Are Ballpoint Pens Acid-Free?

Not much thought is generally required when selecting a pen for everyday life. People make quick decisions based on affordability, fit of the hand, color, and how it scrawls across the page. Few people outside of visual and graphic arts consider what is in a pen’s ink. But with the upswing of scrapbooking and hand-lettering, this is changing. So what’s in a ballpoint pen?

Ballpoint pens do not have acid-free ink. Unlike rollerball pens, which use water-based ink, ballpoint ink often relies on benzyl alcohol or phenoxyethanol as the color carrier. Other common ingredients are alkyl alkanolamide for fast absorption and oleic acid for lubrication.

Gone are the days of iron gall ink being an everyday choice. Even modern-day iron gall does eat away at metal like the original formulas. Nonetheless, the type of ink matters when you want to preserve a photograph or a diary. Acid and oil allow ink to soak through the paper and spread. This can be disastrous to particular projects. But ballpoint does have advantages.

Are Ballpoint Pens Acid-Free?

Ballpoint pens are not acid-free. They are considered an oil-based ink and generally contain fatty acids and alcohol. The alcohol base is the dye or pigment carrier, allowing faster drying time and reduced smudging. The fatty acids allow a smooth and continuous script. It also helps prevent the pen from drying out, even if you lose the cap.

What Is In Ballpoint Pen Ink?

The exact formulas for ballpoint inks are guarded by their makers. However, common ingredients include:

  • Alkyl alkanolamide
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Oleic acid
  • Phenoxyethanol alcohol

What Are The Advantages Of Ballpoint Ink?

Ballpoint inks are an excellent choice for everyday writing, such as taking notes. The formulas used come with advantages such as:

  • Continuous and reliable flow
  • Efficient use of ink
  • Fast drying
  • Inexpensive
  • Lack of clogging
  • Leaking is uncommon
  • Longevity
  • Reduced smudging
  • Robust, as the nib isn’t easily advantages
  • Some brands are airplane-safe
  • Some brands can write upside down

What Are The Disadvantages Of Ballpoint Ink?

Ballpoint ink does have some disadvantages both due to the ink’s ingredients and the ball.

  • Can have an unpleasant odor
  • Ink can soak and spread into the paper over time
  • Needs more pressure to work than some other pens
  • Prone to clumps
  • The thicker ink can make small handwriting unreadable

Is Ballpoint Pen Ink Archival?

Archival ink needs to withstand the passage of time and not harm the paper. As ink ages, it has a tendency to fade. Unfortunately, most ballpoint pens are not archival due to the oil and acids they contain. Even if they don’t fade, they may spread or soak through the paper as time goes on.

However, there are some exceptions out there. These archivable ballpoint pens generally still have an oil base but are not supposed to eat through the paper. But for sketch artists, the most important factor is these ballpoints will not fade over time. However, to be safe, perhaps avoid using it on the back of photographs and keep it for drawing and writing only.  

What Is The Difference Between Ballpoint And Rollerball?

Rollerball pens use water-based ink, unlike a ballpoint with an oil base. Examples of rollerball pens are gel pens. Due to being water-based, rollerball ink is typically easier to remove from clothing or furniture should an accident occur.

Rollerball pens often require less pressure than a ballpoint pen, which makes the former easier on the hand for long writing projects. Due to the way the ink flows, rollerballs also allow users to darken a line if desired. Like ballpoint, rollerball pens are not known to leak.

However, rollerball pens smudge much easier than ballpoint. They are also highly likely to dry out if left for prolonged periods without their cap. On the other hand, a ballpoint can easily be stored without its cap (although this can be messy).

Is Ballpoint Pen Ink Lightfast?

Lightfast is technically an ink’s ability to not fade over time due to sunlight or ultraviolet light exposure. Unfortunately, most ballpoint pens are not lightfast, which is partly why they are usually poor choices for archivable work.

However, lightfast has also been used as a term for a technique where an artist adds watercolor washes and then, once dried, will not fade. However, while most ballpoint pens are unsuitable for this technique, there are some hybrids out there. Thus, check and research before buying.

What Pens Are Acid-Free?

Most stationery shops and online retailers make it easy to find acid-free pens. You’ll typically find that your rollerball pens are acid-free, such as gels and the Uni-Ball. Sharpie is another that is commonly acid-free. Do keep in mind that dye-based inks generally do not have the longevity of pigment-based inks.

Some examples of acid-free pens:

What Are The Advantages Of Acid-Free Pens?

Acid-free inks are often less prone to fading or harming the paper. Thus, archivable inks are generally acid-free, such as what scrapbookers often desire. There is also a concern that if used on the back of a photograph, the acid in the ink will gradually eat away until it is visible from the front of the shot.

However, just because an ink is acid-free does not necessarily mean it will withstand the test of time. Quality and ingredients matter.

Can I Save A Journal Written With A Ballpoint?

While ballpoint pens are not acid-free, the ink doesn’t dissolve in a blink. It’s pretty robust. The biggest damage is done by sunlight or UV light. Thus, keep the journal out of direct light, which is generally easy, thanks to the cover. Also, try to store it in a cool, dry, and dark place.

Some people bag their journals in one or two sealed freezer bags to help prevent them from absorbing moisture from the air. You can also get special boxes to protect writing from humidity.

However, do not hairspray over the pages of your journal. This often-recommended hack can actually cause a lot of damage, including yellowing the paper.

If something is truly special, consider talking to a professional archivist. In the meantime, you can photograph or scan the pages to at least have copies.


Ballpoint pens are not acid-free. The exact ingredients in a ballpoint’s ink are not known, but they generally contain alcohol and oil. While some brands have come out with archivable or lightfast versions, these are exceptions, not the norm. Ballpoint pens are an excellent choice for fast, easy work but not a good choice for the back of a photograph.

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