Screen printing, also known as silkscreening, is a popular technique for adding designs, logos, and text to clothing and other materials. The ink is forced through a mesh screen onto the surface, creating a vibrant, durable print.
While screen printing looks great, you may eventually want to remove it from a shirt or other item. Thankfully, there are several effective techniques for taking off screen printed designs without damaging the underlying fabric.
Why Remove Screen Printing?
There are a few main reasons you may want to remove screen printing:
- Reuse/repurpose the garment – If you no longer want the design, removing it lets you wear the shirt as a blank canvas or upcycle it into something new.
- Correct a mistake – Accidentally used the wrong ink color or misspelled a word? Removing the flawed print lets you redo it correctly.
- Change team/company logos – If you switch schools or jobs, you’ll probably want to strip team uniforms and work shirts to replace the logos.
- Remove stains/fading – Screen printed designs can become stained, faded, cracked, or peeled over time. Taking off the print gives the garment a fresh start.
- Sell/donate the garment – You can increase the value and appeal of a printed garment by removing outdated or unwanted designs before selling or donating.
How Screen Printing Ink Works
To remove screen printing effectively, it helps to understand how it adheres to fabrics in the first place. There are three main considerations:
- Ink binders – Binders are adhesive ingredients that help the ink bond securely to fibers. Common binders include acrylic, polyvinyl acetate (PVA), and epoxy resins.
- Ink curing – Printed garments are heat cured to crosslink the binders and fix the ink permanently in place. Curing can involve ironing or putting garments through conveyor dryers.
- Ink/fabric compatibility – Mesh count, ink viscosity, and fabric absorbency are balanced so the ink penetrates and adheres well to the fibers. Synthetic fabrics often work best.
With this in mind, removing screen printing requires breaking down these adhesion forces. The ink binders must be dissolved or degraded while avoiding damage to the underlying fabric.
Removing screen printing is largely a chemical process. Having the right supplies greatly improves your chances of success:
- Solvents – Chemical stripping agents dissolve ink binders. Solvents may include mineral spirits, acetone, paint thinner, alcohol, or commercial paint strippers.
- Applicators – Cotton rags, sponges, soft-bristle brushes, or spray bottles help apply solvents. Avoid using hard scrub brushes.
- PPE – Use nitrile gloves and work in a well-ventilated area. Solvent fumes can be hazardous to breathe. Consider safety glasses and an apron as well.
- Wash supplies – Hand soap, laundry detergent, bleach, etc. to thoroughly clean garments after removing the ink. Pretreat any stains beforehand.
- Drying supplies – Clothesline, rack, or dryer to fully dry garments once washing is complete. Heat helps sets the fabric and restores softness.
- Backup garment – In case of damage, have an extra garment prepared to wear instead. Or remove printing in an inconspicuous spot first as a test.
8 Methods to Remove Screen Printing
Here are 8 effective methods to break down screen printed ink and restore your clothing:
1. Mineral Spirits
Mineral spirits (also called white spirits) are a mild, inexpensive solvent suitable for many fabrics. The main active ingredient is Stoddard solvent, a petroleum-derived solvent.
How to use:
- Work in a well-ventilated area and use gloves. Mineral spirits are flammable and can irritate skin.
- Apply a small amount to a clean rag and gently rub the printed area.
- Let it soak in for 1-2 minutes before scrubbing more rigorously.
- Check frequently and stop once the ink begins fading. Rinse with water.
- Launder as normal, adding bleach if needed to remove ink residue.
Mineral spirits work well for removing acrylic and PVA ink binders. Take care on more delicate fabrics where heavy rubbing could cause damage.
2. Isopropyl Alcohol
Common rubbing alcohol (70% isopropyl alcohol solution) is another readily available solvent ink stripper. It helps dissolve many ink binders without damaging most fabric dyes.
How to use:
- Work in a ventilated space and use gloves – inhaling fumes can be hazardous.
- Dampen a clean cloth or cotton pad with isopropyl alcohol.
- Gently rub the print,wetting the fabric. Check often and reapply alcohol as needed.
- Once fading begins, a soft brush can help remove dissolving ink.
- Rinse thoroughly with water and launder as usual.
Isopropyl alcohol works well on acrylic and epoxy ink binders. Avoid using on acetate or other delicate synthetic fabrics.
Acetone is a powerful solvent that quickly breaks down many fabric ink binders. It’s commonly used in removing screen printing from polyester and cotton blends.
How to use:
- Use extreme care – acetone is volatile, highly flammable, and toxic. Work outdoors or in a fume hood.
- Wear nitrile gloves and safety glasses. Avoid skin/eye contact.
- Apply a small amount of acetone to a clean white rag. Lightly dab the printed area.
- Check often and stop when print begins fading. Rinse thoroughly with water.
- Wash with detergent and air dry. Check for damage before drying – acetone can weaken some fabrics.
Acetone works well for plastisol, polyvinyl, and other synthetic ink binders. Avoid using acetone on delicate fabrics like silk and spandex where it may cause damage.
4. Paint Strippers
Commercial paint strippers like Strypeeze contain powerful solvents like methylene chloride to penetrate layers of paint and ink. Use them cautiously to remove screen printing.
How to use:
- Work outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Methylene chloride vapors are highly toxic.
- Apply a thick layer of paint stripper gel to the printed area with an old toothbrush or disposable brush.
- Let it sit for 5-10 minutes. Remoisten if drying. Check often to avoid fabric damage.
- Use a plastic scraper to gently lift dissolving ink. Rinse thoroughly with water.
- Launder with detergent. Multiple washes may be needed to remove residue.
Paint strippers work well for epoxy and polyvinyl ink binders. Limit contact time to avoid damaging the fabric. Wear heavy duty gloves and eye protection.
For white cotton fabrics, household bleach can help break down ink binders by oxidation. It also helps remove any residual staining.
How to use:
- Check garment tags – only use on white cotton or bleach-safe fabrics. Bleach may discolor dyed fabrics.
- Pre-treat any stained areas with concentrated bleach. Let sit 5-10 minutes before washing.
- During laundering, add 1⁄3-1⁄2 cup bleach to the wash cycle and launder as normal.
- Check for print removal and rinse thoroughly. Repeat bleaching if needed.
- Air dry shirts thoroughly – heat helps bleach work and prevents damage.
Bleach works well on cotton shirts printed with acrylic or PVA-based ink. It helps dissolve binders and whiten any staining. Don’t use bleach gel – only regular concentrated liquid bleach.
For small printed areas, ironing provides focused heat to soften and lift ink edges. Combined with solvents it can help remove prints.
How to use:
- Set iron to high cotton/linen setting (avoid steam). Use press cloth.
- Apply preferred solvent to back of printed area and let soak in 1-2 minutes.
- Position press cloth over print. In small circular motions, iron printed area for 30-60 seconds.
- Check progress frequently. Reapply solvent as needed to soften ink.
- Once print begins cracking/peeling, use tweezers to gently lift edges and remove ink pieces.
- Launder normally to remove residue.
Ironing works best for smaller printed areas in combination with mineral spirits, alcohol, or other solvents. Take care not to scorch delicate fabrics.
Extreme cold can help make screen printed ink more brittle and prone to cracking off fabrics. While slow, freezing works for hard-to-remove prints.
How to use:
- Place garment flat in a plastic bag and seal tightly. Remove excess air pockets.
- Freeze garment for 24-48 hours. Thicker textiles may need longer.
- Once frozen, quickly rub the printed area with your thumb or a coin. The ink should begin flaking off.
- If needed, apply alcohol or acetone to help separate ink shards after freezing.
- Wash as normal to remove loosened ink pieces and residue.
Freezing works best on thicker cotton fabrics. The sudden temperature change helps break the ink binders’ grip. Be patient – freeze times may need to be extended up to a week.
8. Abrasive Removal
For stubborn prints, carefully using abrasives can scrub away the top ink layer once binders are weakened. Take care to avoid damaging the fabric.
How to use:
- Soak printed area with preferred solvent and let it penetrate ink fully. Reapply frequently.
- Gently rub surface with 0000 steel wool, working in direction of fabric grain.
- You can also try a soft-bristle toothbrush, soft pumice stone, or plastic pan scourer.
- Check often for abrasion damage. Stop if fabric shows wear.
- Rinse and wash thoroughly. Repeat process if needed for thick prints.
Abrasives work best with heavy cotton fabrics. Use only after fully saturating ink with solvents first. Take extreme care with delicate fabrics to avoid tearing or holes forming.
Stain Removal Tips
Screen printing solvents and ink can sometimes leave behind staining on fabric even after the ink is gone. Here are some tips for removing stubborn stains:
- Bleach – For white cotton, bleach often helps remove dye-like staining from ink binders.
- Oxygen bleach – Safer than chlorine bleach, OxiClean helps lift stains on colored fabrics. Soak before washing.
- Vinegar – The acidic white vinegar helps break down inky stains. Soak fabric before washing.
- Ammonia – For old or set-in stains, apply concentrated ammonia before washing. Rinse thoroughly.
- Sun fading – For delicate fabrics, try extended sunlight. UV rays help break down discoloration over time.
- Color dye – If stains remain, you can try over-dyeing fabric a darker color to mask any light stains.
Heat Press Removal
An alternative approach is using a heat press – a hinged machine that applies heat and pressure. With specialty transfer film, a heat press can lift and remove screen printed ink.
Here is the basic process:
- Clean and prepare the garment – wash and dry to remove any pretreatments.
- Cut a piece of heat press vinyl slightly larger than the printed area. Avoid cheaper carrier sheets.
- Preheat press to 300-330°F. Adjust pressure to medium.
- Place vinyl shiny-side down completely over the printed area.
- Press for 10-20 seconds. Use a cover sheet if needed to prevent sticking.
- Once cooled, carefully peel back the vinyl. The print should lift off stuck to the vinyl.
- If any ink remains, repeat process with new vinyl to fully remove print.
- Wash garment normally to remove any adhesive residue.
A heat press removes ink efficiently without chemicals, but the supplies can be more expensive. Only use specialty vinyl – not everyday laminates which won’t release the ink.
Removing Screen Printing – Q&A
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about removing screen printed designs:
Can you remove screen printing with an iron?
Yes, ironing can help remove some screen printing, especially if you combine it with a solvent like rubbing alcohol or mineral spirits. The heat helps soften the ink binders while the solvent breaks their adhesion. Slowly iron over printed areas checking frequently – too much heat may damage delicate fabrics.
Does bleach remove screen printing?
Bleach can help remove screen printing from white cotton fabrics by dissolving ink binders and whitening stained fabric. Only use on bleach-safe fabrics. For poly-cotton blends, try OxiClean as a safer bleach alternative. Bleach may set stains on synthetics.
Can you use acetone to remove screen printing?
Yes, acetone is a very effective solvent for removing many types of screen printed fabric inks, especially on synthetics and poly-blends. However, use extreme caution – acetone can damage delicate fabrics like silk or spandex. It’s also toxic when inhaled. Acetone should only be used in well-ventilated areas.
How do you remove old, set-in screen printing stains?
For older, stained in prints, try a commercial paint stripper like Strypeeze. Apply a thick layer to help the solvents penetrate and lift the bonded ink. You can also try rubbing diluted ammonia on the stain before washing. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes before rinsing. For delicate fabrics, extended sunlight can help fade and break down stubborn stains over time.
Can you remove screen printing without chemicals?
While difficult, it is possible to remove screen printing without chemicals through abrasion or temperature changes. Try gently rubbing the print with 0000 steel wool or soft brush to mechanically scrub ink away. You can also try freezing garments for 24-48 hours – the extreme cold helps make the ink brittle and prone to flaking off when rubbed or scratched. Just take care not to damage the underlying fabric through excessive abrasion.
Ensure Proper Fabric Care
- Always check garment tags for care instructions before attempting removal – some methods may damage fabrics.
- Test removal methods in inconspicuous areas first before treating large visible areas.
- Wash and thoroughly rinse garments after applying solvents – chemical residues can damage fabrics over time.
- Air dry fabric completely before wearing or additional laundering. Heat helps set fibers and prevents shrinkage.
- If any holes or tears appear during removal, mend fabric damage as soon as possible prevent unraveling.
- Consider having delicate fabrics commercially dry cleaned after removing prints to restore softness and vibrancy.
With some patience and the right techniques, you can safely remove screen printing from your clothes and give them new life. Just take care when handling solvents and monitor fabrics closely during processing. In no time you can strip away old designs for reuse and repurposing.