A broken ballpoint pen or accident with a permanent marker does not mean your clothing is hopelessly stained.
The best method to get ink stains out of clothes depends on the type of pen that caused it. Removing ink from water-based pens like rollerballs or gel pens is fairly easy, even when the stains have been there for a while. Oil-based ink like that in permanent markers or ballpoint pens takes a bit more effort but is not impossible. The one catch is that if the stain has been through the dryer or otherwise exposed to heat you may need repeat applications or to take it to a professional.
Before You Begin
You will need at least 15 minutes to remove most ink stains, and possibly longer if repeat applications are required. Plan to wash and air-dry the item at the end, so you can inspect the area. Until the stain is completely gone, do not expose it to heat, use warm liquids, or put it in the dryer. Heat can make ink stains more difficult, if not impossible to remove. If you need to speed up drying time, use a fan or a blow dryer on the cool, no-heat setting.
Water-based inks include rollerball pens, gel pens, fountain pens, drawing pens, and kids’ washable markers.
Removing Fresh Ink Stains
Blot the stain with a paper towel dipped in cold, soapy water. Change towels if needed, so you don’t spread the mess. Once you’ve lifted most of the ink, turn the garment over and hold it under cold running water to flush out the rest of the stain. Repeat as needed until the spot is completely gone then let the item air-dry and inspect it. If there are no traces of discoloration, launder the item as usual.
Dried Stains from Water-Based Ink
Remove dried water-based ink stains by dabbing the area with a little liquid laundry detergent or liquid dish detergent on both sides. Let this sit for 5 minutes to loosen the stain. Next, combine equal parts vinegar and cool water in a bowl. Without rinsing away the liquid detergent, submerge the stained area in this solution and let it soak overnight. The next morning, rinse the garment stain-side down under cold water and let it air dry. Repeat the process if needed. If the spot has completely disappeared, launder the item as usual.
Oil-based inks are found in ballpoint pens, permanent markers (Sharpies), dry-erase markers, highlighters, and felt tip pens.
Fresh Ink Stains
To remove fresh stains from oil-based inks like permanent markers, first slide a thick towel or piece of cardboard under the garment to avoid spreading the stain while you remove it. Then, dab the area with a paper towel moistened with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. Repeat on both sides of the stain, but don’t rub or you may spread the mess. Once the stain has disappeared, hold the item beneath cold running water to flush the area then let it air-dry. If you see traces of ink, repeat the process. Otherwise, launder as usual.
Dried Stains from Oil-Based Ink
As long as ballpoint pen, permanent marker, or other oil-based ink hasn’t been set with heat, you can remove it using isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol followed by dish soap. First, slide a thick towel or piece of cardboard beneath the item to protect surrounding surfaces. Then, dampen a cotton ball with alcohol and saturate both sides of the spot. Do not rub or you may spread the ink stain. Wait 5 minutes, apply a small amount of liquid dish detergent to the spot, and let it sit for another 10 minutes. Rinse the item under cool water and let it air dry. Repeat the process if needed, then launder as usual.
Other Ways to Get Ink out of Clothing
If you don’t have the things needed for the above methods, here are a few alternative laundry hacks to get ink out of clothes. Remember, no matter what you use, rinse the item under cool water and let it air-dry then inspect it. Until the spot has completely disappeared, do not use hot or warm water or put the item in the dryer, since heat can make ink stains permanent.
Wet Dryer Sheets
Dryer sheets contain oily surfactants to help them stop static cling. Those oily substances can also help dissolve oil-based ink stains. Try dabbing at both sides of oil-based ink stains with a wet dryer sheet until the mess is gone. Rinse the item under cool water and let it air dry then inspect it again before laundering.
You can also use hand sanitizer to remove oil-based ink stains. Apply a small amount to a clean white towel and dab both sides of the stain without rubbing. Be sure the hand sanitizer is free of dyes, fragrances, and moisturizers which can cause new stains on your clothes. Rinse the item under cool water and let it air dry then inspect it again before laundering.
To use milk on water-based ink stains, fill a shallow bowl with enough to cover the fabric’s stained part. Let this soak overnight then rinse with cool water and let the item air-dry. If the stain remains, try another method.
Nail Polish Remover
You can often get permanent marker stains out of clothes with nail polish remover, but this method can also damage clothing. Do not use it on acetate or other synthetics, since the acetone in nail polish remover can melt them. For all other materials, test an inconspicuous area with a small amount of nail polish remover on a cotton ball in a hidden spot. Dab the nail polish remover on both sides of the ink stain using a paper towel or cotton swab. Flush the area with cool water and let it air dry so you can make sure the ink stain is completely gone before laundering.
Chemically, glycerin is a type of alcohol, and that makes it an excellent stain remover for both water-based and oil-based ink stains. Mix 1 teaspoon each of glycerin and powdered oxygenated bleach, then stir in a few drops of liquid laundry or dish detergent. Dab this onto both sides of the ink stain with a cotton swab or paper towel. Wait 5-10 minutes, then rinse the item under cool water and let it air dry. Check to make sure the stain has completely disappeared before laundering. If the stain remains, try another method.
Why Not Just Use Hairspray?
It used to be that a generous spritz of hairspray could remove ink stains from clothing. That’s because older hair sprays contained a lot of alcohol. Modern formulas use a much lower amount. So, if you tried hairspray and it didn’t work, use one of these methods to get ink stains out of your clothing instead.
When to Consult a Professional
Do not attempt to remove ink stains from non-washable fabrics like silk, velvet, damask, or jacquard at home. Professional dry cleaners have special solvents which they use to treat these materials. You should also consult a dry cleaner for stains on vintage or irreplaceable items. Another time to take it to a professional is if you have unsuccessfully used DIY methods to remove ink stains on clothing. Be sure to tell the dry cleaner about the methods you tried, so they know what solvents to rule out.