Nails are made of steel, and contain iron. Rust is the oxidation, or corrosion, which forms on iron when in contact with the oxygen in the air. The rate of corrosion is increased by moisture, salt, acids, or other chemicals. To prevent rusting, nails are sometimes coated with zinc, and these dull, grayish nails are referred to as "galvanized". Most rust consists of Iron (III) oxide (Fe2O3) and iron oxide-hydroxide. Similar oxidation forms the tarnish on silver and the green patina on copper and bronze.
It's because of a chemical process called oxidation. That is where oxygen combines with the iron, and the iron loses electrons.
Iron oxide has a lower free energy than do iron and oxygen. Just as a ball will roll downhill because it has a lower free energy at the bottom of the hill than at the top, iron will combine with oxygen - essentially 'rolling down a chemical reaction hill'. The reason things like water, salt, acids and other chemicals cause iron to rust faster, is that these substances act as catalysts to the oxidation reaction.
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