Fridge full of fingerprints? How to clean stainless-steel appliances

Tyler Lacoma

Tired of fingerprints, water stains, or permanent smudges that haunt your stainless-steel appliances? So are we. Despite the name, it seems that stainless steel is rarely as immaculate as it is on the showroom floor, especially once you — or your children — begin to put it through its paces. Thankfully, the right cleaning method will allow you to wipe away grime without hurting the steel, even if the results will vary based on the age and type of steel in your home. Nonetheless, we have a few suggestions and tips for prepping and polishing your futuristic-looking appliances. We can’t guarantee they’ll come out immaculate, but hey, a little bit of olive oil can go a long way.

Related: Keep your cool with one of seven of our favorite high-tech refrigerators

Picking the right cleaner

20915981 - vegetable oil in plastic bottle closeup on the old wooden table
20915981 - vegetable oil in plastic bottle closeup on the old wooden table

Hold on, before you reach below the sink and grab whatever your go-to cleaner is! Stainless steel tends to be picky about what it works with, meaning a general cleaner may leave you with more streaks than you started with. Generally speaking, stay away from anything that uses chloride or bleach, because this can actually harm the protective layer of your stainless steel, opening it up to rust. The same is true of cleaners that have high acidity. Instead, choose a cleaner based on the results you want. We’ve got a cheat sheet for you to peruse for particular solutions:

General purpose

You can get great results from using a dedicated, stainless-steel cleaner for general cleaning. These products aren’t just cash grabs; they use formulas that won’t cause streaks on your steel, and some even include extra ingredients to help polish and protect the surface over a long period of time. Some of our favorites include CLR’s CSS-12 spray, 3M 14002 cleaner and polish, and Cameo’s cleaner and polish. These commercial-oriented products tend to produce the best results.

DIY and eco-friendly

If you prefer this approach, the go-to cleaner is usually a small amount of olive oil (and a large amount of elbow grease). This helps polish the steel while getting rid of any grime in the process. GeekDad has a post exploring the before and after if you’re curious how well this method works. Other natural oils — like mineral oil — can also work, but olive oil is usually the most common household item.

New products

New stainless steel tends to come with a bright sheen and strong protective coating that you’ll likely want to preserve. In this case, the danger is doing too much instead of too little. As a result, the best option for cleaning new surfaces is to use a traditional glass cleaner like Windex. This gets rid of the smears and keeps the steel’s mirror-like appearance.

Food stains

Put a spoonful of detergent in a large basin or jar of water and use the soapy mixture on the affected area. This is particularly effective for thicker grease stains and similar problems. Rinse and dry well when you’re done to avoid any pesky water stains.

Hard water stains and scale

Hard water and scale problems — which often resemble grayed-out circles or pools — are annoying, but there are ways to deal with them. Try using a very light acid solution in the form of a vinegar compound. Add a half-cup of vinegar to a bottle of water and see if the application can make a difference. You can add more vinegar if necessary, but you don’t want to damage the surface. You also don’t want to scrub too hard, or you will ruin the steel. There are commercial scale removers, but their harsh chemicals rarely treat stainless steel well, so be careful when using them.

Dried adhesive

If you have kids, you already know how difficult it can be to remove adhesive from stainless-steel surfaces like your refrigerator. Here, the key is an alcohol solvent like isopropyl alcohol, which is relatively harmless. Nonetheless, only use a small amount in the affected area to avoid the possibility of damage.

Coffee stains

You’re more likely to encounter Coffee marks on sinks or stoves, but if there’s baked-in coffee grime, see if you can neutralize it with a baking soda paste. Leave the paste on the stain for a while and then try scrubbing it off and rinsing away the residue.

Pick the right cloth

40275252 - blue microfiber cloth for cleaning car
40275252 - blue microfiber cloth for cleaning car

Stay away from scrubbers, steel wool, rough toothbrushes, and other harsh forms of grime removal. These materials can scratch and damage your steel, and in the midst of cleaning you might not even notice until it’s too late.

Stick with softer pads and absorbent cloth. One of the best options is a simple microfiber cleaning cloth that you can pick up virtually anywhere. You want something that has some friction to it, absorbs water easily, and is soft to the touch. We have found that keeping a few clean paper towels around for last-minute polishing is also handy.

General tips for best results


When you’re ready to start wiping, here are a few tips for getting the best results — no matter what cleaner you’re using or what appliance you’re buffing:

Wait until it’s cool

Stainless steel is always cool, but not necessarily when it comes to temperature. If your stainless-steel appliance is hot to the touch — like right after your dishwasher finishes — then this can impact how the cleaner reacts to the surface. Cool surfaces resist water stains and other problems more easily.

Test anything new

If you’re trying a new cleaner, test it out on a small corner of your appliance before tackling the whole project. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Wipe with the grain

Stainless steel products do have a grain, much like wood, and it’s easy to see if you are looking for it. That being the case, it’s always best to wipe with that grain. It’s tempting to buff in circles like you would if you were waxing a car, but following the grain is better for the steel surface.

Don’t just clean, polish

Waxing a car is intensive, sure, but so is cleaning stainless steel. Take some time when drying to make sure all traces of water are gone. You want that the cleaner to get deep into the steel panel without leaving streaks, which is why we’ve been using words such as “polish” and “buff.”

Remember where you eat

Try not to use professional cleaners on surfaces where you prepare or cook food. They don’t mix well, and we don’t want you getting sick.

Clean often and be patient

Stainless steel has an odd habit of becoming more resistant to stains and fingerprints as it ages, assuming you regularly clean it. Build up that protective layer, wipe away the smudges and fingerprints, and stay patient. Good steel comes to those who wait.