Which Highlighter is Right for You: A Review of the Best and Worst

Normally here at the Weekly Pencil, I talk about, well, pencils. As I began to use more and more pencil, I found that there were times when I wanted to highlight something I had written, but had no idea which highlighter I should use. For a while, I kind of just used whatever was within reach with varying results. It wasn't until I started to attend college that I began to have a need for a highlighter that worked properly for my needs and was vibrant enough to be useful. I'm not going to lie-- this task was daunting. I did eventually find my dream highlighter, but it took time and frustration. That's when it occurred to me-- what if I wrote a blog post about my experiences with different highlighters so you DON'T have to go through the aggravation like I did. Now, here we are. I review several highlighters so you don't have to. You're welcome.

Before I get started I want to define some terms. There are three different kinds of highlighters I am going to talk about in this piece. The dry, wet/marker-type, and the gel. Dry highlighters can be described as crayon-like or, for the harder ones, colored pencil. They tend to lay on top of the paper and often smudge pencil, but do a fine job with printer ink and pen ink. They need sharpening like regular pencils. The wet/marker type are the highlighters that most of you probably use on a semi-regular basis. They tend to get absorbed into the paper you are highlighting and some wet highlighters do a good job of not smearing pencil markings. Wet highlighters can either be water based or alcohol based. The alcohol based highlighters tend to work much better than the water based since they have a shorter drying time and work on a variety of papers. Water based highlighters can tear up the paper if you apply too many layers and take forever to dry. The only plus to water based highlighter usage is that they are cheaper. *note: while these statements are, in fact, true, there are some exceptions to the assertion that alcohol is better than water; it depends on the quality of the marker itself. Finally, gel highlighters are unique in that they offer a smudge-free, non-bleedthrough experience. These type of highlighters work best on thin paper such as paper found in the Bible or Quran or on surfaces that are non-porous. These highlighters come with some drawbacks though. They are not precise and often have a very large, round tip. Also, some can be incredibly waxy to the point of being unusable. I would like to note that sometimes people conflate dry and gel highlighters, but for the purposes of this overview, I will put them into two separate categories: dry (sharpenable) and gel (everything else sans wet). Now, on to the reviews!

Dry Highlighters


Kutsuwa HiLiNE Highlighter Pencil

The Kutsuwa HiLiNE is a pencil highlighter made in Japan that comes with a pencil sharpener cap. When I first recieved this highlighter I was sketptical. I figured the sharpener would be garbage and the pencil itself would not be able to offer up the vibrancy that I often look for in highlighters. I was TOTALLY wrong. First, the included sharpener works beautifully and provides a good counter weight to the pencil as you use it. Also, the small diameter of the core (3.9 mm) allows one to make precise marks and annotations. I would liken this to the Caran d'Ache Couleurs Fluos highlighter pencil. Same bright pigment and while not as creamy as the C'dA the HiLiNE offers a very velvety highlighting experience. Final Grade: A-

Caran d'Ache Couleurs Fluos

The Cd'A highlighter pencil is my dream come true. Housed in a chunky hexagonal body is a fat creamy core that offers a superb highlighting experience. The C'dA was the first highlighter pencil I used and set the bar for all others to follow. It is the closest experience to using a standard wet highlighter that I have found. The Couleurs Fluos lays down a smooth creamy line that does not smudge pen or printer ink. I will say that this is the wrong highlighter to use for highlighting pencil as it smears and mixes with the graphite on the paper. At $3.50 it may seem a bit expensive, but an entire pencil lasted me a semester (four months). The Couleurs Fluos comes in four different colors, but I found that the yellow and pink are most vibrant. Final Grade: A+

Yoobi Highlighter Pencil

The Yoobi highlighter pencil hits all the aesthetic points on my scale: natural wood barrel, hexagonal, and jumbo. That's where my love affair ends. Let not beat around the bush here: this pencil sucks. In order for the highlighting to be visible, one has to push down extremely hard in order to get the pigment to find its way into the paper. This experience is a stark contrast to that of the Caran d'Ache and Kutsuwa offerings. When one is able to get the highlighter pencil to lay down enough pigment to be effective, the color is muted and not at all vibrant. The highlighting experience itself is marred by a very scratchy feedback. While the Yoobi is a bit thicker than the C'dA jumbo, its core is about half the size. Also, the Yoobi appears to be made of basswood so it has a lighter feel in the hand. For some this is a bonus, but for me it only decreases my opinion of the pencil. The good thing is that these are super cheap. A five pack will cost you as much as one C'dA pencil. If you have $3.50 that you are wiling to waste or light on fire, pick these up. Otherwise it's a hard pass. Final Grade: D

Gel Highlighters

Staedtler Textsurfer Gel

The Staedtler Textsurfer Gel was a pleasant surprise for me. I have used gel highlighters in the past and have been extremely disappointed. For one, they require of very light hand and for someone like myself who is very heavy-handed, this can be a problem. Also, the gel highlighters I have used in the past have left a ton of chunks on the paper which then transfers to the opposite page and makes the two pages stick together. Not good. The Staedtler resolves a few of these issues. For one, it is not as clumpy as others I have used in the past. The feedback one gets when they use it is best described as that of using a gluestick. Super, super smooth and sticky feeling. The yellow pigment the Staedtler leaves on the paper is super bright and does not smudge or smear any kind of ink or graphite it goes over. The one drawback though is that it is extremely hard to be precise with it (and all of the gel highlighters I've reviewed as a matter of fact). It has a very blunt rounded tip that unless you wear it down to a point, you will not be able to highlight small lines of text accurately which is kind of silly since these are advertised at bible highlighters. Either way, they do a great job, just don't expect precision. Final Grade: B+

Ohto Rouge

The Ohto Rouge has a different design than the Staedtler and Monami gel highlighters I reviewed. It has a flatter shape to its core and comes to a dull point at the end. While not as bad as the round tipped highlighters, the Ohto still doesn't offer the precision one needs to highlight small text. One noticeable issue I had with the Ohto is that it gave me a similar experience that I had with other gel highlighters of the past-- it left small chunks on the paper. The Ohto was also much softer than the other two as well which not only adds to that chunky residue, but decreases the lifespan of the highlighter itself. These drawbacks are a shame because I really like the flatter shape of not only the core but the barrel as well. Final Grade: C

Monami Essenti Stick

The Monami Essenti Stick is very similar to the Staedtler Textsurfer. In fact, if I were blindfolded I would not be able to tell the difference between the two. Even the color that is laid down by both is similar. One cool feature of this highlighter though is that there is a window on the barrel that lets you see how much of the gel stick is left over. Also, the Monami is a dollar cheaper than the Staedtler, so I'd pick this one up instead of the Textsurfer. Final Grade: A- (for extra features and price)

Wet Highlighters

Tombow Kei Coat Dual Tip

The Tombow Kei Coat highlighter has a great design; it has a chisel tip and a fine point tip. This becomes incredibly handy during highlighting and annotating since you can quickly jot down notes with the fine point. It is a smaller highlighter pen that is made of solid plastic and has a good hand feel. The chisel tip is just the right size to accommodate small print, but for handwritten stuff I find that I need two swipes to compeletely cover my text. The one drawback to this highlighter is its pigment. Compared to others I have tested, the Tombow feels a bit washed out. Not a complete dealbreaker as the highlighter still does its job, but not for me. Final Grade: B

Zebra H-301

Let me preface this by saying that I have used the Zebra H-301 before-- quite extensively actually. The only reason I ordered a new one was because I could not find my original one. The H-301 comes with one refill which is nice, but you do go through the refills quite quickly. The design of the newer H-301 I ordered was exactly the same except for the cap which seemed to randomly pop off. Legit. I went into my office one morning and found the uncapped highlighter on the floor. I don't know if this is a fluke or if this is the new design, but it's horrible. Luckily, I did my testing already because the tip was completely dried out and required a bit of finesse and moisture to get it right again. And lets talk about that. The performance was not consistent at all. There were times when the Zebra worked flawlessly but then other times where it seemed to skip over the paper and required a few swipes to get a solid line. This is disappointing since I talked the H-301 up a bit on the latest episode of RSVP. I'd be willing to buy another to give it a second chance, but be aware: you may be disappointed as well. Final Grade: C-

Stabilo Boss Original

The Stabilo Boss is a classic and has had the same iconic design since its incarnation in 1972. Its design, while a bit awkward in the hand at first, is perfect and allows for precision usage. The brightness of the Boss is perfect-- not too bright that it is obnoxious, but just bright enough to make what you have highlighted readable. One feature of the Boss that I especially like is the fact that it can be uncapped for up to four hours without drying out. This is big since as a student I often find myself capping and uncapping highlighters as I use them. In this case, I can leave the cap off for my entire study session and not be worried about it drying out. Also, these are refillable so those that are focused on cutting down plastic waste, Stabilo has got you covered. I couldn't ask for more in a highlighter. Final Grade: A+

Staedtler Textsurfer Classic

Not unlike the Stabilo Boss, the Textsurfer Classic has a unique flat design. That's not where the innovation ends though-- the Textsurfer features an "automatic pressure equalization system" that prevents the ink from leaking while on board an aircraft. While this feature is not at all useful for me, those that travel may find this of use. The barrel has a nice design and has ridges at the top where you would put your pointer finger; this allows for a better grip as your hand does not slip like it sometimes does with the Stabilo Boss. The pigment is SUPER bright and more regular yellow than a neon yellow. Some may find this irritating, but I like the super pop of color. The Textsurfer is on the wetter side so be careful not to leave it on the paper for too long as it will bleed through. Overall, I like this marker and have made it a part of my daily carry. Final Grade: A

Zebra Mildliner

The Zebra Mildliner is just that-- mild. The Mildliner still has that glow of a neon highlighter, but it is muted just enough as to not be jarring on the eyse as a regular highlighter might be. The Mildliners are extremely popular with the journaling and studying crowd since they come in a variety of unique colors such as grey and brown. The Mildliner has both a chisel and fine point tip which proves to be especially useful when annotating. There are fifteen different colors of the Mildliner and are worth owning if you like a wide range of colors. Final Grade: B  

Kokuyo Beetle Tip

The Beetle Tip is a very unique highlighter because of the fact that there are two colors in one pen. The tip of the highlighter is divided in two and provides two chisel tips. This is great in theory, but if you do not hold it just the right way both colors will transfer to the paper. This is frustrating and a deal breaker for me. Oftentimes I am going back and forth between pencil and highlighter and the angle I have to hold the Beetle Tip is very slanted and not at all natural. The color the Beetle lays down is average, but nothing to write home about. I'd try one of these for the novelty purposes, but don't purchase if you are looking for utility since you have to work harder than you should to get this highlighter to do its thing. Final Grade: C

Platinum Preppy Highlighter

The Preppy really took me by surprise. The Preppy works extremely well and lays down the perfect shade of neon yellow. It feels great in the hand and has the same design as their Preppy fountain pens. They are also refilliable which is a huge bonus. I like the clear look of the Preppy and the cool cap design that has a spring inside of it which allows the tip to fit snugly and airtight thus making it free from drying out. I really don't have anything negative to say about the Preppy. It's chisel tip is a bit more narrow than I like, but at this point I am grasping at straws trying to find a flaw in this pen. Just buy it. Final Grade: A

Pilot Frixion Erasable Highlighter

Let's get this out of the way. This highlighter is garbage. DO NOT buy this. You will be disappointed and angry. First, the color of the ink is bad and not at all the normal neon you are used to in a highlighter. Second, its "erasable" feature requires you to almost destroy your paper to get the highlighter off the page. Finally, can we talk about the horrible 90s tribal design on the barrel?? Pilot really dropped the ball here and could have hit it out of the park, but instead they offered up a sub-par piece of junk. If you want a ticket to the land of disappointment, buy this highlighter. Final Grade: F