How to Remove Ink From Clothes

Different Methods for Different Types of Ink

Illustration depicting products to remove ballpoint ink stains
Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018 

Whether you forgot to remove the pen from your pocket, had a mishap at the office, or your little one decided to draw you a picture—on your shirt!—ink stains are never a welcome sight. And removing ink stains from clothing can be a challenge, especially depending on the type of ink you are dealing with.

Not all ink stains are created equally. If you have a water-based ink stain, count yourself lucky. These are some of the easiest ink stains to remove and include inks like washable markers. On the other hand, a permanent ink stain, including those from most permanent highlighters and markers, can be an absolute nightmare to remove. Ballpoint ink falls somewhere in the middle since it can be tricky to remove but responds well to most treatment methods.

Each type of ink reacts to different types of cleaning methods, which mainly focus on products you have in your home. From the traditional water and laundry detergent combination to unexpected items such as milk or salt, there are plenty of options to try when you discover that dreaded ink stain. The first step is to determine the type of ink and then match the solution that will best treat it. And one important tip for success is to not wash and dry the clothing beforehand—the dryer will set in the stain and make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to remove.

Water and Laundry Detergent

This traditional cleaning method is ideal for water-based ink. Lay the stained clothing on top of a clean, dry towel or cloth. Apply water to the stained area and blot with another clean cloth. While you blot, the stain will begin to transfer onto the cleaning cloth. Apply a small amount of liquid laundry detergent onto the ink stain and allow the fabric to sit for 3 to 5 minutes. Dish soap is not a great substitute in this case so make sure you only use laundry detergent.

Wash normally, using the hottest water recommended for the fabric type. Before drying, check to make sure the entire stain was removed. If any trace of the stained area remains, repeat the cleaning steps. If the stained area is dried before the whole stain is removed, it will make it nearly impossible to clean later.

Rubbing Alcohol

Using rubbing alcohol is one strategy for trying to remove that pesky permanent ink stain. The liquid may not remove the stain completely (it is called "permanent ink" for a reason), but it will help to at least fade the stain. If the fabric can be bleached, you may have a better chance at removing the stain altogether.

Grab a clean white towel and put the stained item on top. First, test the rubbing alcohol on a hidden seam of the fabric. If the item doesn't seem damaged, blot the stained area with rubbing alcohol. The towel underneath may become wet and discolored from the ink leaching out—try moving the garment to a clean, dry section of the towel to prevent the area from reabsorbing any of the removed ink. Continue this process until there is no more ink to remove. Rinse the stained area completely free of the rubbing alcohol; multiple rinses may be necessary.

If you are trying to remove ballpoint pen ink, after using the rubbing alcohol apply regular liquid laundry detergent onto the area and let it sit for 3 to 5 minutes. Then wash in the hottest water that is safe for the fabric.

Nail Polish Remover

This stuff is heavy duty, and therefore recommended for permanent ink stains, but there is a chance that it will damage the fabric. Test it on an inner seam or a hidden area of the clothing first. If all goes well, blot in the same way as instructed with the rubbing alcohol. Be sure to move the stained area to a clean, dry section of a towel as the ink stain is removed. When finished, rinse the nail polish remover completely from the fabric.

Hairspray

Most hairsprays contain alcohol, which helps dissolve the ink and remove the stain. Try to find a hairspray with a high content of alcohol—often the least expensive brands are best. Place a clean towel underneath the fabric where the stain is, spray the stain thoroughly with the hairspray, and then blot with another clean towel until the stain is gone. Then launder the clothing as usual.

Milk 

This may seem like the most unexpected suggestion, but soaking the clothing item in a milk bath may actually do the trick. Fill a shallow bowl or another container with enough milk to cover the ink stain when the fabric is submerged and let soak overnight. Remove the next day and launder the clothing as usual.

Salt

If you are lucky enough to spot the ink stain before it dries, then quickly grab the salt shaker! Cover the stain with salt, dab gently with a wet paper towel, and then brush off the salt. Repeat until the stain is gone.

Vinegar and Cornstarch

This two-step process first uses vinegar alone and then mixes it with cornstarch to create a paste. First, wet the ink stain with the vinegar. Then create a paste with 2 parts vinegar and 3 parts cornstarch and work into the fabric. Let the paste dry completely before washing the item of clothing.