in a very moist environment?” and finally “Is the Stainless Steel near a lot of foot traffic or exposed to different chemicals, such as chemicals from mopping or the auto scrubber?”

These questions help us determine:

  1. The reason why the Stainless Steel is being tarnished and reacting the way it does.

  2. What type of remediation process is required, which then helps us to know what to do moving forward.

Example 1: if you live on a coastal area, you will be subject to high concentrations of salt in the air. Salts react with the top layer of the Stainless Steel and react. This leads to dulling, tea staining, rust and eventually pitting and cracking if not remediated quickly. This, as a result determines the remediation process to remove the rust, re-passivate the surface and put together a plan to maintain it. Our general guideline for this is according to Australian Stainless Steel Development Association and ISO recommendations (more on this in another article).

Example 2: you may have elevators and lifts in a building, but the lift shaft expels a lot of moisture through the lift shaft and concrete slab. As a result, moisture builds up in the concrete slab, so much so that it creates calcified water and leaks through the silicone and on to the surface. This then dries and calcifies on the surface, leaving white hardened stains (and at times rust) on the lift frames and it can be close to impossible at times to remove without harsh chemicals. This remediation process then involves, solving the aesthetic issue on the Stainless Steel and then dealing with a larger issue of moisture in the shaft and concrete slab.

Example 3: you have beautifully black mirror finished Stainless Steel on your walls, pillars, and lifts in your building. But you are noticing a dullness or chemical marks along the bottom trim. This is generally due to the chemical and water splatter from mopping or auto scrubber used with the commercial cleaners. If it is nonacidic or non-alkaline, you are in the clear. If it is either acidic or highly alkaline (even diluted) you will begin to pull your hair out. Why? The remediation process for coloured Stainless Steel is generally to replace it (more on that later). But if it isn’t acidic or highly alkaline, the remediation process will be a deep clean and polish (if possible) and, putting a process in place for your contract cleaners to immediately wipe up after themselves when cleaning the floors.

As you noticed above there are 3 separate examples of different types of tarnishing, dulling, and rusting, but they are all caused from different sources, and all have unique solutions to remediate them. The questions about the environment help you identify the root cause of the issue so firstly, you know what is causing it and saves you a lot of time, money and headaches trying yourself to fix it or the cleaning company to fix it and secondly, what correct measures and procedures to put in place, so you minimise any future occurrences.

There is no wrong question to ask here as they all lead to the root cause of the problem.

2- Maintenance

Stainless Steel maintenance is by far the most important factor in keeping your Stainless Steel, Stainless. This is because, no matter what Stainless Steel has been specified for your building i.e., ‘but the lift company told us this’ or ‘the manufacturer supplied this to us’ if the Stainless Steel has been cleaned and maintained correctly, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article and we would be out of business.

It is in the maintenance or lack thereof where things go horribly wrong. This is generally from 2 main factors. The number 1 factor is generally misinformation and secondly is dependent on the cleaning contractor, but oftentimes they are misinformed or have minimal information. The good news is it’s not your fault or a fault of theirs, it is simply just not enough information.

Maintenance of Stainless Steel all depends on item number one which is the environmental factor. Because without understanding the environment, you will not know how to put together a maintenance plan for your cleaning contractors or even do a do-it-yourself style one.

Example 1: you manage a strata unit complex, and you have been managing it for a few years now and everything runs like clockwork under your management. But you seem to notice that the lifts are ageing unlike any other surface in the complex. Your scope of works highlights the following:



Spot clean lift doors and internal lifts


Full clean lift doors and internal lifts


You have the frequency on point, but what is happening from the Stainless-Steel maintenance point of view? The answer lies in the chemical being used. Stainless Steel oil is actually not a great idea contrary to what the internet and others have told or sold you. And yes, we know it’s been done since the beginning of time. But did you know Stainless Steel oil:

  1. Traps human oil, contaminated air, and age long use of oil

  2. Traps in moisture

  3. Is actually a very harmful chemical – just read the MSDS.

Here, the removal of the oil and built-up surface contaminants is key to getting the Stainless-Steel back to new again.

A lift interior deep cleaning and oil removal
A lift interior deep cleaning and oil removal

Example 2: you live in a coastal area and have Stainless Steel handrails. Now you wash them down with water and from time to time you let the rain do the work for you. But you begin to notice that no matter how frequently you wash down the Stainless Steel, it just seems to be getting duller if not the Stainless-Steel beginning to rust.

Again, you have the frequency of clean on point, but the issue lies in the salt drying up within the lines on the Stainless Steel (much less if you have polished Stainless Steel). This is solved from a chemical treatment which dissolves the salt build up on the surface follow by a passivation treatment to help re-strengthen the top layer of the stainless steel to fight off further salt attacks.

As you can begin to notice in the above 2 examples, it doesn’t really matter what type of Stainless Steel we may have (to a degree and specific situations, yes) but highly depends on the correct method of maintaining your stainless steel and the environmental factors playing its part. There are ways of improving the performance of the Stainless Steel through means of electro polishing and mirror polishing stainless steel, but this may impact the warranty of your product.

3- Initial cleaning from installation

The initial deep cleaning of Stainless-Steel post installation is all about how well the Stainless-Steel surface has been cleaned after it has been installed. This can be tricky, because the type of cleaning will vary from each Stainless-Steel item installed and the flip side with older Stainless Steel, we have to remove all the surface contaminants, so we know how well this was completed. Deep cleaning of the Stainless Steel initially determines the following factors:

  1. How well the Stainless Steel performs.

  2. The simplicity in maintaining the Stainless Steel.

  3. Constant and continuously beautifully looking Stainless Steel

The examples below will illustrate varying cleans required upon installation.

Example 1: Lift company a has recently installed a brand-new lift interior, but you notice something slightly off. The Stainless Steel looks a bit foggy, even when you use Stainless Steel oil, the lines are accentuated in certain areas and other area’s not and just over all looks not right. Your cleaning contractor has given it a crack, but it seems to be getting worse as the day goes on and foot traffic increasing.

The issue lies in the surface not being completely decontaminated and cleaned after installation. This has resulted in a general wipe over which has smudged the sticker residue on the surface. This includes oil from the contractors hands and to top it off, the cleaning contractor has used their stainless-steel oil on top of the sticker residue and oil and has made a cocktail of nasties on the surface.

If not correctly remediated, you will have your lifts looking the way they do and worse for years to come.

Example 2: a new fabricated Stainless-Steel tank has been showings signs of rust all over the tanks, inside and out and where it has been welded has not been correctly clean and tinting removed and passivated. This unfortunately has already led to surface pitting and rust cross contamination.

Stainless Steel Rust Treatment and Passivation
Stainless Steel Rust Treatment and Passivation

‘"Rust cross contamination is where the rust particles literally travel and contaminate another clean and generally unaffected area’"- Elie Wehbe - Director of Kleanwell

These tanks, whilst only a few months old are already showing signs of heavy rust. This initial deep cleaning in industry terms is what we call, pickling and passivation. This is a post manufacturing or fabrication process which including welding. Pickling and passivation when correctly completed removes all the surface contaminants and passivates the top layer of the Stainless Steel. This pickling and passivation process is a highly acidic process and should be undertaken by professionals.

As you can notice here in these 2 examples, the cleaning that needs to occur is specific to the type of installation that occurs, with both of them being completely different. Different in all respects. Different in chemical treatment, different in application methods. But all for the same outcome.

What to do now?

We congratulate you for getting to this section of the article. I’m guessing you may be thinking what next, or where to from here? The next steps thankfully are simple and look like:

  1. Grab a note pad and pen and begin to note or jot down the current state of your Stainless Steel and keep it simple. i.e. tarnished, rusted, dull, going black, spotty etc.

  2. Understand the area your Stainless Steel is in and note it down. i.e., near the ocean? In a high pollution area such as on the main road? And other items. Refer to ‘1-Environmental Factors’ above.

  3. Obtain your scope of works if you have one or write down how often it should get cleaned.

  4. Note down what is being used to clean the surface. i.e., Stainless Steel oil or glass and Stainless-Steel cleaner etc.

From here you will begin to understand what the potential factors are and the issues they are causing. Then you will proceed to the next step.

  1. Continue further research into potential remediation solutions.

  2. Contact a cleaning chemical supplier – a word of caution, you may be left with the same chemicals you are trying to get rid of.

  3. Contact Steel Renew to help provide initial consultation, remediation and ongoing support and maintenance so you no longer need to go through issues with your Stainless Steel again.


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