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Types of Pens: How to Pick a Pen with the Right Ink

Two ballpoint pens with writing samples that have been brushed over with water.
Standard ballpoint ink is thick and paste-like. This means that less ink comes out with each stroke of the pen, which has two main benefits: there is virtually no chance of the ink bleeding through the page, and refills last longer than those of non-ballpoint pens. Ballpoint inks’ thickness also requires people to press harder to write. This can cause hand strain over long periods of writing.

Although it’s generally referred to as oil-based, the carrier in ballpoint ink is usually an alcohol such as benzyl alcohol or phenoxyethanol. This is why alcohol helps remove ballpoint ink stains. Most ballpoint pens are water resistant and write well on glossy paper, such as receipts and the backs of credit cards.

The alcohols in ballpoint ink also help it dry quickly, which makes it a good fit for left-handed writers. It can still smear, however. Many ballpoint inks are prone to building up on the pen’s rotating ball and depositing occasional “blobs” of ink that take longer to dry.

The color in ballpoint ink usually comes from dyes. If you’re wondering where the “oil-based” categorization comes from, it may be a reference to the fatty acids used in ballpoint ink. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats and oils and allow the ball to rotate smoothly in the tip of the pen without getting gummed up by the ink.

Low-viscosity ballpoint pens contain ink that has been formulated to be thinner, or less viscous, than standard ballpoint ink. They feel smoother to write with and are less prone to generating blobs. You could think of this as a modern update to ballpoint ink, as the basic ink components remain the same. Manufacturers guard these formulas closely, so we can’t be precise about what elements are changed to achieve this smoother ink. Some low-viscosity ballpoint inks are “fortified” with pigments to give them a deeper hue than dyes would provide on their own. The popular Uni Jetstream is an example of this.


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