How to Get Ink Out of Clothes Like a Cleaning Pro

Updated: Jun. 11, 2024

Don't worry—you haven't necessarily ruined your favorite shirt! The key to getting ink out of clothes is to use the right technique for each type of pen stain.

Learning how to get ink out of clothes might seem like a simple task—especially when compared with removing permanent marker stains or paint. However, anyone who’s ever accidentally drawn on themselves with a ballpoint pen or fine felt-tip marker is well aware that the process requires a bit of nuance. Similar to removing other types of stains, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to getting ink out of clothing.

That’s because ink can be either water-based or oil-based. “Oil-based ink is thick and greasy, and these stains are a combination of dyes and grease. That means you need to break down the oily component to be able to remove the stain from the fabric,” says Jessica Ek, a senior director at the American Cleaning Institute. “Water-based ink is easier to remove, and you won’t need a solvent.”

Not sure how to handle your ink-stain dilemma? You’re in the right place. Reader’s Digest spoke with Ek and Kim Romine, a Tide scientist at Procter & Gamble, to find out how to eradicate these stains. The first thing you need to know is that getting ink out of clothing depends not only on the type of ink but also the type of fabric you’re dealing with. Read on to learn more.

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About the experts

  • Kim Romine is a fabric-care scientist at Procter & Gamble with more than 20 years of experience developing fabric-care products, including Tide laundry detergent.
  • Jessica Ek is a senior director at the American Cleaning Institute, where she creates how-to guides for correctly cleaning and sanitizing hundreds of common products and household items.

Types of ink stains

As noted above, different types of ink call for different types of stain-removal methods. According to Ek, water-based ink—found in fountain pens, washable markers, gel pens and rollerball pens—is easier to tackle. On the other hand, oil-based ink stains—which you’ll find in ballpoint pens—are trickier to remove, since the substance is considered “hydrophobic,” or resistant to water. That means you’ll need to use methods similar to removing oil stains.

Also, it’s not just the ink type that matters: Different fabrics absorb inks at different rates. For instance, Romine says, it’s more difficult to remove ink from quick-absorbing fabrics such as cotton, polyester and synthetic textiles than it is to remove from, say, leather.

How to get ballpoint-pen ink out of clothes

how to clean ink stains off of clothesAlaina DiGiacomo/

Because ballpoint pens typically use oil-based inks, you’ll need a strong solvent that can cut through the oil like a champ. Both our experts agree that the best solution for the job is rubbing alcohol, and they recommend the following steps when using it.

Supplies you’ll need

  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Cotton balls
  • Cloth
  • Paper towels
  • Dish soap
  • Cold water


  1. Do a spot-test with the rubbing alcohol on a small, inconspicuous area of the fabric. Make sure there’s no damage before proceeding.
  2. After you’ve determined that rubbing alcohol is safe for your fabric, apply it to a cotton ball or clean cloth, and press gently onto the stain to soak the area. Romine says your goal here is to soak up the ink, not scrub it away. Scrubbing can accidentally push the stain further into the fibers, so focus on creating pressure and blotting instead of wiping or scrubbing. Always use a clean part of the cloth or cotton ball as you blot. For older stains, let the alcohol sit on the stain for five minutes before blotting.
  3. Next, rinse the stain with cold water to get out as much as you can. Flush from the back of the stain to the front so the stain doesn’t move further into the fibers.
  4. If the stain persists, repeat Steps 2 and 3 until it is completely (or mostly) gone.
  5. Once the oily part of the stain is gone, apply a drop or two of dish soap to the area, and rinse with cold water. This can help remove any residual ink left on the stain. “When it comes to a tough stain like ink, I always try to get as much as I can out before it goes in the wash,” Romine says.
  6. Finally, put the garment into the washing machine with normal laundry detergent and cold water. Feel free to wash it with other garments.
  7. Inspect the garment before tossing it in the dryer. Otherwise, the heat may set the stain. If the stain persists, repeat Steps 2–6.
  8. When the stain is finally gone, dry the garment as usual.
Pro tip
“If there is a lot of ink on the fabric,” Romine says, “you can also place a paper towel underneath the garment and pour the solvent directly onto the stain.”

Other ways to get ballpoint-pen ink out of clothes

Rubbing alcohol is the preferred method for removing ballpoint ink stains and other types of oil-based inks. However, you can also try the following options if you don’t have any handy and need to figure out how to get ink out of your clothes ASAP.

Nail polish remover

Because most nail polish is oil-based, nail polish remover might be able to help you remove ink stains from clothing. However, keep in mind that nail polish remover is quite strong, so there’s a possibility it could change the look of your fabric. Again, test a small area first. Also, while you’re at it, learn how to get nail polish out of clothes as well.

Hand sanitizer

On the go and nowhere near a washing machine? Chances are you’ve got some hand sanitizer nearby. “If I’m out and about and don’t have rubbing alcohol on hand, a little bit of alcohol-based hand sanitizer works just fine,” Ek says.


Bleach is an option if you’re dealing with ink stains on white fabrics, but it’s a good idea to tone down the strength of the bleach first. Dilute 1/4 cup chlorine bleach with 3/4 cup water, apply just enough of the solution to cover the stained area, and let it sit for five to ten minutes before laundering.

Dish soap

Dish soap works best on ink stains when it’s used in conjunction with one of the other methods above, such as rubbing alcohol or acetone. It’s formulated to gently target oil and grease.

How to get felt-pen ink out of clothes

Similar to ballpoint pens, most felt tips are also oil-based, which means you’ll have the same issues when trying to get these ink stains out of clothes. Here’s what Ek recommends.

Supplies you’ll need

  • Rubbing alcohol (or similar)
  • Cotton balls
  • Dish soap
  • Cold water
  • Laundry detergent


  1. Spot-test an inconspicuous area of your garment with rubbing alcohol (or a similar alcohol-based substitute). Make sure there’s no damage before proceeding with the following steps.
  2. Soak a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol, and apply it directly to the stain. Let it sit for five to ten minutes.
  3. Blot with a clean cloth or cotton ball, making sure to use a clean part of the cloth or cotton ball every time you blot. Repeat as necessary until the stain is lifted.
  4. Apply a drop or two of dish soap directly to the stain to further cut through the ink. Gently massage the area, and then rinse with cold water, flushing the stain from the back toward the front.
  5. If the stain persists, repeat Steps 2–4.
  6. Toss in the laundry using the cold-water setting, and launder as usual.
  7. If the stain persists, repeat Steps 2–6.
  8. Once the stain is officially gone, dry the garment as usual.

How to get water-based ink out of clothes

The good news is that water-based ink stains are much easier to get out of clothes because the ink is thinner and non-greasy. Examples of water-based pens include washable markers, fountain pens, gel pens and some rollerball pens. “Soap and water is what I would use for these types of stains, so skip the solvent,” Romine says. “It will break down the water-based ink and wash it away.”

Supplies you’ll need

  • Dish soap
  • Paper towel or cloth
  • Cold water


  1. Apply dish soap directly on the stain, and let it sit for five to ten minutes.
  2. Blot vigorously, making sure to not rub and spread the stain. The goal is to transfer the ink onto a paper towel or cloth. Use a clean portion of the paper towel or cloth every time you blot to prevent transferring the stain.
  3. Rinse with cold water from the back to the front.
  4. Repeat Steps 1–3 as necessary until the stain is gone.
  5. Toss your garment in the washing machine using cold water and a normal amount of detergent. Cold water prevents the stain from setting, whereas heat can make the stain more difficult to remove.
  6. If you still see ink on your garment, repeat Steps 1–5.
  7. Once the stain is gone, place the garment in the dryer.
Pro tip
Heat will set the stain and make things harder moving forward, says Romine, so don’t use a dryer until the stain has been removed completely.


how to get ink out of clothesAlaina DiGiacomo/

How do you get dried ink out of clothes?

Dried ink stains are more difficult to remove than fresh stains, but you might have some luck using the process above several times in a row. “The stain will be tougher to dissolve, but the same process will tackle it,” Romine says. “I always try to catch stains like this right away, though, and treat them to make it easier for removal.” Fresh ink stains are still liquid and often can be readily absorbed by a clean cloth or paper towel.

How do you remove ink from leather?

While rubbing alcohol works well on many ink stains, Ek doesn’t recommend using it to clean leather. Of course, the concern is damaging the leather, but beyond that, you don’t need such an aggressive method because it’s relatively easy to get ink stains out of leather.

If it’s a small, fresh stain, start by blotting the area with a clean cloth and a little bit of water. “You may also be able to add a little bit of white vinegar to the water and use a toothbrush to gently remove what you can,” Ek says. “For large stains on [leather], though, bring them directly to a professional for assistance.”

How do you get ink out of denim?

Rubbing alcohol may work for denim, but always protect your garment by spot-testing in a hidden area. If the color changes, then rubbing alcohol will damage the item. Alternatively, Romine suggests firmly blotting the fresh ink stain with cold water and gently agitating it with a soft toothbrush. You can add a little bit of dish soap or laundry detergent to help encourage the stain to lift. If it’s a large or stubborn stain, it’s best to have the garment professionally cleaned.

How do you remove ink from silk?

Silk is one of the most delicate textiles to clean, and therefore needs a supremely gentle touch. Romine recommends using cold water and blotting firmly, taking care not to smear or rub the stain. If the stain isn’t budging, take it to a professional dry cleaner.

What should you do if the stain persists?

Unfortunately, some ink stains on clothing aren’t going to come out very easily—and sometimes not at all. Romine says that if the stain doesn’t come out after using the methods above and going through a full wash cycle, you should repeat the process (before putting it in the dryer) several times to see if you can fade it. You can also try letting the rubbing alcohol or cleaning agent soak for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Why trust us

At Reader’s Digest, we’re committed to producing high-quality content by writers with expertise and experience in their field in consultation with relevant, qualified experts. For this piece on how to get ink out of clothes, Wendy Rose Gould tapped her experience as a home and lifestyle journalist, and then Mary Marlowe Leverette, a fabric-care and stain-removal expert with more than 40 years of experience, gave it a rigorous review to ensure that all information is accurate and offers the best possible advice to readers. We also relied on reputable primary sources, including an experienced Tide scientist with fabric-care expertise and a cleaning expert from the American Cleaning Institute. We verified all facts and data and backed them with credible sourcing, and we will revisit them over time to ensure they remain accurate and up to date. Read more about our team, our contributors and our editorial policies.


  • Kim Romine, Tide scientist and laundry expert at Procter & Gamble; email interview, January 2023
  • Jessica Ek, cleaning expert at the American Cleaning Institute; email interview, January 2023