A new class of nearly charge-neutral carbon-cored nanoparticle tracers are remarkably non-interactive with solid surfaces and could provide a valuable baseline for diverse hydrological and environmental studies of subsurface flow and particle transport. We investigate the causes of inertness by studying the interactions with calcite of a nanoparticle of this class synthesized from malic acid and ethanolamine (M-dots) dispersed in brine (NaCl, CaCl2, and MgCl2) solutions. None of the M-dots are retained in calcite sand-packed columns when dispersed in DI water. Dispersed in the NaCl and mixed brine solutions, 5.6 % of and 7.3 % of the M-dots are initially retained, but 65 and 13 % of these retained particles are subsequently released when the column is flushed with DI water. When dispersed in the CaCl2 and MgCl2 solutions, 65 and 54 % of the M-dots are initially retained, and 28 and 26 % subsequently released in the DI water flush. The M-dots have a small negative zeta potential in all solutions, but the calcite zeta potential changes from strongly negative to strongly positive across the solution series, and the particle retention tracks this change. Derjaguin–Landau–Verwey–Overbeek (DLVO) modeling of the force between a calcite probe and an M-dot coated surface shows that hydration forces repel the particles in the DI water, NaCl, and mixed solutions, but not in the CaCl2 and MgCl2 solutions. These results show that near-zero charge and strongly hydrophilic decoration are the causes of the remarkable inertness of carbon-cored nanoparticles, and also suggest that nanoparticles could be useful in solute-surface interaction studies.