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7 Best Substitutes for Printer Cleaning Solution

Modern printers are marvels of technology. Small, specialized nozzles called print heads dispense ink droplets onto the page using high-pressure or laser heat. However, these nozzles can clog up, diminishing the effect. At that point, you must clean them to restore the functionality of your printer.

Printer cleaners are a popular solution to this problem, but they are often more expensive than they are worth. So, you may want an alternative or two you can throw together in a pinch. Luckily, by reading further, you will learn about the seven most popular alternative printer cleaners.

Laser printer isolated on white background

Printer Cleaning Solutions and their Alternatives

Modern printer head design minimizes smearing and blockages. As these devices push ink through their tiny nozzles, they clean themselves automatically with each power cycle. However, this system only works if these machines constantly print stuff. Otherwise, they can dry and clog up, leading to smears and unfinished documents.

When this happens, your only choice is to clean the print heads manually. Fortunately, you will also find numerous commercially-available printer cleaning solutions for every type of printer out there. While these solutions work, they are usually way overpriced for what they offer. That is because you can also find numerous alternatives around your home and office.

Printer Cleaners

Printer cleaners have one function. They dissolve the layers of dried ink on your printer’s printheads. These cleaning solutions can be anything, but they are usually just solutions of:

They may contain other ingredients in various ratios based on the brand and purpose, but these two components are all you need to remove most printer ink residue.

If you need a stronger solution, go with a stronger cleaning agent. For instance, most water-based inks dissolve nicely with soap while genuine ink requires alcohol. In either case, you force the cleaner through the print head nozzles to clean them.

DIY Printer Cleaners and Other Alternative

The beauty of having the above components, most printer cleaners consist of off-the-shelf parts. You can easily buy them separately. You may even have them readily available in your home or office. You must mix them into the right ratios and consistencies for your printer. At this point, you will have a ready-made solution whenever your printer needs cleaning.

Top 7 Printer Cleaning Solution Alternatives

Cleaning the printhead can bring your printer back to life. It will leave your documents looking great with no streaks, fading, or missing text. While you can use a commercial product, the truth is that you can use any solution that will not corrode or degrade your printer’s ink nozzles and electronics.

As such, the following seven alternatives will let you clean your printer while saving you time and money.

Alternative 1: Ammonia-Based Cleaning Solution

If you must clean your printer manually, a good place to start would be any cleaning solution you may have around your home. However, you might have to dilute it before you use it on your printheads. This will be the case for your ammonia-based cleaners. Luckily, it will only take the following three steps.

  1. Fill a bottle with distilled water
  2. Measure 1 part of ammonia for every 10 parts of water.
  3. Mix until the ammonia is fully dissolved.

Once thoroughly mixed, you can use your new cleaning solution on your printhead. If possible, remove the printhead and place it into the solution. You can then leave it for about an hour. Afterward, you can wipe the head dry and put it back into your printer.

If you cannot remove the head, apply the cleaner to the head with a cotton swab dipped in your cleaning solution. You can repeat this step as often as needed.

Alternative 2: Alcohol-Based Cleaning Solutions

Haz isopropyl 70% rubbing alcohol

If you do not have ammonia lying around your home or office, you can use alcohol instead. You can use any type of alcohol you might have. Although, you will get much better results if you use isopropyl or rubbing alcohol.

  1. Fill three-quarters of a glass jar with water – Distilled water is preferred, but you can use filtered tap water. Just use a paper coffee filter to remove any debris and impurities from the water.
  2. Add and mix 15 milliliters of isopropyl or rubbing alcohol into the water in the jar.
  3. Add a drop of plain dish soap to the mixture.
  4. Stir the mixture with a spoon until thoroughly blended.
  5. Warm the solution in a microwave for a minute before using it.

As with the ammonia solution above, you must bathe the printhead in the alcohol to get the best results. This means placing the cleaning solution and the print cartridges in a sealed plastic bag.

If you do not have a plastic bag, you can lay the cartridges on folded paper towels that were soaked in about a half inch of your cleaning solution. In either case, the solution should only take a few minutes to remove any ink residue from the print heads. You can even jiggle or move the cartridge around to speed up the process.

Once done, you must shake off any excess solution and let the cartridge dry before putting it back into your printer.

Alternative 3: Ethanol-Based Cleaning Solution

If you must, you can use your favorite alcoholic beverage as a printer cleaner. Ideally, you want denatured ethanol, but any ethanol-based beverage or product will do. Just make sure you dilute the ethanol with water and soap, as mentioned in the rubbing alcohol solution above. Yes, this means that the process will render your ethanol undrinkable.

Alternative 4: Soap-based Cleaning Solution

Bottle of Palmolive dish soap

If your alcohol-based solution isn’t working, you can try mixing up the formula to something more soap based. Soap-based solutions add 2-3 drops of dishwashing soap for each 3-4 teaspoons of alcohol. Once mixed and strained, these solutions carry the same consistency as those commercial solutions. You can then vary the concentrations further as needed until you find a solution that will work in your case.

Alternative 5: Cleaning Cards

If you need something fast and ready to use, you can use cleaning cards. Cleaning cards are sponge-like pads with a cleaning solution baked into their abrasive surface. Often called magic erasers, you can even use these cards to clean your printer’s roller and other hard-to-clean places.

However, you should only use cleaning cards occasionally. Their abrasive surfaces can and will eventually damage the print head.

Alternative 6: Cleaning Pens

Print head cleaning pens combine the cleaning power of a cleaning card with the ease of a pen. They work similarly to those bleach pens you can use on clothing. Perfect for touch-ups, you press the tip to the print head and then move it about the surface. You can even use them on rollers in some cases.

You can reuse most cleaning pens about ten times before you see visible signs of dirt buildup. After that, you can replace the pen with a new one.

Alternative 7: The Internal Cleaning Mechanism and Professional Cleaning

As mentioned before, all modern printers come with a built-in cleaning system. While this system operates automatically, you can manually run it at any time. The steps to do this will vary between printer models, but the general steps look like this:

  1. Run the “Clean Printhead” app on your computer.
  2. If the app does not start properly, open the printhead cover and unplug the printer from the power outlet.
  3. Remove the ink cartridge.
  4. Clean the contacts on the ink cartridge and the printhead.
  5. Reinstall the ink cartridge.
  6. Plug your printer into a power outlet and let it boot up
  7. Conduct a print test to see if it worked
  8. Repeat the process as often as needed

Ink Cartridges and Ribbons with Built-in Cleaners

Several high-end printer models use ink modules with a built-in cleaning solution. This cleaner comes typically as tape or ribbon. It removes ink residue by sliding it in front of the head during the regular operation of your printer. Designed specifically for your model printer, this cleaning solution is also the least likely to damage the printhead.

Replacing the Ink Module or Take It to a Repair Shop

If all else fails, there is always the nuclear option. Many printer designs place the print head on a disposable ink cartridge or module. As such, you can “clean” your printhead just by replacing it with a new one. Some printer models will let you do this yourself. Other models will require a call to a local repair shop. Either way, you will want to check your owner’s guide to see which options are available.

When should I clean the printhead?

The general rule of thumb is that you must manually clean your printer’s print head after it is idle for an extended period. Printer ink tends to dry out with age, turning into a paste. As a paste, the ink does not flow, so it clogs up the print nozzles.

However, how long that happens can vary wildly between the ink types and brands. You must print a few documents each month to keep the ink flowing as usual. But some types of ink will dry faster than that, meaning you must use them a few times a week or even daily.

In all these cases, you will know when it is time to clean the printhead when the ink stops flowing. If your printer fails to print a document, giving the printer a good washing should be your first thought. This is especially true if your printer insists that its ink tanks are full.

Before You Clean Your Printer

Cleaning your printhead will give your printer a new lease on life, but you must always tread precariously when dealing with electronics. You can irreparably damage your printer if you clean it wrong. So, we’d like to offer the following tips and advice to help reduce potential future issues.

  • Use genuine ink cartridges from your printer’s manufacturer or authorized resellers.
  • Use the right cartridges for your printer model.
  • Never reuse broken ink cartridges.
  • Let your printer perform its automated maintenance before printing anything.
  • Try the built-in cleaner function first.
  • Check your printer’s device entry on your computer for ink level and note any issues.
  • Wait until the ink cartridges stop moving before doing anything to your printer.
  • Consult the owner’s guide to learn how to remove and insert cartridges into your printer.
  • Store ink cartridges on their side, on a clean piece of paper, and with the nozzle and contacts pointing away from any surface.
  • Clean the electronics contacts first.
  • Use a lint-free cloth as much as possible or switch to a damp cotton or foam swab as a last resort.
  • Never clean or touch the nozzle directly.
  • Use a clean swab to dry your ink cartridge, or let it air dry for 10 minutes.
  • You may need to clean your printer 4-5 times before fully dislodging it.

What if My Printer Still Doesn’t Work?

If your printer refuses to work despite your thorough cleaning, your printer might have other issues. However, you may want to give it another cleaning or two to see if it is just some stubborn dirt and ink.

Beyond that, you should force your printer to run a complete power-on cycle before you do anything else. You also want to see if replacing the ink cartridges will do anything.

If nothing works, it might be time to take your printer for repairs or to invest in a new printer.


Typically, manually cleaning your printer is a rare event, but every printer owner must do it occasionally. While you could choose one of the many commercially available cleaners out there, you might find that you already have these 7 alternatives in your home or office.

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