Permanent inks come in all kinds of pens. The most iconic permanent writing tool is the permanent marker, used to label different surfaces with waterproof, abrasion-resistant writing. But if you’re writing on paper, you may prefer a permanent gel pen, ballpoint pen, rollerball pen, or fountain pen ink to pair with a favorite fountain pen.
By considering all aspects of permanence, from washability to fading over time, we’ve found the best inks for writing on all kinds of surfaces. With our guide to permanent inks, you can find the best choice for the words you plan to leave to the next generation.
- What Makes An Ink Permanent?
- The Best Multi-Surface Permanent Markers
True permanence is, of course, impossible. The oldest ink writing that has survived to the present day is over two thousand years old and was made with carbon from burnt lampblack or soot.1 Carbon-based inks are still available today, though now they compete against many others.
While “permanent” often refers to whether an ink is washable, and “archival” is used to describe inks that do not fade or deteriorate, neither term has a standardized industry definition. Below we describe the factors that work together to make a truly lasting ink.
Pigment inks are also a necessary ingredient for a waterproof ink. By its nature, most dye-based ink is water soluble, as dye colorant needs to dissolve into its carrying solvent (usually water4) for the ink to function. Solid particles of pigment stay intact in their carrying solvent and thus are less vulnerable to spills once they bind to a page, though the binder that attaches them must be waterproof as well for full efficacy.
All of these qualities at once is a pretty steep order, and no one ink is perfect in all aspects of permanence, but we have plenty of options for you to consider nevertheless.
This is a guide to ink, but we must note ink composition is only one aspect of permanence. Be sure to write on acid-free paper and store it in a dry, cool, dark place.
New surfaces add additional considerations.
- Compatible Surfaces. We tested on paper, plastic, glass, stone, and fabric to make sure our multi-surface markers were truly multi-surface.
- Abrasion. When used on nonporous surfaces, permanent markers may be more vulnerable to friction and scrubbing, as they leave a slick of ink on the surface of an object instead of a stain. We’ve tested how vulnerable these markers are to sustained abrasion.
- Heat. While you wouldn’t run a notebook through a dishwasher or a washing machine, that’s not necessarily true of an object labeled with a permanent marker. These inks should resist heat in addition to water.
- Resistance to Non-Water Solvents. On a nonporous surface, most permanent inks wash off with solvents like alcohol, acetone, or mineral spirits. Some have unexpected resistance to one or more of these, which is technically more permanent but inconvenient if you make a mistake.
That’s a lot of factors! We’ve tested so you can compare and pick the permanent pen that will be best suited to your needs.
Our runner up is the Sharpie PRO Permanent Marker, which has more durable writing by all tests and comes in a wider range of tip sizes. However, it has a noticeable odor that we don’t think is pleasant or necessary for everyday use. If you need to label wet surfaces on construction sites, pick the Sharpie PRO. Otherwise, the Pilot Permanent should serve you well.
The Zebra Onamae Mackee’s fine and extra-fine tips write with dark, opaque ink. It’s a true multi-tasker, handling paper, plastic, metal, glass, fabric, and more with only a few seconds of drying time. It’s unaffected by water or washing machines. We don’t recommend this pen for damp surfaces or surfaces that experience sustained abrasion. We also can’t guarantee fade resistance, so don’t use this one for journal entries. As a nice bonus, it’s low-smell for delicate noses.
Our runner up is the Pilot Name Marker, which is less resistant to abrasion but has slightly stiffer tips that we found more fun to write with and a little bit neater on fabric. We also noticed that the Pilot’s smaller cap posted less securely. Otherwise, it’s almost identical and another good pick.
Now that you’ve seen our multi-surface pen picks, let’s leap into the rest of our permanent ink choices for paper.
If you prefer a gel pen with a retractable tip instead of a cap, pick up the Pentel EnerGel Permanent. Its ink is just as resistant to water, alcohol, and light, plus it’s acid free. The only downside: it has a much smaller range of tip sizes and colors.
The Sakura Gelly Roll Classic, in black, blue, royal blue, purple, or burgundy, is another tasteful and affordable alternative. While Gelly Rolls don’t look like they mean serious business, they write with ink that’s waterproof, fade resistant, and fraud resistant.
The Uni-ball Air Rollerball Pen also writes in Super Ink, with interesting line variation and a sleeker pen body. Its tip gives a hint of feedback that reminds us of writing with a graphite pencil, which we enjoyed. It is only available in black and blue ink and a 0.7 mm tip.
If you already have a favorite fountain pen, it’s easy to start using a permanent ink. When creating these writing samples, we used a glass dip pen—it permits quick switches with less cleaning fuss.
Carbon Ink is pigment based, so if left to dry out in your pen, it will clog. Remember to always clean your fountain pen regularly. It also has a slightly alkaline pH, which will have no effect on paper, but may affect the metal workings of your pen over a long lifetime of use.
Unlike Platinum Carbon Ink, De Atramentis Document Ink comes in a range of bright colors that can be used to distinguish your documents from fraudulent copies.
For multi-surface pens, we swabbed writing with water, isopropyl alcohol, acetone, and mineral spirits to test how inks reacted to different solvents. A dip in water had no effect on any of the pens, so it is not included in the test results. We also scrubbed writing with the rough side of a sponge to test abrasion resistance and submerged writing samples on plastic in boiling water for 20 minutes to test temperature reactivity. All of these tests were performed on plastic.
Writing on fabric was washed in a washing machine (warm water, mild detergent); none of the pens we tested washed out, so our fabric test results simply describe how neatly the pen writes. Writing on stone was washed with soap and water.
For the smell tests, we noted a moderate result when the smell was noticeable when sniffed, but not at writing distance. A strong result (a bar with less blue) means the smell was noticeable even at writing distance.