How to Remove Ink Stains from Clothes

Don't worry—your favorite shirt isn't ruined. Removing ink stains out of clothing is easy with these expert tips, particularly if you act fast.

Getting an ink stain out of a piece of clothing might seem like a simple task compared to getting permanent marker stains out. However, anyone who has ever accidentally marked themselves with a ballpoint pen or felt-tip marker is already well aware this isn’t the case. Similar to removing other types of stains, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to getting ink out of clothing.

“There are two main types of ink out there: water-based and oil-based,” Guy Peters, owner and founder of MOP STARS cleaning service, explains to Reader’s Digest. Water-based inks—including most fountain pens, washable markers, gel pens, and the very popular rollerball pens—are the most common. “As you might guess, water-based inks are a little easier to remove,” he explains. Oil-based inks, typically used in ballpoint pens, can be more difficult to remove. “A big part of this is because oil is because oil is hydrophobic which just means it doesn’t dissolve in water,” Peters points out.

But it’s not just the ink that matters. “Different fabrics absorb inks at different rates with cotton being the most absorbent and polyester and similar man-made materials absorbing much less,” he says. (Hence the reason screen printers usually opt for cotton shirts!) How to get ink out of clothing depends not only on the type of ink but also the fabric the stain has set into. Ink stains not your only problem? Here’s how to get coffee stains out of everything and how to get red wine stains out of clothes.

How to get ballpoint pen ink out of clothes

While water is the go-to tool for removing stains and cleaning up spills in our everyday life, Peters warns that H2O is not a stain solution for getting ink out of clothes. “Because ballpoint pens typically use oil-based inks, trying to get the stain out with water alone is out of the question because oils resist and repel water.” Instead, you can try the following solutions, and here’s how to get oil and grease out of other clothes.

1. Rubbing alcohol

Rubbing alcohol should be your first choice for neutralizing and removing oil stains, according to Peters. When it comes to small ink stains, you can apply the rubbing alcohol to a clean cloth or paper towel and start soaking the stain. After a few minutes rinse and blot. “Your goal here is to soak up the ink and not scrub it away so make sure to focus on creating pressure and blotting instead of wiping or scrubbing,” he explains. If you’ve got an older or large ink stain, he suggests soaking the area in rubbing alcohol for as much as 10 to 15 minutes. After the rubbing alcohol has removed the oil, soapy water may also help.

2. Nail polish remover

Because most nail polish is oil-based, nail polish remover might be able to help remove ink stains from your clothing. However, keep in mind that nail polish remover is also strong, so there is a good chance it could change the look of your fabric. “Make sure to test nail polish remover on a hidden area before applying it to the ink stain,” says Peters. Speaking of nail polish—if you spill nail polish after a manicure or pedicure, here’s how to get nail polish out of just about anything.

3. Dawn Dish Soap

Dawn dish soap is also a good option and best used in conjunction with one of the other methods above. Why Dawn, over other dish soaps? “Dawn is specially designed to remove oil and grease without being harmful to the hands or in this case fabric,” Peters reveals. “When it comes to oil-based stains or just plain oil, it’s been put to the test and is the go-to option for cleaning birds and other animals after an oil spill.”

how to clean ink stains off of clothesAlaina DiGiacomo/rd.comHow to get felt pen out of clothes

Similar to ballpoint pens, most felt tips are also oil-based which means they have the same problems as a ballpoint pen. “Just like with ballpoint pen stains, your best options are going to be rubbing alcohol or similar products like nail polish remover. Dawn dish soap can also help,” says Peters. He adds that some people also recommend hairspray as an option to remove ink stains from clothing, but he points out that it is the alcohol in hairspray that does the work. “Hairspray often contain 25 to 50 percent alcohol, which is good, but it’s always going to be better to go for the more concentrated options to really remove tough ink stains,” he says.

How to get a water-based ink stain out

Peters explains that getting a water-based ink stain out of clothes is a little easier, and you’ll usually have success with room temperature water and soap. “Because the ink is water-based (instead of oil), laundry detergents will be effective and spot stain treatments are effective,” he says. Keep in mind that it’s important to give the soap or detergent time to soak and, as always, blot vigorously. “Remember, you’re trying to transfer the ink from the clothing to the rag or paper towel not scrub it away.”

If the ink stain is on a garment, you can run it through the wash, but don’t use hot water. “Hot water can cause the ink to set faster, so go with cool or warm,” he advises. Also, before you put the garment in the dryer, first ensure the stain is gone. “If not, soak the area with detergent or soap again and get back to blotting,” he continues. Then, try putting it in the washing machine again. “What you don’t want to do is dry the garment while the ink stain is still present, as that will actually make things harder moving forward,” he says.

Step-by-step instructions on removing ink

Whether your ink stain is on leather, polyester, jeans and denim, suede, or wool, the instructions on how to remove them are the same, per Peters.

  1. If the ink is still wet, try to soak up as much as you can with a cotton ball, cloth, or paper towel while being careful not to spread the ink around.

  2. If the ink stain is in a prominent part of the fabric, start by dabbing a hidden area with rubbing alcohol to see how it responds. Even the same type of material or fabric can sometimes respond differently as a result of age or the manufacturing process. Assuming there’s no issue, move on to step 3.

  3. Dab a cloth, cotton balls, or paper towel in rubbing alcohol and begin blotting the area. Be sure not to scrub or wipe but instead focus on trying to absorb the ink. Dispose of cloth or paper towels as they absorb the ink.

how to get ink out of clothesAlaina DiGiacomo/rd.comOther ink stain removal tips

  • Act fast: If the ink stain just occurred, you can stop it from spreading to other parts of the fabric by creating a petroleum jelly perimeter around the stain, Peters explains. “The petroleum jelly will absorb the ink and prevent it from soaking into other parts of the fabric while you assemble your other clean-up supplies.”
  • When you are unsure of the type of ink: If you’re not sure what type of ink you have and you don’t have the pen around, Peters suggests testing both water and rubbing alcohol. “You only need a small amount and you should be able to tell right away which solution is working better,” he explains.
  • Skip vinegar: While some folks swear by vinegar, Peters explains that science doesn’t check it out when it comes to removing oil-based inks. “That’s because vinegar is an acid while things like dish soap are bases that are much better at removing oil and grease,” he says.
  • The difference between fresh vs dried ink stains: Dried ink stains are exactly that—dry. “As a result, they’re difficult to absorb out of the fabric and can be much more difficult to remove,” Peters explains. Fresh ink stains on the other hand are still liquid and often can be readily absorbed by a clean cloth or paper towel.
  • Dry clean only: If your laundry label recommends dry cleaning only, it’s best to leave it to the pros. Try to take the garment to the cleaners as soon as possible and point out and identify the ink stain when you drop it off.
  • What you should do if the stain persists: Unfortunately, some ink stains on clothing aren’t going to come up. “If the ink has been in the fabric for days or longer there’s a chance that it won’t get removed,” Peters reveals. However, before you give up, he suggests trying to soak the stain in rubbing alcohol for 15 minutes sessions with vigorous blotting between. “While this won’t always remove the ink stain if done enough times you can at least greatly reduce the visibility of it,” he says. Has a super glue spill left you puzzled on how to remove the residue or stick? Don’t fret. Here are tips on how to remove super glue from everything.

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Leah Groth
Leah is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, mother and product junkie. Her obsessions include old houses, home design, fashion, beauty, books and anything that makes her life — which includes working full-time and taking care of two "spirited" children and a Vizsla puppy — a little bit easier. Her work has appeared on a variety of publications and websites, including Glamour, Prevention, Business Insider, Livestrong, Mindbodygreen, Fatherly, Scary Mommy, Wonderwall and Cosmopolitan.