All You Need to Know About Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer Labels

Date Posted:1 August 2020 

All You Need to Know About Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer Labels main image All You Need to Know About Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer Labels image

You need labels on your products or packaging, but when you start looking for a label printing system you’re immediately faced with the dilemma of direct thermal vs thermal transfer labels as the main options. They sound similar but they’re quite different in practice – so how do you make the right choice?


The key question to ask is: How will the labels be used?

There are some important factors like time and environmental conditions to consider when you’re making your choice between a direct thermal and thermal transfer labelling system.


Direct thermal labels are ideal for short to medium-term applications. These applications can include FMCGs (including chilled and frozen items), temporary warehouse labels, name tags, pathology samples and interim medical labels.


Printing: Direct thermal printing doesn’t use an ink or substrate – instead, the reactive coating on the thermal label reacts and darkens in response to heat from the printhead. Store receipts typically use this same technology.


Longevity: Direct thermal barcode labels can last between three and 12 months before fading or turning brown, depending on the specific label and its environmental conditions. Sunlight and chemical exposure can affect the longevity of direct thermal labels.


Contrast: The contrast on a direct thermal label is certainly clear enough to scan and read in the short to medium term, though labels can rub off or fade over time.


Thermal transfer labels are more suited for applications where durability and longevity are required. These applications can include chemical and industrial barcode labels, pharmaceutical labelling and asset labelling, where you need the label to stay in place for years or permanently.


Printing: Thermal transfer uses a heated printhead to transfer a thin layer of wax, resin or a wax/resin combination to the label, in order to create the contrast.

Wax ribbons are economical and typically suitable for paper labels.

Wax/resin ribbons are suited to paper and synthetic label stocks with more durability.

Resin ribbons are suited to heavy duty applications, with greater resistance to chemicals and scratches.


Longevity: Thermal transfer is an ideal technology for long term and permanent labels, and there are a number of different adhesives and coating options to suit the specific application.


Contrast: Thermal transfer has a much crisper and high contrast result than a direct transfer option, and depending on the specifications can be much less likely to smudge, rub or tear.


Are the ongoing consumables different?

Because they use different printing processes, direct thermal and thermal transfer labels require different consumables. Direct thermal printing will require specific thermal reactive labels, while thermal transfer printing will require labels and your choice of thermal printing ribbon to suit the application. There are many different size and format options to suit your printer or industrial label printer machine, such as direct thermal roll labels or fanfolded options, as well as the option of removable or permanent adhesives to suit the application.

Read Related Article: Applications Where You Might Need Removable Thermal Labels


So which label option is right for your needs: direct thermal or thermal transfer?

You’ll want a solution that is cost-effective and reliable but most importantly, suits your intended application. The very last thing you need is un-scannable barcodes, which can lead to much larger and more expensive problems down the track.


Our Sydney-based team is here to help you find the ideal label printing equipment and consumables, including Toshiba and Zebra thermal label systems. We can also turn around urgent orders for custom labels in a flash. Read more over at our Helpdesk, or call us now on 1800 88 88 11.


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