Fact Check

Are the Holes in Ballpoint Pen Caps to Prevent Choking?

A brief history of ballpoint pens.

Published April 16, 2024

Updated April 24, 2024
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The hole in the caps of ballpoint pens is there to prevent choking accidents.

For years, social media posts have argued that the reason there is a hole at the top of pen caps is to save lives:


Other posts on Reddit and X (formerly Twitter) claimed the same thing, in English and other languages. The claim, as we'll see, is true.

Saving Lives

The idea of perforating the caps of pens appears to have started in the United Kingdom, where a new safety standard was adopted in 1990 (BS 7272). Between 1970 and 1984, nine children in the United Kingdom died as a result of choking on pen caps. "No such deaths have occurred since the U.K. adopted the international safety standard," a 2004 report said.

In an email, Bic spokeswoman Astrid Canevet said the company began to perforate the caps of its emblematic product, the Bic Cristal, that same year. "BIC, always concerned with the safety of its products and its consumers, decided to apply this British norm everywhere in the world," she said.

It now exists as such in compliance with International Organization for Standardization norm 11540 — first implemented in 1993, then revised in 2014 and more recently in 2021 — relative to "requirements to reduce the risk of asphyxiation from caps for writing and marking instruments. It relates to such instruments which in normal or foreseeable circumstances are likely to be used by children up to the age of 14 years." This norm was established in response to the several incidents of children choking on unperforated pen caps.

As the company stated on its website's FAQ:

Our vented caps comply with international safety standards ISO11540. These standards attempt to minimize the risk to children from accidental inhalation of pen caps. Traditionally the pen cap served only to protect the pen point. These vented caps allow more air to circulate around the pen point when the pen is capped. This further adds to the quality and overall performance of the pen.

Canevet gave more details about what pen makers might do to various models of ballpoint pens in response to this norm:

The cap might have a single hole, or several holes placed at the top of the cap (which is often the case for markers), or have a large cap (more than 1.6 millimeters in diameter), which is considered too large to be swallowed.

Bic's History

The Bic Cristal pen was created in France in 1950, after manufacturer and Bic founder Baron Marcel Bich acquired the rights to a patent created by László Bíró. The Bic Cristal was still being produced in France as of this writing, following a proprietary process. The writing ball is 1 millimeter in diameter, almost as resistant as a diamond and made of tungsten carbide. The ink must have the viscosity of honey. The hole on the clear side of the pen allows for air to pass to balance the air pressure so the ink can come out. A classic Bic Cristal can write up to 3 kilometers. In 2001, the iconic pen, still the world's most sold, entered the Museum of Modern Art.

The pen is, of course, made mostly of plastic. In response to environmental concerns — and to mark the pen's 70th anniversary — the company introduced in 2020 a rechargeable version of it, with a body made of metal and a cap made of recycled plastic.

Now, most ballpoint pen manufacturers comply with ISO11540.


14:00-17:00. 'ISO 11540:1993'. ISO, https://www.iso.org/fr/standard/19494.html. Accessed 15 Apr. 2024.

---. 'ISO 11540:2014'. ISO, https://www.iso.org/fr/standard/56728.html. Accessed 15 Apr. 2024.

---. 'ISO 11540:2021'. ISO, https://www.iso.org/fr/standard/81889.html. Accessed 15 Apr. 2024.

'À QUOI SERT RÉELLEMENT LE TROU SUR LE BOUCHON DES STYLOS BIC ?' CNews, 2 July 2023, https://www.cnews.fr/insolite/2023-07-21/quoi-sert-reellement-le-trou-sur-le-bouchon-des-stylos-bic-659658.

'Anniversaire BIC Cristal'. BIC, https://eu.bic.com/fr-fr/stationery/cristal-anniversary. Accessed 15 Apr. 2024.

'Bic Cristal® Ballpoint Pen'. MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, 2001, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/82141.

BIC Stationary FAQ. https://us.bic.com/en_us/stationary-faq. Accessed 15 Apr. 2024.

BS 7272:1990 Specification for Safety Caps for Writing and Marking In. https://www.intertekinform.com/en-us/standards/. Accessed 15 Apr. 2024.

CodexWorld. 'Tu le savais, toi que… que le petit trou au bout des capuchons des stylos bic a sauvé des milliers de vie ? Médiapi'. Médiapi, 13 Apr. 2021, https://www.media-pi.fr/Article/Famille/Tu-le-savais-toi/Tu-le-savais-toi-que-que-le-petit-trou-au-bout-des-capuchons-des-stylos-bic-a-sauve-des-milliers-de-vie/1175.

'Cristal Re'New'. BIC, https://eu.bic.com/fr-fr/stationery/bic-cristal-renew. Accessed 15 Apr. 2024.

Dennis, Brickman. PEN CAP FAILURE ANALYSIS AND PREVENTION. 1041–9489, Feb. 2004, pp. 1–4, https://www.triodyne.com/SAFETY~1/sb_V25N2.pdf.

Explore Media. Les Secrets de Fabrication Du Stylo BIC ✍️. 2023. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReP9kyvW5K4.

Karambolage en français - ARTE. Le Stylo BIC - Karambolage - ARTE. 2022. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42DVMsLrI2E.

Pourquoi Les Stylos Bic Ont Un Trou Sur Le Capuchon ? - Question Réponse Divers & Inclassables - Pourquois.Com. https://www.pourquois.com/inclassables/pourquoi-stylos-bic-ont-trou-capuchon.html. Accessed 15 Apr. 2024.

'Pourquoi y a-t-il un trou dans les capuchons de stylo BIC ?' Maxisciences, 10 Oct. 2018, https://www.maxisciences.com/savoir/culture-g/pourquoi-y-a-t-il-un-trou-dans-les-capuchons-de-stylo-bic_art41744.html.


April 24, 2024: This report was updated to include a response from Bic.

Anna Rascouët-Paz is based in Brooklyn, fluent in numerous languages and specializes in science and economic topics.

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