Few stains are more common—or more troublesome—than ink stains on clothes, carpets, or other fabric surfaces. A pen slipped into a shirt pocket or tucked into a pair of trousers can ruin the garment, while a ballpoint pen that breaks when you step on it can permanently disfigure carpeting or a fabric sofa. An old wives' tale says to use hairspray on the stain, but does it really work? While it used to be a smart trick to use to get rid of stains, new hairspray formulas make it an unlikely solution.
The Secret Ingredient in Hairspray: Alcohol
Various types of ink have ingredients with chemical properties that are fairly unique. Most inks contain a mixture of pigments, dyes, solvents, and lubricants that in combination make them very difficult to remove. Inks can be based on oil solvents or water solvents, and most everyone has experienced the difficult problem of removing stains from oil-based inks.
Permanent and ballpoint pen ink are oil-based inks, and their stains can sometimes be removed by using rubbing alcohol applied with a cotton swab or cotton ball. Hairspray used to contain alcohol, which was the secret ingredient that allowed it to get out ink stains.
However, over the years, manufacturers have decreased the amount or completely removed the alcohol from hairspray because it can dry out or damage hair. Even in the best of circumstances, hairspray or rubbing alcohol really works best if the stain is fresh. A long-dried ink stain is unlikely to come out easily, no matter what type of cleaner you try to use on it.
Water-based inks are another matter. A combination of alcohol and ordinary soap and water laundering often removes them entirely, so there's no need to rummage through your bathroom cabinets to find the hairspray for that one.
Using Hairspray on an Ink Stain
There is no harm in trying hairspray on an ink stain, as long as you keep your expectations low. Look for a hairspray product that mentions alcohol among its label ingredients. Often, this will be the cheapest hairspray products. Hairspray or other forms of alcohol are most likely to work on polyester or polyester blends.
Spray the stained area with hairspray and allow it to sit for several minutes to soak in. Do not rub at the stain, as this is likely to just spread the ink around. If the hairspray is working, you will probably see the stained area begin to soften. Rinse the area in clear, cool water to remove the hairspray and ink residue. If the hairspray treatment seems to be working, then you can repeat the process several times. After removing as much ink as possible, launder the clothing.
The same process will work with pure rubbing alcohol—in fact, it may be work better than hairspray does. Stains that resist both hairspray and rubbing alcohol may respond to denatured alcohol, but here you must be careful—some fabrics may not be colorfast when denatured alcohol is applied. If hairspray doesn't do the trick, move on to other methods that may be more successful at removing ink stains.