Last Updated on October 26, 2021 by Dave Farquhar
Permanent means permanent, right? Not necessarily. It’s difficult to remove permanent marker from plastic, but not impossible. Here are several ways to get permanent marker off plastic.
The favorite trick is coloring over it with a dry erase marker, then erasing it. But if this doesn’t work, or you don’t have a dry erase marker, there are other solvents and cleaners that can also work. On cloth, permanent marker really is permanent, or nearly so, since it can soak into the surface. On plastic it can’t, so permanent marker is more like semi-permanent on plastic.
I know no fewer than six ways to get permanent marker off plastic. Chances are you have something around the house that will work, and if not, there are remedies available at your nearest store. Permanent marker ink is just solvent, another liquid to help it flow, resin, and colorant, and its drying process is just the evaporation of the liquids. So it stands to reason that if you introduce a new solvent, you can remove it.
In some ways it’s even easier than removing crayon.
Remove permanent marker from plastic with dry erase marker
The trick with a dry erase marker is fairly well known, but that doesn’t mean everyone knows it. The solvents in dry erase marker also work really well to break down the ink from most permanent markers. This means in many cases, when faced with unwanted permanent ink, you can scribble over it with a dry erase marker, and then wipe all of the ink away.
How well this works varies, depending on the surface, the type of marker. Even on a really smooth surface, sometimes a faint impression of the permanent ink remains, even after multiple applications. But sometimes it works unbelievably well. Generally speaking, the smoother the surface and the fresher the ink, the better this works. If you write something and change your mind right away what you want to write, a dry erase marker is great for that. If you’re trying to remove marks from 20 years ago, dry erase may not work quite as well. At least that’s been my experience.
Remove permanent marker with solvents or cleaners
I’ve had good success getting permanent marker off plastic with solvents and cleaners. The idea here is the same, but sometimes it requires a slightly different solvent, and sometimes it requires the combination of solvent and some scrubbing. I’ll list my favorites, in order. And I’ll explain why they’re in that order while we’re at it.
Purple cleaner is great stuff. I’m talking Purple Power or Super Clean. I use both products interchangeably, but I’ve lost track of how many jams these cleaners have gotten me out of over the years. When it comes to permanent marker, sometimes you can just spray it with one of these cleaners and watch it just melt away. Usually you have to scrub it a bit, but we’re usually talking low effort.
The best thing about purple cleaners is they don’t harm plastic, at least not quickly. I’ve soaked plastic items in it overnight to remove paint, with no harm whatsoever. It’s great for restoring old plastic toys and other plastic objects.
The only downside with this stuff is it’s very hard on your skin. Wear rubber gloves to avoid burning yourself with it. Rinse it thoroughly after you’re done to protect yourself and others who use the item afterward.
Nail polish remover or acetone
Before I knew about purple cleaners, my solvent of choice was nail polish remover or acetone. I’ve been using this stuff on permanent ink for decades. It works, just not quite as fast and maybe not quite as effectively. But all you have to do is apply a bit to a cotton ball, then rub it on the ink. It fades quickly, though it can take repeated applications to make it go away completely.
Purple cleaners work better with less effort and much less risk of damaging the plastic, but if nail polish remover is all you’ve got, it might do. Just be careful so you don’t damage the plastic. If it doesn’t come off easily with a few wipes, switch to purple cleaner before you do damage. Unfortunately I learned this the hard way.
The solvents in dry erase markers are actually just a couple of different types of alcohol. So it stands to reason you can even remove permanent marker with rubbing alcohol. And if rubbing alcohol doesn’t do the job, there’s always Everclear. Ethyl alcohol is one of the solvents in dry erase markers, but it’s denatured, so don’t get any ideas.
I’ve had good success removing permanent ink with alcohol, especially if the ink is still pretty fresh. Just like nail polish remover, apply a bit to a cotton ball, then rub it on the ink.
My second favorite method for removing permanent marker from plastic is a magic eraser-type product. These melamine sponges become slightly abrasive when you wet them with water. They are extremely effective at removing permanent marker, ground-in dirt, and other marks. They aren’t magic, but they can appear to be.
You do have to be careful with these as they will change the surface texture or sheen if you use them too much. They’re much finer than sandpaper, but it’s exactly the same idea. But when nothing else works, these are great, and I find they do less damage than alcohol does.
The other caveat with abrasive methods is discoloration. If your plastic is discolored due to age, using abrasive may remove some of the yellowed plastic at the surface and cause an uneven color.
Baking soda or baking powder
Along the same lines, you can mix up a paste of water and baking soda or baking powder, apply it to the mark, and use it to rub it out. Again, you’re using abrasion, and, again, it’s also very effective for removing ground-in dirt and other marks too. But like a melamine eraser, they will change the texture if you get too aggressive.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.