How to Choose the Right Label Stock: Direct Thermal, Thermal Transfer or Synthetic?

Date Posted:1 November 2020 

How to Choose the Right Label Stock: Direct Thermal, Thermal Transfer or Synthetic? main image How to Choose the Right Label Stock: Direct Thermal, Thermal Transfer or Synthetic? image

If you’ve started to order shipping labels and stopped short when you discovered the sheer range of options, you’re definitely not alone. Between direct thermal shipping labels, thermal transfer options and paper versus synthetic selections, the choice can seem overwhelming. Hopefully, this quick guide can help point you in the right direction to suit your needs.    


First, let’s differentiate between the two common thermal printing methods:

  • With direct thermal printing, a printhead applies heat in the right places to cause a thermal reaction in the reactive paper stock. Most receipts are printed in this way.
  • With thermal transfer printing, a printhead applies heat to the back of a wax or resin ribbon, which melts (or transfers) the colour onto the label stock in the right places.

To use either one of these printing methods, you’ll need a specific type of label printer.

So how do you choose between the various printing and label stock options?  


Label stock for short to medium-term applications

The typical choice for short-term label printing will be paper direct thermal labels in the right size for your direct thermal printer. These typically last from 3 to 12 months before fading, so they’re ideal for things like deli items, visitor and guest passes, short-term direct thermal shipping labels and pathology labels for samples that will be processed fairly quickly. Keep in mind that direct thermal labels can fade faster in extreme temperatures and conditions, so if you need something tougher then you might consider thermal transfer instead.


We choose only to manufacture and supply top coated paper label stock, because this extends the life of your printhead and produces a more durable label than uncoated stock. Another option to consider with either printing method is whether you’ll need temporary or permanent label adhesive to suit your needs.


Label stock for long-term or permanent applications

Thermal transfer labels will be the typical choice for most applications where you need the label to be scannable or readable for a long time, including thermal shipping labels, product labels that have a long shelf life, and chilled food items. Within thermal transfer you also have a range of ribbon options:

  • A wax ribbon is best suited for fast and lower-cost printing on paper stock, for things like carton labels.
  • A full resin ribbon is extremely durable and used for applications in harsh environments like high temperatures or sun exposure, and on specialty label stock. Resin can produce a very crisp, clear result.
  • A wax/resin combination ribbon offers a blend of both worlds; a crisp clear result on smooth and gloss label stock, as well as synthetic stocks, for cost-effective and durable printing.


Label stock for heavy duty or harsh conditions

Synthetic label stock can be an ideal choice for any conditions where the label will be exposed to harsh conditions: think labels that might have extended UV exposure, nursery plant labels that are hosed down regularly, items that are in industrial or marine environments, or products that might be heated, microwaved or frozen. If you’re looking into synthetic labels, our team is here to help you find the right stock and adhesive to suit your needs.


There are a vast variety of specialty label options ranging from die cut and round thermal transfer labels, to tamper-evident label cuts that will peel away in pieces if someone tries to remove the label and stick it on another product.


At Thermal Labels we manufacture our quality thermal transfer and direct thermal labels in Australia from our Sydney base, and can pretty much create anything you need with a fast turnaround – so get in touch with the team today for help with your enquiries.

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