Different Types of Inks and Their Uses

Alyssa Mertes

Kyrsten Ledger

Promo Expert

Published: December 14th, 2018

Updated: April 4th, 2019

Although many people associate ink with pens and printers, there are many other kinds. From a cake with your face on it to a temporary tattoo your child got at a birthday party, different inks were used to create those images. Whether you use erasable, glow-in-the-dark, or invisible ink, you can find it everywhere and on everything!

What are the different types of inks? How is ink made? Take a look at the vibrant world of ink!

A Brief History of Ink

Ink can be traced back as far as 40,000 years ago! In fact, ink has been around since the dawn of communication with cave paintings being the first documented use of ink in history. Originally, ink was made from different combinations of animal fats, fruit or vegetable juices, and plants. Now, most are made synthetically in factories with pigments or dyes.

What is the Formula Used in Ink?

Ink formulas are made using a base like water that’s needed to absorb dyes or pigments and other chemicals that aide in the drying time, texture, and preservation of the ink.

To keep track of it all, check out this family tree:

Glossary of Ink Terms

Ink has a lot of confusing ingredients, but it doesn’t have to be that way! To break down ink formulas even more, we’ve come up with a list of the most common ink terms and definitions so that you know an additive from wax and everything in between.

Additive:

A substance added to ink to prevent ink from drying out or separating overtime. Other inks, like edible ink will have additives to prevent spoiling.

Colorant:

A dye or pigment added to a material, such as ink, to give it color.

Drying Agent:

A chemical used to ensure ink dries once it meets a surface, like paper.

Dye:

A type of colorant that dissolves completely in a liquid without additional help.

Insoluble:

The inability to dissolve completely in a substance, such as water.

Linseed Oil:

A colorless to yellowish oil extracted from dried, ripened seeds of the flax plant. Also known as flaxseed oil.

Pigment:

A type of colorant that’s unable to dissolve without the help of a vehicle.

Soluble:

The term used to describe a substance that’s dissolved completely within a liquid.

Solvent:

The liquid to which the colorant is added.

Soybean Oil:

A common vegetable oil extracted from the seeds of the soybean plant.

Vehicle:

The binding agent added to pigment allowing it to dissolve within a solvent.

Wax:

A substance added to ink to increase rub-resistance, so the ink doesn’t rub off of its surface.

While there’s a bunch of ingredients that make up ink, the colorants are what gives it such beautiful colors! Without dyes and pigments, everything would be completely colorless. The other ingredients are just an added bonus to make sure the ink works in tip-top shape!

What’s the Difference Between Dyes and Pigments?


The biggest difference between dyes and pigments are how they react when applied to a base. For example, dyes dissolve completely in liquid and change the chemical structure of its solvent, while pigments are unable to dissolve without the help of a vehicle. Solvents are liquids like water, oil, alcohol, or milk, and have the ability to dissolve other substances.

Check out all the ways you can tell dyes and pigments apart:

Dyes
Pigments
  • Dyes

    Soluble

    Changes the chemistry of the ink

    Brighter colors

    More likely to fade with light exposure

    Can be synthetic or natural

    Uncolored material soaks in the dye solution

    Mostly used in inks, food additives, and textiles

    Pigments

    Insoluble

    Particles will be present in the ink

    Light-resistant

    Needs a vehicle

    Highly durable

    Applied to a surface

    Mostly used in inks, paints, plastic, and rubber

See Colorants and Solvents in Action!

Of course, you wouldn’t use milk to make ink, but to better understand what a solvent is, let’s talk about chocolate milk and how it’s made. You start by pouring milk into a glass. You’ll notice that its color is still the same, but once you add chocolate syrup to the cup, it begins to mix a little bit with the milk. That’s because the milk (solvent) is dissolving the chocolate syrup (colorant) even though it hasn’t been mixed yet. Once you stir the two ingredients, the milk changes colors from white to brown. Since there are no other ingredients inside the glass and the chocolate dissolved, it’s safe to say that the syrup is a dye colorant.

See Colorants and Solvents in Action!
See Colorants and Solvents in Action!

How Ink is Made

Back in ancient times, ink was made by muddling ingredients together in a basin or bowl. Muddling is a technique that breaks up fresh ingredients, like herbs and fruits, so they can bind better with a liquid or paste.

In the 21st century, however, most inks are synthetic and made in large factory plants. This ensures the quality and color of the ink is the same every time it’s used. Once the ingredients arrive at the factory, the ink is mixed and processed, and then shipped off to a printing facility or distributor.

From a powder to a liquid, learn how ink is made in these easy steps:

  1. Step 1: The vehicle is weighed, transferred to a mixer, and heated by mixing. This process is necessary to make the product thinner than it normally would be at room temperature.
  2. Step 2: Once the vehicle is thinned out, the pigment is added to the mixer. Every pigmented-ink starts as a finely ground powder and comes in a variety of colors. Most ink makers use the CMYK model, however, ink makers, especially in the screen printing business, are not subject to only these four colors.
  3. Step 3: The smooth, blended product travels from the mixer to a transport cart.
  4. Step 4: When the pigment is first added to the vehicle, some pigment particles stick together and form lumps. The ink is loaded up into a bead-mill machine, which is filled with tiny steel balls. When mixed, the balls break the pigment particles apart into tiny pieces and create smoother ink.
  5. Step 5: After the ink is smoothed out, it goes through another machine called the three-roller mill. This machine is made up of 3 steel rollers that run in opposite directions. It smears the particles in the pigment even further apart and gives the ink the most color strength (the colorant’s ability to change the color of a colorless material) and a high gloss finish.
  6. Step 6: Now that the ink is fully incorporated, it will go through a series of tests for quality control. The tests ensure that the ink is the same from batch to batch.
  7. Step 7: Once approved by quality control, the ink is taken to another mixer. This is where extra ingredients such as waxes, drying agents, and other additives are mixed in.
  8. Step 8: Next, the ink is run through the three-roller mill again. By repeating the process, the mill removes any final air pockets from the ink. This polishes the mixture and makes it even glossier.
  9. Step 9: Finally, the ink is ready to be packaged into smaller containers. Once sealed up, the containers are given a label. From there, the ink is loaded up into trucks and ready for their next destination.
  1. Step 1
    Step 1

    The vehicle is weighed, transferred to a mixer, and heated by mixing. This process is necessary to make the product thinner than it normally would be at room temperature.

    Step 1
  2. Step 2
    Step 2

    Once the vehicle is thinned out, the pigment is added to the mixer. Every pigmented-ink starts as a finely ground powder and comes in a variety of colors. Most ink makers use the CMYK model, however, ink makers, especially in the screen printing business, are not subject to only these four colors.

    Step 2
  3. Step 3
    Step 3

    The smooth, blended product travels from the mixer to a transport cart.

    Step 3
  4. Step 4
    Step 4

    When the pigment is first added to the vehicle, some pigment particles stick together and form lumps. The ink is loaded up into a bead-mill machine, which is filled with tiny steel balls. When mixed, the balls break the pigment particles apart into tiny pieces and create smoother ink.

    Step 4
  5. Step 5
    Step 5

    After the ink is smoothed out, it goes through another machine called the three-roller mill. This machine is made up of 3 steel rollers that run in opposite directions. It smears the particles in the pigment even further apart and gives the ink the most color strength (the colorant’s ability to change the color of a colorless material) and a high gloss finish.

    Step 5
  6. Step 6
    Step 6

    Now that the ink is fully incorporated, it will go through a series of tests for quality control. The tests ensure that the ink is the same from batch to batch.

    Step 6
  7. Step 7
    Step 7

    Once approved by quality control, the ink is taken to another mixer. This is where extra ingredients such as waxes, drying agents, and other additives are mixed in.

    Step 7
  8. Step 8
    Step 8

    Next, the ink is run through the three-roller mill again. By repeating the process, the mill removes any final air pockets from the ink. This polishes the mixture and makes it even glossier.

    Step 8
  9. Step 9
    Step 9

    Finally, the ink is ready to be packaged into smaller containers. Once sealed up, the containers are given a label. From there, the ink is loaded up into trucks and ready for their next destination.

    Step 9

The ink-making process has a lot of steps, but once you have a finalized recipe, the overall process is simple and mesmerizing. While every company is different, the basics remain the same: mix, test, package, and ship!

Check out the process from start to finish in this video!

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Types of Inks

Ink is a huge part of our everyday lives. Without it we wouldn’t be able to print money, make road signs, or mail packages. From printer ink to ink that is safe to eat, ink can take on many different forms.

Take a look at the different unique types of inks:

Printer

Printer

Most color printers follow the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) model. To achieve a desired image, printers will layer tiny dots of the four printer colors, which allows other colors to be created.

Common uses: newspapers, books, flyers, business cards, photos, reports

Edible https://lakelandcamel.scene7.com/is/image/LakelandCamel/18245_2?$325$

Edible

Made mostly from water, sugar, and FDA-approved colorants, edible inks are safe to eat! They can be applied via pens, markers, and paintbrushes, airbrushed, or transferred on by printing images onto edible paper. These inks are generally tasteless and textureless.

Common uses: cakes, cookies, marshmallows, frosting, icing sheets, wafers

Invisible https://i.ytimg.com/vi/39S-V_QucCg/hqdefault.jpg

Invisible

Invisible ink can be heat-activated, chemically-activated, or light-activated. That means that once the secret message is dry, it will be revealed again either by a heat source, chemical reaction, or light energy. Many items in your kitchen can act as invisible inks, such as lemon juice, milk, clear soda, and vinegar.

Common uses: sticky notes, notebook paper, canvas, diary, your hand for readmission at a concert

Fun Fact!

Invisible ink has been documented in history as early as 18 BC. In the poem “Ars Amatoria”, Roman poet, Ovid wrote instructions on how to write secret message using milk and powdered charcoal.

Erasable http://www.asiaone.com/sites/default/files/original_images/Apr2014/20140409_erasableinkpen_yomiurishimbun.jpg

Erasable

Invented in 1979, the development of the erasable pen took 10 years to perfect. Instead of oil or water-based ink, the ink is made of a liquid rubber cement. When you erase the pen marks, the eraser and the surface create friction, which creates heat and dissolves the ink.

Common uses: notebook paper, canvas, tests, journals

Glow-in-the-dark https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/1498/2894/products/glow-in-the-dark-paint-pens-74.jpg?v=1506442054

Glow-in-the-dark

Also called phosphorescent ink, glow-in-the-dark ink is made by adding chemicals like strontium aluminate and phosphors. These chemicals absorb and store light energy until the light disappears. Once it’s dark, the energy is converted into visible light known as its glow.

Common uses: sidewalks, chalkboard, canvas, t-shirts, glow sticks

Adhesive https://i.pinimg.com/236x/ba/f1/2d/baf12d9c1f7650bb55907abd4103799d--kid-tattoos-superheroes.jpg

Adhesive

Adhesives, like temporary tattoos and decals, are made from regular ink with a special coating. Instead of using regular paper, the ink is printed onto a transfer film. When moisture is applied, it soaks through the film and transfers the image onto its surface. Non-waterproof adhesives, like temporary tattoos, include a gelatin-like substance that dissolves over time, whereas other adhesives, like decals, are water-resistant or waterproof and last until taken off.

Common uses: skin, windows, mirrors, cars

How to Make Invisible Ink

How to Make Invisible Ink
Making invisible ink can be tons of fun and educational, especially if you’re a teacher, have kids, or just want to see if it really works! All you need to get started is baking soda, water, a couple bowl, cotton swabs, grape juice, and paper.

  1. Step 1: Mix the baking soda and water together in the small bowl.
  2. Step 2: Pour a little bit of grape juice into the second bowl.
  3. Step 3: Dip a cotton swab into the baking soda-water mixture.
  4. Step 4: Write your message on the paper using the cotton swab. Make sure you continue to wet the cotton swab as you write.
  5. Step 5: Let the message dry completely.
  6. Step 6: To reveal the message, flip the cotton swab around and dip in the grape juice. Lightly rub the cotton swab over the secret message.

What You’ll Need:

  • 2 small bowls (or cups)
  • ¼ cup of baking soda
  • ¼ cup of water
  • Cotton swabs
  • Unlined paper
  • Grape juice
  1. Step 1
    Step 1

    Mix the baking soda and water together in the small bowl.

    Step 1
  2. Step 2
    Step 2

    Pour a little bit of grape juice into the second bowl.

    Step 2
  3. Step 3
    Step 3

    Dip a cotton swab into the baking soda-water mixture.

    Step 3
  4. Step 4
    Step 4

    Write your message on the paper using the cotton swab. Make sure you continue to wet the cotton swab as you write.

    Step 4
  5. Step 5
    Step 5

    Let the message dry completely.

    Step 5
  6. Step 6
    Step 6

    To reveal the message, flip the cotton swab around and dip in the grape juice. Lightly rub the cotton swab over the secret message.

    Step 6

Common Types of Pen Ink

Above all, the most common type of ink, or the one we typically think of, is the ink found in pen. The ink’s formula will depend on the type of pen being used. For example, a fountain pen has a completely different anatomy compared to a ballpoint pen, therefore it requires a different ink formula so it flows properly through the tip and onto the paper.

These are the inks you’ll find in everyday pens:

Ballpoint

Ink Base: Oil

Pigment or Dye: Pigment

Ink Properties:
• Standard colors: black, blue, red, and green
• Fast-drying
• Can smear

Drawing (Dip Pen)

Ink Base: Water

Pigment or Dye: Dye

Ink Properties:
• Very thin
• Fades over time
• Can easily smear
• More likely to leave ink drops

Fountain

Ink Base: Water

Pigment or Dye: Dye

Ink Properties:
• Contains a surfactant (additive that reduces surface tension) to control ink flow
• Takes awhile to dry
• Less likely to leave ink drops compared to a drawing pen

Rollerball

Ink Base: Water

Pigment or Dye: Both

Ink Properties:
• Saturates paper
• Large variety of colors
• Can be gel-like

Gel

Ink Base: Water

Pigment or Dye: Pigment

Ink Properties:
• Saturates paper
• Large variety of colors
• Can be gel-like

Type of Pen Ink Base Pigment or Dye Ink Properties
Ballpoint Oil Pigment
  • • Standard colors: black, blue, red, and green
  • • Fast-drying
  • • Can smear
Drawing (Dip Pen) Water Dye
  • • Very thin
  • • Fades over time
  • • Can easily smear
  • • More likely to leave ink drops
Fountain Water Dye
  • • Contains a surfactant (additive that reduces surface tension) to control ink flow
  • • Takes awhile to dry
  • • Less likely to leave ink drops compared to a drawing pen
Rollerball Water Both
  • • Saturates paper
  • • Large variety of colors
  • • Can be gel-like
Gel Water Pigment
  • • Thick
  • • Large variety of colors
  • • Have neon, metallic, and glitter options
Quote Icon

Pen manufacturers are very sensitive to the relationship of pen and ink, and that their ink formulas are developed with their pens in mind.”

– Paul Erano, author of Fountain Pens Past and Present

What Are Pantone Colors?

While standard pen colors are typically black, blue, and red, pen ink can come in a large variety of color options. Every color, whether it’s emerald or turquoise, has a numerical code assigned to it, courtesy of the Pantone Matching System (PMS). From paint, to lipstick shades, to ink, companies use this system to make sure their customers are getting the same exact color with every purchase.

If you’ve ever been to a hardware store and browsed the paint section, you’ve actually seen the Pantone Matching System in action. Companies like The Printing Ink Company™ use these number codes to manufacture a full range of Pantone color inks that are hand-mixed in house. It’s important for customers to get the color they’re expecting. By using the Pantone’s universal color matching system, you can guarantee that the color they picked is exactly what they’re going to get.

Adhesive

Is Ink Toxic?

Generally speaking, most inks aren’t toxic in small quantities and aren’t life threatening. However, pen ink and other types can be dangerous. It’s always best to contact a healthcare professional or poison control if you’re worried about ink toxicity.

Writing Utensils

Writing Utensils

It’s safe to say that most writing utensils aren’t considered poisonous and some brands, like Crayola, even have non-toxic written in bold letters on their packaging. For any pen or marker, check the packaging for instructions on what to do if the ink is accidentally swallowed. Even if you threw out the packaging, your local poison control or emergency number will know what to do.

Tattoos

Tattoos

As far as tattoo ink, some inks may contain high levels of toxic heavy metals. Some tattoo shops use a specific brand of ink, whereas others give their artists the freedom to choose a brand they prefer. While adverse reactions to tattoos are very rare, they can happen. Never be afraid to ask a tattoo artist or shop about the ink they use.

Other Types of Inks

Other Types of Inks

If you’re ever unsure on whether or not an ink is toxic, ask the experts! Emergency responders, doctors, and poison control will know how to respond to emergencies, such as swallowing ink. Ink poisoning is extremely rare, but it never hurts to do thorough research, ask questions, and read packaging labels.

The Bottom Line

From printing resumes to eating marshmallows with pictures on them, ink can be seen on pretty much anything. In fact, we would hate to imagine a world without ink! Thankfully, it’s here to stay and won’t get washed up anytime soon.

Kyrsten Ledger

Kyrsten Ledger

Kyrsten is a Copywriter at Quality Logo Products®. She has a BA in English from Aurora University and has had her work published for Print + Promo. If you need her, you'll find her with her nose stuck in a book, on a quest to learn something new, or planning her next adventure.