When I was a student, it seemed every other week, I’d hear the groan of a peer across the classroom, only to look over and find them with ink-covered hands. Whether it’s mindless nibbling on the end of a pen during lecture, a ballpoint tucked into a pocket, bleeding out unnoticed or an “artistic” toddler making a canvas of their clothes, ink stains are messy and annoying. The good news? If you act fast, most can be removed or significantly diminished.
    

Why do pens leak, anyway?

The answer has to do with body heat.

Unlike pens stored in desks or briefcases, people holding a writing tool for extended periods of time or those storing one in a pocket transfer heat to the instrument. As the temperature rises, the viscosity of the ink lessens, meaning it becomes “runnier.” This allows ink to ooze from the ballpoint more freely than it would have otherwise. A stain can grow rapidly, especially when the angle of the instrument permits, and ink can be drawn out of the pen by the absorbency and texture of the fabric.

It all explains why your professor wears a geeky pocket protector, doesn’t it?
   

Types of common ink 

In order to treat the stain, it’s helpful to understand the composition of various types of ink.

Ballpoint pen ink: The ingredients of ballpoint ink are a bit of a closely guarded trade secret but all include dye (or pigment particles) suspended with “a solvent of oil or water.”* Penmakers then add assorted chemicals to improve usability. For example, fatty oleic acid is added for lubrication, so the ballpoint rotates in the socket without clogging.  

Water-based ink: Less popular than their ballpoint counterparts, fountain pens use a thin, water-based ink which (good news) is easier to remove. You’ll also find water-based ink in a number of children’s’ felts and markers.

Gel pen ink: Contains powder pigments suspended in a water-based gel.*

Permanent marker ink: Sharpies contains a colourant, solvent and hard-to-dissolve resin.*  
   

Golden rules for stain removal

You’ve discovered an ink stain. Now what?  

First, follow the cardinal rules of stain removal: treat with urgency, handle the garment with care to avoid transferring the ink to other areas, and avoid heat/sun exposure. Stains set deeper over time, so it’s important to get to work while the mark is still moist.
   

How to remove an ink stain in 8 easy steps

Step 1: Identify the fabric type. Inspect the garment care label to note the delicacy of the textile. For example, silk has special considerations for stain removal.

Step 2: Gather a solvent like rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer or hair spray.  

Step 3: Blot the excess ink with a clean, absorbent paper product like a paper towel or napkin. Take special care not to rub the ink deeper into the fiber of the textile.

Step 4: Perform a test for colourfastness. Choose a small, less- or non-visible portion of the garment to apply the solvent to. Allow up to three minutes before blotting with a paper towel to see if the item’s original dye lifts. If not, continue treating. If the colour does run, do not proceed with the solvent; bring the garment to a dry cleaner.

Step 5: Place a clean, old towel or paper towel beneath the stain* and apply the solvent to the stain. (*Do not skip this step! Pigment or dye swept away by the solvent can run, transferring the ink to other parts of the item.)

Step 6: Rinse with cold water.

Repeat as needed or until you feel the solvent application is making no additional progress.

Step 7: If the ink stain has not disappeared, apply a concentrate of laundry detergent and let it sit for five to 10 minutes.

If you're using a Tru Earth eco-strip, first tear the strip into small pieces and place in a small bowl, adding a tablespoon (15ml) of tap-hot water to begin dissolving it. Stir with a spoon to form a paste, adding small volumes of water as needed.

Without rinsing the detergent, place the item in the washing machine – if the garment care label allows – using the highest water temperature setting appropriate for the fabric type.

Step 8: Inspect the stain after the wash cycle completes. If the stain persists, revisit step 5 and launder again.

Special note: Only place the garment in the dryer if you are finished stain treating; the heat of the machine will “set” any remaining ink.
   

If all else fails, treat the (wet) stain with a specialty ink remover like Amodex.