Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal

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

What are Thermal Labels?

These thermal transfer printer 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 printer). 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. The resulting label is fairly scratch resistant, can be detailed, and can last a long time. View our transfer labels selection.

What are Direct Thermal Labels?

Direct 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 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 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.

How to tell the difference between Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer:

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. 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.

Link to this article: