Does Hair Spray Really Remove Ink Stains?

Shirt With Ink Stain on Pocket
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Few stains are more common—or more troublesome—than ink stains on clothes, carpets, or surfaces. A pen slipped into a shirt pocket or tucked into a pair of trousers can ruin the garment; its a rare office worker or student who hasn't had this happen. A ballpoint pen that breaks when you step on it can permanently disfigure carpeting or hardwood.

For years, an often-advised remedy for ink stains has been to dowse them with hairspray. But does it work?

Why Does Ink Stain so Badly?

Of all stain materials around the house, ink may be one most difficult to remove. This is because various type 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.

There are three types of ink that create different issues for stain removal:

  • Water-based ink
  • Permanent ink (Sharpie markers, etc.)
  • Ballpoint ink 

You will have a decent chance at removing stains from water-based inks or ballpoint ink. Stains from permanent ink will be more difficult, but they sometimes can be removed.

The Secret Ingredient in Hair Spray

Permanent and ballpoint pen ink are oil-based inks, and stains can sometimes be removed by using rubbing alcohol applied with a cotton swab or cotton ball. The reason that hairspray sometimes works on ink-stained clothing is that alcohol is a common ingredient in many types of hairspray. But it is only older types of hairspray that contain notable amounts of alcohol. Many newer forms of hairspray have greatly reduced the alcohol content—which is great for hair, but not so great if your goal is to dissolve and remove ink stains. 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.

Water-based inks are another matter. A combination of alcohol and ordinary soap and water laundering often removes them entirely.

How to Use Hairspray on an Ink Stain

There is no harm in trying hairspray on an ink stain. 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. 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. 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.

Removing ink stains using hairspray may or may not work. It depends on the nature of the ink and the ingredients in the hairspray. If hairspray doesn't do the trick, move on to other methods that may be more successful at removing ink stains.