Thermal Transfer Labels

Direct Thermal versus Thermal Transfer Labels: What’s the Difference?

If you have a thermal label printer or are in the market for one, you may have come across both thermal transfer and direct thermal labels. But what’s the difference? Which type is right for your business? Which is right for your printer? Though both label types are made for thermal printers, you should know the following distinctions before ordering direct thermal or thermal transfer labels.

Direct Thermal Labels:

  • Direct thermal labels are printed on a direct thermal printer that uses a heated printhead to print images and text. Direct thermal labels are embedded with black or coloured ink that appears when exposed to heat, resulting in a printed image.
  • Since direct thermal labels do not use ribbons or ink, direct thermal printers are convenient. However, direct thermal labels are prone to fading and not as durable as thermal transfer labels. Therefore, they are typically used for shorter-term applications like 4×6 shipping labels, receipts, and event labels.
  • Most 4×6 shipping label printers use direct thermal technology and can only print direct thermal labels. These are very popular for printing 4×6 shipping labels for UPS, FedEx, USPS, eBay, Amazon, DHL, and Canada Post. Direct thermal printers do not require a ribbon and cannot print thermal transfer labels.

Thermal Transfer Labels:

  • Thermal transfer labels are printed on a thermal transfer printer that uses a heated printhead to print images and text onto a wax- or resin-coated ribbon. When heated, the ribbon releases its ink coating, which is then transferred onto the label.
  • Since the wax, wax/resin or resin coating bonds to the label material, thermal transfer printing is more durable than direct thermal printing and is ideal for barcodes or labels that will be exposed to moisture, sunlight, harsh conditions, heavy handling, or long-term use.
  • Ribbon choice is important when printing thermal transfer labels as different ribbon formulations, like wax, wax-resin, or resin, are needed for different label materials and applications.
  • Thermal transfer labels are a popular choice when you need to print and apply a barcode to a product or a pallet and do not want the barcode to fade or be scratched off over time due to wear and tear. Note that thermal transfer printers use a ribbon to print these more durable labels. The most popular thermal transfer labels are paper-based and used with a standard wax ribbon. Thermal transfer printers can also print direct thermal labels if you remove the ribbon and change the printer driver’s settings. So, when purchasing a new printer, a thermal transfer is preferred so that you can switch between direct thermal and thermal transfer labels as needed.

As noted above, some thermal label printers can print both direct thermal and thermal transfer labels. If you’re not sure which type of label your printer uses, be sure to check the manufacturer’s specifications or consult with a customer service representative before ordering labels.

Which thermal label type is right for you? It depends on your application and printer. If you need a durable label that may encounter moisture or is intended for long-term use, thermal transfer printing is the way to go. However, if you need a quick and easy solution for 4×6 shipping labels, direct thermal may be the better option (direct thermal label printers are generally a bit cheaper than thermal transfer).

Did you find this information helpful? Be sure to check out the following articles:

Best 4×6 Shipping Label Printers

Best Desktop Thermal Transfer Printers

Best Industrial Thermal Transfer Printers

Best Direct Thermal Printers

Best Thermal Transfer Printers