Here’s Why You Can’t Get That Indelible Ink Stain Off Your Finger

It would have been close to impossible not to notice a flood of fingers stained purple to brown-black, triumphantly waving at you from your screens yesterday as Malaysians shared their experience at the polls.

If you found yourself wondering throughout the day exactly what was on your finger and if it’s really as indelible as they claim or how to get it off, we’ve got you!

What is indelible ink?

Indelible ink was invented in India to help prevent voter fraud – which is where we still import our indelible ink from. The Indian government wanted a way to be sure voters weren’t able to vote twice in the same election, and decided that marking them with an unremoveable, long-lasting ink would do the trick.

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So what’s the key to indelible ink’s long-lasting stain? A chemical compound called silver nitrate, most commonly used in developing film photographs and in biology labs to stain cells for visibility. Silver nitrate makes up a portion of the indelible ink solution in concentrations of 10 – 18%.


Human neuron cell stained with silver. (Source: Cahass at Wikipedia)

Silver nitrate stains the cells at the surface of your skin by seeping into the proteins in your cells, which is why the ink becomes basically impossible to remove.

The initial violet colour you see when you first dip your finger into the ink pad is from an extra dye pigment in the solution– in other countries they’ve elected to use other dye colours, like orange! When exposed to UV light (aka sunlight), silver nitrate reacts and turns into a dark brown or black stain, and that’s the stain that won’t budge at all.

Despite its amazing ability to stain, the amount of silver nitrate used in indelible election ink won’t harm you at all, although higher concentrations certainly can.

Can I wash it off?

In the first few seconds after staining your finger, you could probably wash it off with water before the silver nitrate sets. Of course, you don’t want to do this on election day!

Once it sets though, you won’t have much luck washing it off. No amount of soap, alcohol, oil, makeup remover, or micellar water will make the stain budge once it’s seeped into your skin cells!

You’ll just have to wait for your skin cells to naturally be replaced by new ones (around 3 – 4 days), and for your stained nail to grow out (2 – 4 weeks). If you really can’t stand it, there are other methods to remove a silver nitrate stain by exfoliating your skin (won’t work on your nails and cuticles though) or using chemicals like ammonia, bleach and other chemicals, but those will be even harsher on your skin.

And given the historic results of this election, why would you want to? ;)