How To Get Highlighter Out Of Clothes (The Most Effective Ways)

There’s a really good reason why teachers and daycare workers wear loud and bright prints. Highlighters and markers are some of the toughest things to remove from clothes, and unless yours is water-soluble, you may be in a pickle.

All is not lost, but you have to act quickly. Now, let’s go and see how to get highlighter out of a garment or sheets.

Does Highlighter Wash Out of Clothes?

Unless the highlighter is water-soluble (like the ones kids are most likely to have), it won’t wash out on its own. Your garment will need a pre-treatment. You’ll see a few options below.

A stain made by a water-soluble highlighter or marker needs no pre-treatment. Just throw your clothes into the wash on a cold or warm water cycle.

Hot water is generally a no-no when washing clothes because it makes them fade and it damages the fibers. But in case of stains, it can further “bake” them in, if you’re not careful. The only time heat and stain removal work in tandem is when you’re “boiling” your whites in bleach.

Just make sure to pick up a detergent that works in cold water. Check the back of the packaging for the effective temperature range.

How to Get Highlighter Out of Clothes: 9 Easy Methods

Before we get down to business, let’s go through a few disclaimers first. Most of these methods produce good results when you’re working with natural fibers like cotton, linen, and wool, as well as man-made fibers that come from natural cellulose like viscose. Polyester and nylon? Not all the time.

Before you start, check the label for the fabric and care info. Look for two symbols: a crossed triangle and a crossed symbol that will probably look like wrapped candy. The former means that you should not bleach the garment. If the garment has a print or the fabric is brightly colored, that makes sense. But if it’s on a white T-shirt, it may mean that the fabric can’t handle harsh chemicals.

The candy symbol is not candy (what a shock). It means “do not wring dry”. You’ll find this symbol on some stretchy items or garments with appliques more often. In this case, use this symbol as a sign that you need to be gentle when scrubbing off the highlighter. Also, check for any other unusual symbols because they will tell you a lot about how the fabric will handle the stain removal process.

Another important thing to know is that you have to check for results before you dry your garment. If the stain survives the pre-treatment and the wash, it will set if you allow the clothes to dry before attempting to remove it for the second time.

Now, let’s check out how to get the highlighter out of clothes.

1. Rubbing Alcohol

You can’t go without a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the household. Besides being a great disinfectant and perfect for safely cleaning electronics, it’s also great for stain removal. When removing highlighter stains, alcohol is effective on all fabrics, both natural and manmade. 

Make sure that you’re using a product that is at least 70% ethanol since it will be more effective, and you will have to do fewer treatments. 

For the tools, all you need is some kitchen paper towels and a clean tissue or cloth. The cloth has to be plain white or undyed, so you don’t transfer its print or color to the garment you’re treating. A cotton pad or ball will do in a pinch, but they may leave some residue behind. 

To remove the stain, first place several kitchen paper towels on the working surface and place your garment over it. Soak the cloth or paper towel with rubbing alcohol and softly dab at the stain. Once the area is well-saturated, blot with another clean cloth or paper towel. Repeat dabbing and blotting until the stain disappears. 

Always use clean paper towels or clean sides of the cloth because they will pick up a lot of the pigment. Neon pigments will take longer to remove than regular ones. 

Once the stain disappears, rinse with warm water and wash the garment as per usual. 

2. Hand Sanitizer

Hand sanitizer is basically alcohol, so it makes sense it will work as well. Just make sure that the product is alcohol-based and that there’s at least 70% of it in the formula. Skin-soothing ingredients are okay but avoid products with added pigments.

Follow the same steps from above for this method as well. If your hand sanitizer has a lower concentration of alcohol, you may need to repeat the treatment a few more times. Rinse with warm water and wash as per usual. 

3. Commercial Ink Remover

When highlighter stains on clothes become a part of your everyday life, it may be a good idea to invest in a proper ink remover. These are not new at all and they have been in use by professionals for ages, or they were one of the best-kept secrets in your local crafts store. Today, with the magic of the internet, you can order a bottle online and keep it on hand for times when mishaps happen.

These removers work equally well on sharpies and pen ink, so parents and teachers should invest in a bottle or ten. You usually need only a few drops, so a single bottle could last you a long time.

Some of the brands you can check out are Amodex, Inkov, and Perrone.

4. Nail Polish Remover

From paint solvents to the standard nail polish remover, any of these guys can break down the pigments in a highlighter stain. However, you may want to avoid this method if the garment is made 100% out of synthetic fibers or has at least 5% elastin.

Since you’re probably more likely to have some nail polish remover (or you’re more likely to find some at the closest corner store), here’s how to use that. First, make sure it’s a pure acetone formula. Avoid anything that is marked as “oil remover” or “nourishing”.

Use a tissue or clean cloth to apply some remover to the stain and leave it to sit for a few minutes. Take another clean tissue or cloth and blot a few times. Repeat to clean and blot as many times as needed.

Wash the garment straight away to remove the solvent out of the clothes as quickly as possible. 

5. Baking Soda and Vinegar

If you’re looking for gentler chemicals, this may be more up your alley. Though it’s not the chemicals themselves we want, but the reaction.

Vinegar is an acid and baking soda is a base. When they meet, they cancel each other. But, whilst they are doing that, they produce a lot of bubbles. And those bubbles are what we are looking for to remove the stain.

Place the garment (or the section with the stain) in a solution of one part water and one part white vinegar. Please use regular vinegar because cleaning vinegar is a bit too harsh for this application.

Then, add one part of baking soda. When it erupts, leave it to bubble away naturally. When the bubbles are gone, pick up the garment and check the stain. You can rub it gently to coax it if needed. Wash and dry as per usual.

6. Milk

This one is difficult to believe, but it works. You might have seen this trick in one of those scam life-hack videos, so you decided to dismiss it as nonsense. Though it does take more time and you may need to soak the garment in milk a couple of times, it actually works.

Place the garment stain side up in a bowl of milk and leave to soak overnight. You don’t have to submerge the entire garment, just the section with the highlighter stain. Obviously, store in a cool place so you don’t end up with cheese.

If the attempt was successful, you should see flakes of pigment on the surface of the milk. Feel free to repeat if there is still some highlighter left on the fabric. If you’re good to go, wash as per usual and check the status of the stain before drying the garment.

This method should work with all fabrics. Make sure you’re using regular cow’s milk and not plant-based ones. We need the lactose and the whey to do the magic, so don’t make any substitutions.

7. Salt Water

Salt is a great multitasking pre-treatment option for numerous types of stains. It works best on fresh highlighter stains.

To use it, mix plain salt with as much water as to create a thick paste. A small-ish stain will require between 1/8 to 1/4 cup of salt. Look for a consistency that is similar to the fully softened butter or toothpaste. Apply on the stain and let sit for up to 20 minutes. Rinse with cold water and wash per usual. 

You can also sprinkle some salt on the stain before soaking it in the milk overnight. 

8. Hairspray

This one is great on the go. At least, it’s a good first aid option until you can get home and use another method.

Before we start, read the ingredients at the back of the bottle. Definitely, say no to anything with glitter, but also look for alcohol in the list of ingredients. You probably see where this one is going. 

But the problem is that most modern hairspray doesn’t contain any alcohol, so don’t just spray blindly. Luckily, a lot of companies use it to market their products and they will clearly display this piece of information boldly at the front of the packaging. Still, turn it around and check, just in case. 

If you have the right stuff, we’re ready to deal with the stain. Spritz it in short bursts, and keep the bottle about 3-4 inches away. Stop when the fabric feels damp on the other side. Leave it to sit for 5 to 10 minutes, then rinse with warm water. Repeat if you can still see the stain or its remains. 

Please, don’t spray your clothing while wearing it because you can end up with some of the hairspray in your eyes. Also, do this in a well-ventilated area and away from open flames. 

9. Laundry Detergent or Laundry Soap

If the mark is very fresh, you may need nothing more than a bit of laundry soap or detergent to deal with the stain.

Grab a clean toothbrush and your chosen product. It’s better to choose laundry soap: it’s cheap, doesn’t take that much space, it’s a great multitasker, and it’s essentially a washing detergent concentrate. 

Fill a basin with warm water and soak the part of the garment with the stain and the toothbrush. Then, pick up some of the soap or detergent with the toothbrush and scrub away. Don’t press too hard, try to treat it like you’re brushing your teeth when your gums are too sensitive or inflamed (vigorous but not rough). When the stain disappears, chuck the garment into the washing machine and leave to finish the rest of the work.

How Do You Remove Old Highlighter Stains?

Okay, this may be a bit tricky. If the definition of old is, “the stain happened a few days ago, but I didn’t get around to dealing with it until now”, you’re in the clear. Just pick any of the methods above, and leave the pre-treatment on for a few extra minutes if necessary.

But, if the stain is old as in, “I got this stain studying for my history test, but I graduated from high school 10 years ago”, you may be a bit too late. You can always try the alcohol method (you may need to treat, wash, and repeat the process at least once) and cross your fingers. However, there is a good chance that the stain may set after all that time, especially if the garment is made from cotton, wool, or linen.

What Happens If You Can’t Remove Highlighter Stains?

Whatever you do, don’t turn up the heat in your washing machine. Washing clothes in hot water will not only discolor them and weaken the fibers, but it may even help the stain “set”.

Try the alcohol pre-treatment or an ink remover once more and wash the garment as per usual. If the second try doesn’t help, the stain is probably here to stay.

This is far less likely to be the case with a highlighter, but it may happen with highly pigmented permanent markers (especially the ones that are designed for writing on plastic). In those cases, the only things that help are bleach and fabric dye.