Thermal Transfer vs Direct Thermal

You may know that the two types of thermal labels are thermal transfer and direct thermal. But what are their differences?

Thermal Transfer

Thermal transfer labels require a ribbon when printing. Both the labels and the ribbon feed through the printer, and the printer applies heat to the ribbon to transfer the wax and resin onto the label (hence the term thermal transfer). The printer uses the ribbon similarly to the way an inkjet printer would use ink to print on paper, but with heated wax and resin replacing the ink. Ribbons are available in colors other than black, so you can have multicolored printing with thermal transfer. The resulting label is fairly scratch resistant, can be detailed, and can last a long time. View our thermal transfer labels selection.

Direct Thermal

Direct thermal labels do not require a ribbon to print. The labels feed through the printer and the printer applies heat directly to the label (hence the term direct thermal). As the the print head runs over the label, it heats the label and a chemical reaction with the face stock causes the heated portions to darken. Think of a receipt printer when you think direct thermal. Since direct thermal printers do not require a ribbon, they can be smaller and take up less space. It is also cheaper to buy direct thermal labels since you do not have to purchase ribbon. The downside to direct thermal labels is that they are not scratch resistant (premium direct thermal is somewhat scratch resistant, but not completely heat resistant) and they do not last as long especially when stored in warm places or in direct sunlight. View our direct thermal labels selection.

How to Tell Them Apart

Ever wondered how to tell the difference between a thermal transfer label and a direct thermal label? There is one simple test that you can use to tell if a label is direct thermal. Take the label and scratch it quickly with your fingernail as if you were lighting a match. It may take a couple of hard strikes. If a dark mark appears on the label, it is direct thermal. If no dark marks are left on the label, it is thermal transfer. Some coated labels may take a quicker, harder strike to leave a mark.


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