How To Get Ink Out Of Clothes & Avoid Pen Stains

Most of us have at some point experienced a pen breakage. Spilling ink onto your favorite shirt is a common problem. You don’t need to throw your clothes away though. You can easily remove an ink stain. It’s even easier if you can identify the type of ink.

Some inks can be removed easily using everyday household products that you probably already have in your cupboard. Other types need special care, while some ink stain removal needs specialist treatment from a professional dry-cleaner

Some fabrics require specialist care regardless of ink type.

What Kind of Ink Made the Stain?

Ink types are generally differentiated by permanence. 

There are three commonly found types of ink:

  • Water-based inks
  • Oil-based inks
  • Gel ink

Water-based ink stains are the easiest to remove. Permanent marker ink is usually oil-based and is responsive to removal.  Gel ink is a little more challenging but not impossible.

Dry-Clean Only Fabrics

It is important to follow your garment’s care instructions. If your garment is labeled Dry-Clean Only don’t attempt to treat the clothing yourself. Some items contain fibers that need specialist care. Garments containing these ingredients should only be treated by professional dry-cleaners.

Fabric ingredients to be aware of:

  • Acetate
  • Triacetate
  • Modacrylic

These fabrics are commonly found in wedding dresses and other “occasion” garments

Even if the damaged item isn’t an expensive wedding dress, the price of a dry-cleaning service is likely to be a lot less than the cost of replacing your favorite outfit. It’s worth letting the experts take care of the job. Commercial cleaners have specialized solutions for all kinds of stains.

What Kind of Ink Made the Stain

Cleaning Solutions To Remove Ink Stains

Salt 

If your water-based ink stain has just happened;

  1. Grab the table salt 
  2. Generously cover the stain with the salt.
  3. Gently dab with a damp white paper towel
  4. Shake off the salt. 
  5. Repeat as necessary until the stain is gone. 

This method is most effective when the stain is fresh. The longer it takes to get the salt onto the stain, the less likely this method will be 100% successful.

Milk

  1. Place the stained area into a shallow bowl 
  2. Submerge it in milk.
  3. Leave to soak overnight. 
  4. Wash according to the usual garment directions 

Water and Laundry Detergent Method

For water-based ink stains which have already dried you’ll need;

  1.  liquid laundry detergent,
  2.  clean, dry towels
  3.  a shallow bowl 

There’s a step-by-step for this method below. 

Rubbing Alcohol

Treating permanent-ink stains is more difficult. This requires rubbing alcohol and liquid laundry detergent. There’s a step-by-step for this method below.

Hairspray

Alcohol-based hairspray will help to dissolve the ink. Often, the lower the price of the hairspray, the higher the alcohol content. Ideally, you’ll have a higher alcohol content to work with. 

Directly spray the stain until it is soaked with hairspray then follow the instructions for rubbing alcohol, below.

Hand-Sanitizer

Hand-sanitizer has high alcohol content. It can be used effectively to break down the ink. 

Apply the sanitizer to the stain and follow the rubbing alcohol instructions below.

Alcohol and vinegar

An equal mix of rubbing alcohol and vinegar combined with salt is another effective method of getting out the last traces of ink. There are step-by-step instructions for this method below.

Nail Polish Remover

Nail polish remover contains acetone. It is very effective for use on natural fibers and the most common synthetics. 

DO NOT use acetone on acetate fabric. Always check your garment’s label for fabric ingredients.

If you’re certain your garment is acetate free do a colorfast test on a hidden seam. You can continue only if the fabric is colorfast. It is not advised to use nail polish remover if any color shifts.

Vinegar and Cornstarch

For a more gentle treatment suitable for water-based ink and delicate fabrics, vinegar and cornstarch can be used. 

  1. Soak the stain with the vinegar
  2. Leave it to soak for around 5 minutes
  3. Combine 2 parts vinegar and 3 parts cornstarch
  4. Mix to a thick paste
  5. Apply the paste to the stain
  6. Work it into the fabric using your fingers or a soft toothbrush
  7. Leave it until completely dry
  8. Launder using the hottest water temperature suggested on the manufacturer’s instruction label

Steps To Cleaning Ink Stains By Method

Steps To Cleaning Ink Stains By Method

Have a flat work surface near a sink for easy rinsing.

Water-based ink 

You’ll need 

  • Towels
  • White or colorfast cloth
  • Liquid laundry detergent

How To Clean Water-based Ink Stains

  1. Lay a clean towel on the work surface
  2. Place the damaged part of the item on the towel
  3. If you are treating a shirt sleeve or a trouser leg roll a small towel and slide it into the sleeve or trouser leg
  4. Take a white or colorfast cloth and saturate it with cold water
  5. Firmly dab the water-cloth to the ink stain to soak it
  6. Dab a small amount of liquid laundry detergent on the stain. Be careful to not spread the ink
  7. Leave the detergent to sit on the item for 5 minutes
  8. Take the now wet towel out of the sleeve
  9. Wash according to item instructions and at the hottest recommended temperature
  10. BEFORE DRYING YOUR GARMENT check to ensure there is no trace of ink left
  11. If there is any ink at all, repeat the above steps

Oil-based Inks (Ballpoint pens)

You’ll need

  • Rubbing alcohol, hairspray or hand sanitizer
  • Dry white towel (which can be bleached) or multiple layers of absorbent white paper towels
  • Cotton balls
  • Liquid laundry detergent

How To Clean Oil-based Ink Stains

  1. Lay a clean towel on the work surface
  2. Place the stained area of the garment on the towel
  3. If you are treating a shirt sleeve or a trouser leg roll a small towel and slide it into the sleeve or trouser leg
  4. Soak a cotton ball 
  5. Move the towel along as it gets soaked, so that more ink will escape the fabric
  6. Move the cotton ball onto different sides for contact, so you don’t spread the ink 
  7. Get a fresh cotton ball as it absorbs the color
  8. Repeat until the stain is completely gone
  9. Once the stain is gone, apply liquid laundry detergent to the area
  10. Leave to sit for 5 minutes
  11. Launder in the usual way according to manufacturing instructions 
  12. Your towels can be bleached (see “Bleaching” below)
  13. BEFORE DRYING YOUR GARMENT check to ensure there is no trace of ink left
  14. If there is any ink at all, repeat the above steps

Gel inks 

Gel inks are notoriously difficult to get out. Most packets come with a warning label about ink transfer onto clothing and upholstery.

Treating the stain swiftly will increase the chances of removing the stain completely.

  1. Start with the Water-based Ink method above. 
  2. If you have reasonable success with this method, continue until the improvement dwindles. 
  3. Next try the Oil-Based Ink method, also above.
  4. Again, if you have reasonable success this way, keep going until you can’t see the stain getting better.
  5. Try Ammonia. 

Ammonia

CAUTION: NEVER MIX AMMONIA WITH BLEACH

You’ll need

  • 2 cups of cold tap water
  • 1 teaspoon of ammonia
  • 2 teaspoons of liquid laundry detergent
  • Glass bowl (4 cup capacity or larger) 
  • Stainless steel spoon
  • White towels or paper towels

How To Use Ammonia To Clean Ink Stains

  1. Mix the ingredients in the bowl. 
  2. Using the spoon, pour the mixture directly onto the stain.
  3. Let it sit for 5 minutes. 
  4. Rinse with cold water.
  5. If the stain is improving repeat until it is completely gone
  6. Launder as usual 
  7. If you still find no improvement try alcohol and vinegar

Alcohol and vinegar

You’ll need

  • 1 part rubbing alcohol 
  • 1 part white vinegar
  • Bowl
  • Table salt
  • Soft toothbrush
  • Clean white towels or paper towels
  • Clean cloth

How To Use Alocohol & Vinegar To Clean Ink Stains 

  1. Lay down your towel on your surface. 
  2. Mix the alcohol and vinegar together in the bowl.
  3. Use the cloth to soak the stain with the mixture.
  4. Make sure the entire stain area is completely saturated.
  5. Wait for 10 minutes.
  6. Pour a light dusting of salt over the area.
  7. Leave it for a further 10 minutes.
  8. Gently scrub the stain with the soft toothbrush
  9. Rinse with hot water
  10. If any of the ink was removed with this method repeat until satisfied.
  11. Launder as usual according to the garment manufacturer.

Bleaching

CAUTION: NEVER MIX BLEACH WITH AMMONIA

If your item is white and bleachable, an oxygen-based fabric bleach should be able to remove any last ink traces which may remain. Always check the label to confirm the fabric is safe to use with bleach. Never allow the bleach to mix with ammonia.

General Ink Removing Tips (No matter what kind of ink)

  • The fresher the better. The faster you deal with a stain, the easier it will be to remove.
  • If you still have the pen which caused the stain you can visit the manufacturer’s website to ascertain what type of ink it is. They may also have their own ink-removal suggestions listed on their website. 
  • If you don’t know what type of ink you’re working with, don’t panic! Start by trying the liquid laundry detergent first, and if that doesn’t work, try the ballpoint pen methods.
  • Blot gently – rubbing or scrubbing will spread the stain. No matter what solution or method you use, try to keep the stain from growing by blotting carefully. It takes patience, but it’s worth it!
  • Don’t apply heat. Don’t put your clothes in the dryer until the stain is completely gone. The heat will set the stain and make it nearly impossible to remove.
  • The water and detergent method (above) is also effective for removing diesel from clothing.