What Does it Mean When Streaks of Printer Ink Are Left on Your Paper?

By Aaron Charles

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Streaks on your printed documents and photos obviously mean something is wrong, but what exactly is causing the problem could be one of a number of things. Generally, though, you can trace this problem back to a few causes. It's also important to distinguish between the ink used in inkjet printers and the toner used in laser printers, as the type of ink has a bearing on what's behind the problem.

Inkjet vs. Laser Printers

An inkjet printer uses ink cartridges full of liquid ink, while laser printers use toner cartridges filled with a dry powder that is fused to the paper by means of lasers and heat rather than being "painted" on the paper, as is liquid ink. This fundamental difference between the two printer types means that the specific causes of streaks on the paper also will differ. And since sometimes people use the words "ink" and "toner" interchangeably -- even though they're significantly different -- it's best to address both dynamics.

Cartridge Issues

Sometimes an inkjet printer's cartridges will cause streaks. This happens when the cartridge nozzles become clogged and distribute an uneven amount of ink onto the page. If your printer uses cartridges that have the printer "heads" built into them, those could be dirty and need cleaning. Or, if there are heads on the printer, they might require cleaning. Additionally, whether you are using an inkjet printer with an inkjet cartridge or a laser printer with a toner cartridge, the cartridge could be low on ink or toner or be damaged in some way.

Printer Issues

Aside from cartridges, it could be that some ink or toner has leaked onto some of the printer's inner components, such as the rollers, which would then need to be cleaned. This is likely the case if you see the print streaks on the outer edges of pages. Another possibility is that an inkjet printer's heads are out of position and need to be aligned, requiring that you use your printer's alignment function to straighten them. And in laser printers, the photoconductor assembly -- which also has a roller component to it -- could be scratched, dented or dirty, in which case you'll need to repair or clean the photoconductor roller.

Further Considerations

When cleaning printer rollers, it's best to use lint-free cloths. Avoid touching the rollers with your fingers as your skin's oils could leave a mark that will further degrade printing quality. To clean the print heads, also use lint-free cloth or paper -- even coffee filters will work, or cotton balls in a pinch. Dab the heads with distilled water or rubbing alcohol to get rid of the excess cartridge ink. Then dry the cleaned area with a paper towel. After that, if your printer has an automated self-cleaning function, run that and try printing again.