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Good Ballpoint Pens or Gel Ink Pens Should Be Quick Drying and Safe with a Long Lifespan and High Resistance Best-performing Models Varied by up to 4 Times in Price

  • 2023.03.15

Modern people write with pens less often in the digital era, but the idiom “to do a good job, an artisan needs the best tools” never fails. Whether in class or at work, a well-functioning pen boosts efficiency, especially at critical moments such as sitting for examinations. If malfunctions like pen starving, blobbing, strike through, slow drying, etc. occur, one’s performance may be adversely affected. The Consumer Council tested 40 models of ballpoint pens and gel ink pens on the market and found that the total writing distance could vary by up to around 5 times, with ballpoint pens found to have a longer lifespan (based on the total writing distance) than gel ink pens on average. However, 7 ballpoint pen and gel ink pen models were more prone to blobbing, strike through or lower resistance to ethanol. Consumers pursuing better writing and higher resistance performance should pay heed to the results. On the other hand, the test also found that 1 gel ink pen model labelled as “For Exam Use” and “Quick Dry” took at least 12 seconds to dry thoroughly. In addition, a seemingly simple pen may also pose safety risks to children, as the pen cap or end closure of 6 models were relatively small and failed to comply with the minimum air flow requirements, leading to a higher risk of asphyxiation in the event of accidental swallowing into the trachea. Parents should pay attention to the safety performance of products when choosing writing tools for their children.

The key difference between ballpoint pens and gel ink pens is the type of ink used. Ink for ballpoint pens is oil-based and generally with a higher viscosity. Gel ink pens use gel-based or water-based ink, which is less viscous, and more ink is used when writing. The Council tested the writing performance and safety levels of 18 ballpoint pen models (also known as oil-based ballpoint pens) and 22 gel ink pen models (also known as gel ink ball pens) on the market, with vastly varied prices from $2.4 to $86 per pen. The 13 ballpoint or gel ink pen models with an overall rating of 4.5 points or above were priced between $8 and $43 each, while the most expensive model ($86) scored an overall rating of 3.5 points. Another 1 gel ink pen model priced at $38 scored 3.5 points overall, indicating that there is no necessary correlation between price and quality. Test items included the total writing distance and discrepancies among samples, blobbing and strike through, drying time after writing, the visibility of lines and text after soaking or rubbing, safety levels of pen caps, end closures, and grip materials.

Total Writing Distance Varied by Almost 5 Times

The Longest on Average Was Over 2,300 Metres and Shortest Was Less than 400 Metres

The writing distance test was conducted using a write test machine to simulate handwriting situation to draw continuous spiral lines at a specified writing speed and angle until either the ink ran out or no clear lines could be marked on the paper, in order to assess and compare the average total writing distance among the models, as well as the discrepancy between samples of the same model. For each model, 3 samples were tested to obtain an averaged value. Results showed that the total writing distance varied drastically among different models, with the averaged value ranging from 388.3m to 2,323.7m. The models with the longest and shortest writing distances were both ballpoint pens, with a difference of nearly 5 times. Overall, the total writing distance of ballpoint pen models was generally longer, averaging 1,052m, while that of gel ink pen models was only 699.2m.

9 out of the 18 ballpoint pen models had an average total writing distance of over 1,000m. However, the 2 ballpoint pen models which ran out of ink the soonest had average total writing distances of less than 500m, one of which was only 388.3m, though both of them still met the minimum requirement of the ISO standard for total writing distance of ballpoint pens (300m). As for the 22 gel ink pen models, 5 of them had longer lifespan with an average total writing distance of over 800m and the longest model reaching 1,154.3m. 3 other models had a shorter average total writing distance of less than 500m.

On the other hand, even for the same model, the total writing distance could vary significantly among samples. Test results revealed maximum discrepancies of over 9% in the total writing distance among samples of the same model of 8 ballpoint pens and 6 gel ink pens. For 1 gel ink pen model, the maximum difference in total writing distance among its 3 samples was over 26% (equivalent to over 240m). The Council recommends manufacturers to step up quality control to minimise inconsistency in the writing distance.

Model Labelled “Quick-Dry” Took the Longest to Dry in Test

In terms of blobbing and strike through, 6 ballpoint pen models showed blobbing, commonly known as "heavy spots", in lines drawn during the test, and strike through to the back of the page was also evident. For all 22 gel ink pen models, there was neither blobbing nor strike through problems.

In the test on drying time, the performance of the 40 models was quite disparate.  15 performed well, drying in 1 to 2 seconds after writing, while 19 dried in about 3 to 4 seconds. However, 1 model labelled as “For Exam Use” and “Quick Dry” took at least 12 seconds to dry completely, contrary to the product’s advertised selling point. The Council opines that the relevant manufacturers should take prompt action to improve issues such as blobbing, strike through or slow in drying, in order to fulfil the expectation of consumers.

Choose More Resistant Inks for Important Documents

It is very important whether the written text or lines on paper are long-lasting for important documents, especially if it inadvertently comes into contact with alcohol or water. Therefore, another test was to use each model to write on test paper pieces, which were then stored in specified conditions and for a period of time with reference to the test standard, before soaking in 50% ethanol solution for 10 minutes and then air-drying. Results showed that ballpoint pen models generally scored lower in the ethanol resistance test, with the line colour or text often faded or even discoloured but still visible/legible. The gel ink pen models generally had more satisfactory performance, with only 1 model failing the test as both text and lines on the test paper pieces disappeared completely. In addition, all models passed the water resistance test after being soaked in distilled water for 1 hour and then air-dried. The lines and text on all the paper pieces were still visible/legible.

Overall, most models were suitable for general writing purposes, but for writing or signing important documents, models with a better performance in the resistance tests are recommended.

Moreover, half of the 40 models performed well in the fall resistance test. After falling from a height of 1m to 1.8m with the nib perpendicular to the ground, they could still produce smooth lines. Ballpoint pen models generally performed better in fall resistance, whereas the performance of gel ink pen models varied, with 4 models producing starving lines after only dropping from 1m high. In the upright writing test, 10 models, including 7 ballpoint pens and 3 gel ink pens, failed to produce 5 clear and consistent lines with uniform intensity.

Some Models with Small Pen Caps Pose Choking Risk if Swallowed Accidentally

Some people chew their pens unknowingly when deep in thought. If a pen cap or end closure is accidentally swallowed, it may block airways and cause breathing difficulties or even asphyxiation. As such, the Council tested the safety level of relevant parts with reference to UK standards, and found that the caps or end closures of 6 models were relatively small and posed a higher risk of ingesting into airways. These models also failed to pass the minimum airflow requirement (8 litres per minute). The Council recommends manufacturers to improve the security of end closures, or design with air holes to ensure the air flow meets the relevant requirements so as to reduce the risks of accidental swallowing and suffocation. Furthermore, over 80% of the models were detected with small amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), though all of them complied with the relevant German requirements.

Tips for choosing and using ballpoint pens or gel ink pens:

  • It is best to try out a pen in person to select a pen appropriate for the hand size and personal habits, and experience the line thickness, ink colour, and smoothness and stability of ink output;
  • The weight and barrel design affect the level of writing comfort. Pens with metal parts are generally heavier and more likely to cause hand fatigue, so may not be suitable for writing for extended periods. Consumers with sweaty palms could choose pens with non-slip pads at the grip positions or knurled grip to increase friction between the hand and pen barrel and reduce muscle fatigue. Consumers with smaller grips should choose pens with thinner barrels for better writing comfort, while those who are used to writing with a firm hand should choose a pen with a thicker barrel or thicker anti-slip pad at the grip;
  • After writing for a long time, take a break and stretch to reduce fatigue of the fingers, wrists, elbows, and shoulders.


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