Ballpoint Vs. Gel Pens. What Is The Difference?

Today, in this age of technology, students are unaware of the benefits of using pens. There’s just something therapeutic about writing down your thoughts and feelings or completing a sketch in pen. Although we may think all pens are the same, there are some very distinct differences.

The differences between a ballpoint pen and a gel pen lie are in the ink composition, the refill size, the lines delivered between the two pens, the tip sizes, the cost, as well as writing style.

As a keen writer or artist, you obviously use one or both of these two pens on a daily basis. However, if the differences between them have piqued your interest, you will find all relevant information related to these pens in this article.

The Differences Between A Ballpoint And A Gel Pen

If you look at the various types of pens, they are still ballpoint pens, although they are all different. The only similarity between the two pens is that they use the same ball and joint socket type at the tip of the pens.

The differences between the ballpoint and gel pens in more detail are listed below.

1. The Ink Types Between The Ballpoint And Gel Pen

One of the main differences between the ballpoint pen and the gel pen is the ink composition or the ink type used in the pens.

The ink in a ballpoint pen, known as viscous, is oil-based. The ink is developed by blending dyes together with a mixture of alcohol and fatty acids. The alcohol in ink promotes a smooth, easy ink flow, while the fatty acids act as lubricants on the pen tip.

The ink on ballpoint pens is composed of the following ingredients.

  • Oleic acid – the fatty acid which acts as a lubricant on the pen tip. This facilitates ease of movement over the paper.
  • Dye – the dyes are what give the ink color.
  • Alkyl Alkanolamines – is a surfactant that reduces the surface tension of the ink to allow it to penetrate into the paper.
  • Alcohol – creates the fluidity of the ink that enables it to glide smoothly and effortlessly over the paper.

The viscous nature makes this ink suitable to use on low-grade paper, with minimal bleed through. However, it does mean more pressure is applied when writing, which may tire out the writer. Ballpoint inks are known for being waterproof, smudge-resistant, and quick drying.

Now, if we look at gel ink, on the other hand, it consists of dye pigments suspended in a water-based gel. This particular combination provides gel pens with the ease and smoothness when scribing and the accuracy and vibrancy they have become famous for.

Because the inks in gel pens contain a dye pigment instead of commercial dyes, the pens are available in a more extensive range of colors.

The effortless flow of the ink makes writing for long periods of time more manageable. The ease of writing without pressure staves off muscle cramps on the hand. Therefore, gel pens are much loved by students and artists alike.

Ballpoint pens are not available in as many colors as gel pens are. There are, however, strides to improve the ink quality, thereby ensuring a more comprehensive range of colors. Due to the water-based ink on gel pens, a broader and more vibrant range of colors is available.

There is, however, one drawback to the inks in gel pens. The ink is water-based, so after a period of time and continued use, the pen tends to skip more than a ballpoint pen would. This is due to the fact that the thinner ink does not coat the tip, as well as the ink on a ballpoint pen does.

The ink from gel pens is not fast drying, so smudging may occur if the scribe is not careful.

Another ink type that is used on some ballpoint pens has recently entered the scribing world. It is a hybrid ink formulation combining the best viscous ink of the ballpoint pen with the low density of the gel ink. This unique marriage between the two types of ink brings together the effortless flow and vibrancy of the gel pen paired with the quick-drying and waterproof nature of the ballpoint pen.

Hybrid inks contain the following components.

  • Oleic acid – is a fatty acid that acts as a lubricant on the pen tip. This facilitates the movement of the tip over the paper.
  • Lubricant – a lubricant is added to the ink formula to ease movement similar to that of a gel pen.
  • Dye – is what gives the ink its color.
  • Alcohol – creates the fluidity of the ink to ensure the pen glides smoothly and effortlessly over the paper.
  • Alkyl alkanolamine – is a surfactant that reduces the surface tension of the ink to ensure the ink is applied smoothly and effortlessly.

2. The Size Of the Tip Matters

The width of the written line is dependent on the tip size at the end of a pen. With gel pens using water-based inks, the ink is thinner. Therefore a smaller tip works best on gel pens.

To better understand the tip size, I will explain this further. For example, if you require a fine width line between 0.5 to 0.7mm, you choose a gel pen. In countries like China and Japan, for instance, where writing is an art form, tip size can reach a diameter of 0.25mm.

On the other hand, you can get a medium-size tip to produce a line width that measures between 1.0 to 1.4mm with ballpoint pens. This size is considered standard for the ballpoint pen if you take into account the behavior and ink composition.

The smaller nibs on gel pens also make them ideal for graphic design, fashion illustration, or when you need a time-out and decide on a coloring project. Since the popularity of adult coloring books, gel pens have also become very popular with this crowd of budding colorists.

This is because gel pens are easier to handle, and with the smaller nibs, the pens afford better control. Another validating feature of the gel pens for coloring is the ability to reach into tiny grooves and spaces that you cannot do with a ballpoint pen.

3. Comparing The Refills On A Ballpoint Pen And A Gel Pen

Another big difference between a ballpoint pen and a gel pen is the size of the ink refills and how long a pen can last.

A gel pen has a thicker and longer ink refill than a ballpoint pen. A ballpoint pen has a much thinner ink refill. However, a ballpoint pen can write for approximately 900 meters. On the other hand, a gel pen has the capability of writing for an approximate length of 500 meters.

4. Comparing The Price Difference Between A Ballpoint Pen And A Gel Pen

Now you are aware of how each pen type is made and the ink compositions, the only thing left to do is compare the prices between the two pens.

It is relatively easy to determine the more expensive pen between the two. Hands down, the winner is the gel pen!

This is due to the composition of the inks. Because the ink on gel pens contains dye pigments suspended in a water-based gel, it becomes more expensive to produce. And given the fact that gel pens are available in a broader range of colors, another factor contributing to the difference in prices between the two pens.

In the long run, ballpoint pens are more affordable. This is due to the fluid and viscous nature of the ink. The ink only drips out of the ink chamber when the tip comes into contact with the paper. This simple technique reduces smudging and saves ink.

Another advantage of choosing a ballpoint pen over a gel pen is that it is more dependable and durable.

When deciding on which pen to purchase, consider your individual needs. If you will be writing, designing, or sketching for more extended periods, invest in a set of good-quality gel pens. However, a ballpoint pen is what you need for daily use to sign cheques, bills, etc.

Saying that over the last few years, there has seen a dramatic increase amongst artists using ballpoint pens for sketching and drawing. Many artists have been heard saying that cross-hatching with ballpoint pens produces art pieces that are very different and contemporary.

5. The Difference In Writing Performance And Writing Experience

Both these pens offer very different writing experiences, styles, and performances. As a student writing for long periods, a lighter pen such as the gel pen is ideal. However, the ink in the gel pen doesn’t dry as quickly, so smudging may occur.

Ballpoint pens are the go-to choice for many students. They were reliable, dependable, inexpensive, and durable. These pens are unique because they are also lightweight and easy to carry around.

If you require a pen with a precise and neat writing performance, go with a gel pen. You may also add an artistic flair to your writing style with gel pens.

Because gel pens are lighter to write with than a ballpoint pen, they are suitable for journaling. They offer you the opportunity to scribe your deepest thoughts and feelings without any hand cramps!

The History Behind The Ballpoint And The Gel Pen

Now that we are aware of the differences between the ballpoint and the gel pens, let us explore some history behind the pens. The history behind the invention and the production contributes to the differences between the two pens.

Who Invented The Ballpoint Pen?

According to our information, the only method of scribing during the 1800s, before the invention of the ballpoint pens, was the fountain pen. However, many found the fountain pen tedious because the ink leaked and caused a mess.

In 1888, John J Loud was experimenting with various methods to mark on leather when he unassumingly fell upon the idea of creating a vessel to contain the ink, with a ball and socket at the end to hold the nib or tip.

It took another 43 years later before a working model of the ballpoint pen as we know it came into being. Lazlo Biro, working as an editor on a Hungarian newspaper, discovered that the ink on the newspapers dried out much quicker, without smudges than the ink used to write on paper.

His brother, Gyorgy Biro, a chemist, began to experiment with the chemical compositions of ink, trying to find the best formulation suited to their needs. The two brothers came up with a thick, sticky ink known as viscous, with a ball bearing. This ball and socket joint would allow the tiny ball bearing to move around freely on paper and seal the ink into the paper, preventing it from drying out.

The final working version of the ballpoint pen was showcased at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. The brothers’ Biro and a friend left Hungary to start producing their pens, the Birome’ in Argentina.

The modern-day version of the ballpoint pen, most popularly known as the BIC, came onto the market in 1953. Marcel Bich took control of the Birome designs from the Biro brothers. He recreated the ballpoint pen and named it after himself.

The ballpoint pen gained popularity worldwide after an advertising campaign launched in 1961 coined the slogan, “Writes the First time, Every Time!”.

Who Invented The Gel Pen?

The vibrant, neon colors and the easy glide on paper made gel pens a much sought-after school item. You were the hip kid if you had a gel pen.

Gel pens were introduced to the American market in the mid-1980s by the Sakura Color Products Corporation of Japan. The “Gelly Roll,” as it became known, was the first gel pen to enter the American market.

After that, Crayola introduced their version of the gel pen with extensive writing stems to accommodate the smaller, more delicate hands of children.


Ballpoint and gel pens are not used solely for signing one’s name across a sheet of paper. Over the years, pens have evolved and been used for numerous reasons, from calligraphy to design to marking points on the leather!

However, there are some very noticeable differences between the two pens. These lie in the ink type and compositions thereof, the tip’s size, and the refill chambers. All of these combined affects the price of the pen.

When deciding on which pen to choose, consider your daily needs and how each pen will satisfy those needs.

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