Direct Thermal VS. Thermal Transfer – What’s the Difference?

Are you unsure if Direct Thermal or Thermal Transfer printing is the best choice for you? Are you confused about the difference, or if there is a difference between the two?

No worries!

These two printing methods have some similarities but they are different! In order to choose the best way for your company, you will need to better understand how they work & the conditions each of these labels are able to face.

Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer printing both use heat to print onto blank labels. The main difference is that Direct Thermal does not require a ribbon, while Thermal Transfer does.

ribbon in printer
Thermal Transfer – Ribbon is shown
diagram of thermal transfer printing method

Above, you can see how the ribbon is what receives the heat, rather than the label material itself. The ink ribbon is made up of resin or wax. Because of this, when it comes in contact with the heated print-head, this transfers the ink from the ribbon onto the label material.

Below, the heated print-head comes into direct contact with the label material itself. This heat reacts with the coating on the label material, causing it to turn black in those specific heated areas.

direct thermal printing method diagram

Whether you need Direct Thermal or Thermal Transfer depends on your label’s application.

Choose Direct Thermal If:

  • The life of your label will be less than 1 year
  • Your label is NOT going to be exposed to high temperatures
  • Your label will NOT experience harsh environmental conditions
  • You will NOT be printing with a ribbon
direct thermal labels

Choose Thermal Transfer If:

  • The life of your label will be more than 1 year
  • Your label is going to be exposed to continuous sunlight
  • You will be printing high-density barcodes
  • You will be printing in a variety of colors other than black
  • Your label will experience exposure to chemicals or abrasives
  • You will be printing with a ribbon
thermal transfer labels

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~Contact us today to get your FREE label quote or ask for a sample folder~

616-647-9880 | [email protected]


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