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What Are the Different Types of Pen Ink & How Are They Used?

Kyrsten Ledger

Updated: October 28th 2020

Although many of us think of pens and printers when it comes to ink, there are many other kinds as well. From a cake with your face on it to a temporary tattoo your child got at a birthday party, different inks are used every single day. You'll find ink everywhere and on everything.

There are many different uses for ink that go beyond the office. Pretend like you're an octopus because it's time to get inky!

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

– Paul Erano, author of Fountain Pens Past and Present

What is Ink?

Ink and feather

The definition of ink is a liquid substance used for writing, drawing, or printing. It's made of many ingredients and is most commonly found in pens and printers.

Ink and feather

When Was Ink Invented?

Ink and feather

The history of ink can be traced back as far as 40,000 years ago! It has been used since the dawn of humankind as evidenced by cave paintings that show inked images of people, landscapes, and animals.

Ink and feather

Our ancient ancestors would gather many different ingredients, including animal fats, fruit or vegetable juices, charcoal, and plants, to make the ink. It was then created using a process called muddling – a technique that breaks up fresh ingredients, like herbs and fruits, so they can bind better with a liquid or paste.

Today, we don't have to gather our ingredients to make ink. Millions of gallons of ink are made every day inside of factories around the world.

What Are the Different Types of Ink?

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.

The different types of ink include:

  • Pen ink
  • Printer ink
  • Edible ink
  • Tattoo ink
  • Erasable ink
  • Phosphorescent ink
  • Fluorescent ink
  • Adhesive ink
  • Invisible ink

Pen on paper

Pen Ink

Pen inks are oil or water-based and contain additives that dye the ink a certain color. For instance, black ink pens contain carbon black, while blue ink pens contain phthalocyanine blue.

Printer cartridges
Birthday cake

Edible Ink

Edible inks are made from water, sugar, and FDA-approved colorants. They're safe to eat and often are used to print photos or logos on cakes, cookies, and candy.

Pens on pad

Erasable Ink

The erasable pen was invented in 1979, but took 10 years to perfect. The ink inside is made of a liquid rubber cement, which makes it possible to remove the pen marks via a combination of friction and heat.

Glow bracelet

Phosphorescent Ink

Phosphorescent ink is made using 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 the glow.


Fluorescent Ink

Fluorescein is a chemical used to make highlighter ink. It's what gives the highlighters their neon color when the ink is applied to the paper. Different additives are used depending on which color highlighter you're using. For instance, a chemical known as pyranine is used to make yellow highlighters.

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Adhesive Ink

Temporary tattoos and decals are made from regular ink with a special coating that's printed onto transfer film. When moisture is applied, it soaks through the film and transfers the image onto the surface.

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Invisible Ink

Write a secret message and then uncover it using heat or light. Many items in your kitchen can be used to create invisible ink including: lemon juice, milk, clear soda, and vinegar. This ink is also often used by concert venues or theme parks as stamps for admission.

Did you know?

Invisible ink may have been used as early as 18 BC. Roman poet Ovid wrote a poem called "Ars Amatoria," which described how to write a secret message using milk and powdered charcoal.

What Are the Different Types of Pen Ink?

The most common type of ink is the ink found in pens. The formula depends on the type of pen. 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.

All the ink is a little bit different, depending on if which type of pen you're using. Here's a quick breakdown:

Pen ink chart mobile Pen ink chart desktop

Ballpoint Pen Ink:

  • Oil-based
  • Mixed with pigments
  • Fast-drying
  • Available in 100+ colors
  • Most common colors: black, blue, and red
  • May smear

Dip Pen Ink:

  • Water-based
  • Mixed with dyes
  • Thin
  • Fades over time
  • Usually comes in black
  • May smear or leave ink drops

Fountain Pen Ink:

  • Water-based
  • Mixed with dyes
  • Made with surfactants to control ink flow
  • Takes a long time to dry
  • Usually comes in black
  • Less likely to leave ink drops

Rollerball Pen Ink

  • Water-based
  • Mixed with pigments or dyes
  • Thick and saturates the paper
  • Available in 100+ colors
  • Most common colors: black, blue, and red
  • Dries less quickly than ballpoint pen ink

Gel Pen Ink:

  • Water-based
  • Mixed with pigments
  • Thick
  • Available in 100+ colors, including glitter, neon, and metallic options
  • May smear easily
  • Ink isn't as long-lasting as ballpoint pens

Ballpoint pens are the only pens that are oil-based, while fountain pens, rollerball pens, dip pens, and gel pens use a water-based ink. Some of these inks smear, while others dry quickly. It ultimately depends on the quality of the pen you're using!

How to Get Pen Ink Out of Clothes

ink stain on shirt

Let's say you put your favorite ballpoint pen in your shirt pocket and it suddenly leaked. Now what do you do? No worries – it's very easy to remove ink stains from your clothing.

How to get pen ink out of clothes:

ink stain on shirt

What you'll need:

  • Paper towels
  • Rubbing alcohol or white vinegar
  • Eyedropper
  • Laundry detergent
  • Washing machine


1. Use the eyedropper to apply rubbing alcohol directly to the stained area. Let it soak for 15 minutes. You can also try white vinegar. The ink should dissolve, but if it's still there, continue applying and blotting with a paper towel. DO NOT RUB THE AREA.

2. Pour a little laundry detergent onto a wet paper towel and blot the area.

3. Wash your clothing in the washing machine on a regular cycle.

4. Hang it up to air dry. The stain should be gone! Be mindful if you're removing ink from t-shirts, sweatshirts, or pants that aren't colorfast. You run the risk of discoloring the material or causing more damage. Test a small area first and then proceed.*

*This method for removing ink isn't foolproof. Quality Logo Products isn't responsible for any damage caused by removing ink from clothing.

What is Ink Made Of?

Ink is made of many different components. Solvents, pigments, dyes, resins, lubricants, solubilizers, surfactants, fluorescents, and many other ingredients are used to make ink.

The chemical composition of ink varies from product to product. Either way, most of the time ink contains at least one of the following:

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A substance added to ink to prevent it from drying out or separating over time; edible ink will have additives to prevent spoiling

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A dye or pigment added to ink to give it color

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Drying Agent

A chemical used to ensure ink dries once it meets a surface

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

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Linseed Oil

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

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

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The liquid to which the colorant is added; usually either oil or water

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Soybean Oil

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

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

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A substance added to ink to prevent the ink from rubbing off its surface

Every ink formula contains at least one colorant and one solvent (base). The best example of colorants and solvents in action is chocolate milk. The color of the milk doesn't change until you add chocolate syrup to the cup. The milk (solvent) is dissolving the chocolate syrup (colorant) even though it hasn't been mixed yet.

Chocalate Milk

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!

Just to think…your snack of chocolate milk and cookies could be teaching you a thing or two about ink chemistry!

What is the Difference Between Dyes and Pigments?

The biggest difference between dyes and pigments is how they react when applied to a solvent. Dyes dissolve completely and change the chemical structure, while pigments are unable to dissolve without additional ingredients.

  • Dyes


    Changes the chemistry of the ink

    Brighter colors

    More likely to fade with light exposure

    Can be synthetic or natural

    Mostly used in inks, food additives, and textiles




    Needs a vehicle

    Highly durable

    Mostly used in inks, paints, plastic, and rubber


  • Soluble
  • Bright colors
  • May fade in the sun
  • Synthetic or natural
  • Used in ink, food additives, and textiles


  • Insoluble
  • Resistant to the sun
  • Needs a vehicle to be created
  • Durable
  • Used in ink, paint, plastics, and rubber

How Ink is Made

Most inks are synthetic and made in large factory plants. Once the ingredients arrive at the factory, the ink is mixed and processed and then shipped off to a printing facility.

The steps for making ink are outlined below.

Step One: Transfer the Vehicle to a Mixer
How ink is made image 1

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

Step Two: Add the Pigment
How ink is made image 2

Once the vehicle is thinned out, the pigment is added to the mixer. The pigment starts as a finely ground powder and comes in a variety of colors. Most ink makers use the CMYK model, so the powder will be some combination of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

Step Three: Transport to the Next Machine
How ink is made image 3

The smooth, blended product travels from the mixer to a transport cart. This gets the ink ready for the next steps.

Step Four: Load Into Bead-Mill Machine
How ink is made image 4

The ink is loaded up into a bead-mill machine, which is filled with tiny steel balls. When mixed, the balls break apart any particles or clumps in the pigment. This helps create smoother ink.

Step Five: Send Through Three-Roller Mill
How ink is made image 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. The rollers give the ink the most color strength and a high gloss finish.

Step Six: Test the Ink
How ink is made image 6

Next, the ink goes through a series of tests for quality control. These tests ensure that the ink is the same from batch to batch.

Step Seven: Put in the Mixer
How ink is made image 1

The ink is taken to another mixer. At this point, any extra ingredients like waxes, drying agents, and additives are also mixed in. It ultimately depends on the formula that's being used.

Step Eight: Back in the Three-Roller Mill
How ink is made image 8

It's back to the three-roller mill! This machine is able to remove any remaining air pockets, polish the mixture, and make the ink even glossier.

Step Nine: Package the Ink
How ink is made image 9

Finally, the ink is ready to be used! It's packaged into small, labelled containers and shipped to the final destination.

Watch this video to see how ink is made!

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How to Make Invisible Ink

Whether you're a science teacher, need an activity for the kids, or are just curious to see if it works, you can have a ton of fun making invisible ink! It's very easy and will only take about 5 minutes.

What you'll need:

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


Step 1

Mix the baking soda and water together in one small cup or bowl.

Invisible ink step 1

Step 2

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

Invisible ink step 2

Step 3

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

Invisible ink step 3

Step 4

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

Invisible ink step 4

Step 5

Let the message dry completely.

Invisible ink step 5

Step 6

Flip the cotton swab around, dip it in the grape juice, and lightly rub the cotton swab over the paper to reveal the secret message.

Invisible ink step 6

Is Ink Toxic?


Ink can be toxic in small quantities, but it isn't life-threatening. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "pens contain so little ink that there is not enough to cause poisoning." They recommend drinking water if you do swallow any pen ink.

The symptoms of ink poisoning include:

  • Upset stomach
  • Soreness in the mouth
  • Allergic reaction
  • Skin infection
  • High fever
  • Sweats and/or chills

If you're at all concerned about ink poisoning, be sure to reach out to poison control at 1-800-222-1222.


The Bottom Line

Ink is very useful when it comes to printing your resume, making a photo birthday cake, and of course, writing your to-do list. It's hard to imagine a world without it! Thankfully, ink is here to stay and won't disappear anytime soon.

Quality Logo Products are experts on all things printed and promotional. Let our team of awesome, incredibly good looking, and fun promo nerds help you select awesome promotional swag today!

4 random promtional products 4 random promotional products tablet
Kyrsten Ledger

Kyrsten Ledger

Kyrsten's vast knowledge of promotional giveaways and marketing has led to several hit articles. She has also published work for PPB Magazine, a publication from the Promotional Products Association International.


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