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Ballpoint vs Gel Ink: How Ink Type Matters?

Written by Robert S. Brown / Fact checked by Helen B. Harris

ballpoint vs gel ink

You likely have used a ballpoint pen and a gel pen over and over, in school, in the office, or at home. You may have noticed that each pen writes differently, but do you know the difference between ballpoint vs gel ink?

In this article, we will have a closer look at each ink type, its differences, pros, and cons, when you can use them, and discover how ink type matters.

Features Ballpoint Ink Gel Ink
Base Formulation Oil-based Water-based
Colorant Dye Powdered pigments
Consistency Viscous liquid Thin liquid/gel

Ballpoint Ink: What is It?


Ball pen ink ingredients mainly feature dye, plant-based oils, Oleic acid as the lubricant, Alkyl Alkanolamide for ink absorption, and alcohol to provide a smoother writing experience.

The unique ink formula allows ballpoint pens to write on most surfaces, including glossy paper materials, wood, leather, and a lot more. If applied with enough pressure, ballpoint pens will become usable under seemingly challenging environments, such as underwater, on a plane, and even in outer space.

However, the thick ink formulation can give the impression that the pen’s tip is slightly dragging, which can ultimately tire out your hands faster.

Gel Ink: What is It?


Gel ink, on the other hand, is water-based and utilizes powder pigment instead of dyes. The formula calls for different thickeners and gelling agents, such as Xanthan gum and Tragacanth gums. That said, it’s always guaranteed that gel ink is thinner than its ballpoint counterpart, making writing smoother and more effortless.

As gel ink has a thin consistency and water-based formula, it must be contained in a thin cartridge with a transparent grease or silicone fluid, called the stopper, at the end to prevent ink evaporation.

How Do Their Inks Work?


Both gel and ballpoint pens work on the same principle: the steel ball at the pen’s tip is nested in a socket. As you write, the bearing ball will also rotate in its socket. Because gravity pulls down the ink, each time the ball rotates, it will pick up the ink, which is then transferred to the paper. This mechanism applies to all types of ballpoint pens and gel pens.

Now that you’ve understood an important thing, how does a ballpoint pen work?, you’ve likely known the ballpoint meaning—indicating these pens have a small metal ball at their tips.

Pros and Cons


1. Ballpoint ink

  • Works on most surfaces
  • Smudge-free
  • Waterproof
  • Dries quickly
  • Last longer
  • Does not bleed
  • Limited colors
  • Needs more effort to dispense
  • Can clump up

2. Gel ink

  • Wider color variations
  • Smoother writing experience
  • Takes less effort to write
  • Produces more vibrant colors
  • Works on paper only
  • Can smudge/bleed
  • Takes time to dry

Gel Vs Ballpoint Pens: What Are the Differences?

If gel and ballpoint pens share similar working mechanisms, why are they different? Well, it’s all due to their ink formula. Read on to find out how these two types of writing tools differ.

1. Formulation

The major difference between ballpoint and gel pen easily boils down to their formulation.

  • Ballpoint ink


As mentioned, ballpoint ink has an oil-based formulation. The basic formula can be as simple as fatty acid and dye, while the more advanced ones contain additives that enhance the quality of the ink and give you a better writing experience.

This thick ink is waterproof, easily dries, and it doesn’t bleed, so you only need a small amount each time you write. However, because of its thick consistency, it can also clump up.

  • Gel ink


Meanwhile, gel ink is water-based and has a less complex formulation. One advantage of gel pens is that they’re available in a wide range of colors, including metallic, glitters, and fluorescent colors. The powdered pigments suspended in the water-based gel also produce more vivid colors.

Generally, gel ink flows with fewer restraints, so more ink is used as you write with your gel ink pen. This also means a longer drying time and a higher likelihood of bleeding and smudging.

2. User experience

Ballpoint pens are easier to control. However, because they have viscous ink, writing may be more physically taxing, which can result in hand cramps.

Meanwhile, gel pens have thinner ink, so they flow with less resistance. This means you need less effort to write, and the writing experience is typically smoother.

3. Tip size

To give you an idea, here’s a quick comparison between tip sizes of ballpoint and gel pens:

  Ballpoint pen tip sizes Gel pen tip sizes
Micro N/A < 0.5 mm
Fine <0.8 mm N/A
Medium 1.0–1.2 mm 0.7 mm
Bold 1.4 mm and above 1.0 mm

Read more: The difference between these tip sizes available: 0.5 vs 0.7 mm and 0.7 vs 1.0 mm

4. Longevity

Ballpoint pens usually last longer than gel pens as it takes less amount of ink compared to gel ink pens. According to a study conducted by the University of Reading, a single ballpoint pen can write over 900 m. A one-of-a-kind ballpoint pen, called Fisher Space Pen Infiniumk, is even guaranteed to last a lifetime.

Gel pens may not last this long—they can write only about 500-800m. That said, pens with particularly bulky ink cartridges may last twice as long.

Related Comparison: Ballpoint pens vs Rollerball pens

When Should You Use Each Pen?


Ballpoint pens are very versatile and suited for any writing task, regardless of what type of surface you are working on.

They are also good for a left-handed person, as they dry quickly and do not smudge. However, they are not generally recommended for elderly people or those with conditions such as arthritis.

So, what are gel pens used for? This pen is good for students and practitioners who write for a longer period of time on a daily basis.

Apart from that, gel pens come in many ink colors and styles that are good for:

  • Bullet journaling
  • Color coding
  • Adding details to your drawing
  • Coloring

Frequently Asked Questions


Is gel ink better than ballpoint?

The answer to this differs from one person to another, but what could make gel pens better than ballpoint? Well, they require less effort to write and have a wider color range.

However, ballpoint ink does have its own advantage. It’s waterproof and smudge-resistant, and its compatibility with various surfaces also makes ballpoint pens ideal for multi-purpose use as well. 

Why are gel pens better than ballpoint pens?

Ballpoint pens are great pens on their own, but here are some points where gel pens shine the most.

  • They produce more crisp lines and vivid colors.
  • You can use them for a longer period with less tendency to experience hand cramps.
  • Smoother and faster writing experience.
  • They come in a wider variety of colors that you cannot find in ballpoint pens.
  • They come with micro-fine tip options.

Do ballpoint or gel pens last longer?

The oil-based ink in ballpoint pens typically lasts longer than gel pens. A single ballpoint pen can write up to 900 meters, while a gel pen can only write about 500 m.

What does a ballpoint pen look like?

In this day and age, who doesn’t know what a ballpoint pen looks like? It usually comes with a slim plastic barrel that can be opaque or transparent and a clip cap.

Inside this barrel is a slender semi-transparent tube that holds the ink and a small metallic tip that looks like a pin, which houses the roller and the ball.

More modern ballpoint pens can now be retractable. They may come with refillable ink tubes as well.

What can make ballpoint pens write better?

Ballpoint pen ink is thicker and that can sometimes cause your pen to skip or clump up ink. Do not throw your pens yet, you can still make them work better by simply applying heat on the tip of the pen. You can use a hair dryer or any source of flame for that.

If the method above does not work, the ink tube might be clogged up. In this case, dip the ink tube in a glass of warm water. This will reactivate the ink and disintegrate any clumps that have formed inside.


Based on this detailed comparison of ballpoint vs gel ink, both inks work uniquely. You’ll have to consider what you need to decide which is a better fit for you.

For example, if you are in need of pens that write on glossy paper, then a ballpoint is all you need. However, if you want a colorful pen for your project, a gel pen would be better.

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