The Complete Guide To Ballpoint Pen Ink

Pens are indispensable in our daily lives, whether we are working or studying. But many of us may choose a pen depending on its appearance or design. However, if you want a ballpoint pen that is easy to write with or suits your purpose, it is essential to check the type of ink. The suitable ballpoint pen ink for you may be different from the one you are using now.

Here is the guide to the most popular types of ballpoint pen ink and their characteristics, as well as writing tests and recommended products.

What Is Ballpoint Pen Ink Made Of ?

Pen tip of ballpoint pen

Ink is composed of two main components: colorant and solvent. And the difference between the most common pen ink, oil-based ink and water-based ink is simply whether the solvent is an organic solvent containing alcohol or water.

And the colorants are mainly either dyes or pigments, or both. The viscosity and coloration are adjusted by changing the ratio with the solvent.

Difference between dye and pigment

Colorants that are dissolvable in solvents are “dyes”, while non-dissolvable ones are “pigments”. Apart from writing instruments, dyes are used to dye fibers, while pigments are for paints and cosmetics. Dye inks are often used for pens with vivid colors and smooth writing, while their clear colors and quick-drying feature characterize pigment inks.

Types Of Ballpoint Pen Ink

There are five main types of ballpoint pen inks on the market today.

  • Oil-based (ballpoint)
  • Water-based (rollerball)
  • Emulsion
  • Gel
  • Erasable

The following is a rough table of the characteristics of each. Of course, it will vary slightly depending on the brand and type of ballpoint pen, but this is the general idea.

Ink TypeDye or PigmentDye or PigmentDye or PigmentDye + PigmentPigment
Drying SpeedQuickSlowMediumQuickMedium
Writing FeelHeavyLightLightLightLight
Water-resistanceYesDye: No
Pigment: Yes
Dye: No
Pigment: Yes
Ink DropYesLessLessLessLess
Ink Running Out SpeedSlowSlowQuickSlowQuick

Features Of Each Ink Type

Ballpoint pen ink refills

Let’s take a look at the five ballpoint pen inks. Here are the detailed characteristics of each ink and some popular pens.

Oil-based (ballpoint) ink

The most common type of ink is oil-based ink.

Oil-based inks have a higher viscosity (almost like honey) than other inks. As a result, they dry much faster and have the advantage of being water-resistant, and they do not bleed easily, even when wet. For this reason, it is an efficient ink which we can use in any situation, such as work, study, and housework. In fact, many popular pens use oil-based ink.

On the other hand, there are some disadvantages, such as the tendency for ink to drip while writing and the slightly inferior writing quality and color. However, thanks to the efforts of various manufacturers, many recent models have been released that eliminate these disadvantages. And the writing quality and color are almost the same as water-based ballpoint pens these days.

Typical examples are Uni-ball’s JETSTREAM, which is very popular for its overwhelmingly smooth ink. And Zebra Blen is also gradually gaining popularity because of its minimalist design.

Zebra Blen

Water-based (rollerball) ink

While oil-based ballpoint pens have a heavy writing feel, water-based ink gives you a smooth and light writing experience. 

It has a similar writing style to that of a fountain pen. And it is suitable for writing long, fast sentences in diaries and letters. Since it does not require strong writing pressure, you will not get tired even if you use it for a long time, which is a great point.

Moreover, compared to oil-based inks, these inks have excellent color rendering properties, allowing for vivid colors. Because of those characteristics, it is available in a wide variety of colors.

However, water-based ballpoint pens that use dye inks are not water-resistant. If water droplets such as rain or sweat adhere to the pen, the letters will blur immediately. In addition, the viscosity of the ink is low, and the nib dries out quickly. So, most models are cap-operated rather than knock-operated.

Popular water-based ballpoint pens include SARASA dry, which boasts the industry’s fastest-drying ink ever. And PILOT’s V5 Series is also quite popular, which is as light as a fountain pen ink.

Zebra SARASA dry
PILOT Precise V5

Gel ink

Gel ink has come out as a third type of ballpoint pen ink to replace oil-based and water-based inks.

By mixing a gelling agent with water-based ink, it has the unique feature of being highly viscous inside the pen but changing to low viscosity when writing. Thus, it combines the advantages of both water-based and oil-based ballpoint pens. In addition to being light and smooth to write with, it dries quickly. And those using pigments are water-resistant.

But, compared to oil-based and water-based ballpoint pens, the ink runs out faster. The disadvantage is that you need to change the refills frequently.

The most popular are Uni-ball Signo and Pentel’s Energel series with its vivid ink colors.

Uni-ball Signo
Pentel Energel

Emulsion ink

Emulsion ink is a proprietary ink developed by a Japanese stationery manufacturer “Zebra”.

Zebra has developed a number of innovative inks. This Emulsion ink is a combination of oil-based and water-based ink in a ratio of “7:3”. By using a special blending method to stabilize oil and water, which generally do not mix, the ink has the characteristics of both oil and water-based inks.

It was previously used as ink for printers, but Zebra used this method for ballpoint pen ink for the first time in the world. The advantages and disadvantages are similar to those of Gel ink. It provides a light writing experience similar to water-based ink but with excellent water resistance.

Currently, there are multiple pens that use Emulsion ink, such as Surari and Filare.

Zebra Surari
Zebra Fortia

Erasable ink

Erasable ink is a revolutionary ink that solves the disadvantage of ballpoint pens. Unlike pencils, ballpoint pens cannot be rewritten or erased once written.

Erasable pens are designed to erase letters by rubbing the paper with the rubber part of the ballpoint pen to generate frictional heat. In the case of Pilot’s Frixion ink, the ink becomes erasable when the heat of 65°C or higher is applied by friction. That makes it convenient for school classes, lectures, and daily memos when you want to summarize the contents neatly.

One thing we should be aware of is that it is sensitive to heat. So, if it is exposed to direct sunlight for a long time, the written characters may disappear. Also, since the ink can be easily modified, so it is not suitable for official documents.

Pilot’s Friction series is the most famous. But due to its explosive popularity, many companies are now selling similar products one after another.

ParKoo erasable pen

Writing Test

Here is the writing test for each ink.

writing test of 5 different types of ballpoint pen ink

The water-based and gel inks have dark and vivid colors, especially Energel ink. Emulsion ink looks and feels almost the same as oil-based ink. Frixion is convenient, but there is still some blurring of the ink.

Dropped water on both dye and pigment ink

The difference between oil-based and water-based ink is obvious when you drop water on it. For instance, SARASA dry, a water-based dye ink, is very weak against water, and the ink bled instantly. On the other hand, JETSTREAM, an oil-based ink, is water-resistant and repels water.

If you keep drinks near your desk and are worried about spilling water, I recommend oil-based ink or pigmented ink that is water-resistant among water-based inks.


In general, I think there is a big division between oil-based ink, which is the royal road, and water-based ink, which is more comfortable to write with. However, Gel, Emulsion, and Erasable inks with their unique characteristics are also very attractive. There are so many different manufacturers developing and selling pens with additional features every year. So, why not find the best ink for you?


One thought on “The Complete Guide To Ballpoint Pen Ink

  • Thanks for putting together this post! I’ve been trying to find a replacement for my favorite pen which just ran out but had no idea which ink was in it. Now I know it’s oil-based and why I love it so much more than others! Cheer!


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