Advantages & Disadvantages of Direct Thermal & Thermal Transfer

When people are in the market for printers or labels, they are usually faced with  two options: Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer.

Direct Thermal prints from the heat of the printer. Good for short term use such as shipping labels.

Thermal Transfer requires a ribbon to print. A ribbon is like ink for thermal transfer. Thermal Transfer printers transfers the  ribbon (made of wax or resin) onto the label. Good for long-term use.

Why use either? Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer is the fastest way to print high quality labels. In a nut shell — it’ll be easier to take labels off by hand or applicator, the barcode will always look clear, and you can print up to 15-30 labels in a couple of seconds depending on the printer and label.

But how do you decide which one to buy? Both types has their advantages and disadvantages depending on how it will be used.

Thermal Transfer Labels

Direct Thermal

Advantages of using Direct Thermal labels:

  • Does not require a ribbon
  • One consumable(labels) not two (ribbons & labels)
  • Good for temporary use (Image fades around 6 months)
  • Good for indoor use
  • Usually cheaper
  • Requires less effort when placing labels into the printer

Disadvantages of using Direct Transfer labels:

  • Exposure to heat/light can deteriorate label printing
  • Material can smudge easily
  • Not good for long term printing
  • Limited to printing in black

Common Use for Direct Thermal labels:

  • Shipping labels
  • Indoor Retail Stores Pricing Labels
  • Short-Term Box Labels

Thermal Transfer

Advantages of using Thermal Transfer labels:

  • Does not smudge/smear easily (If correct ribbon/material matches)
  • Good for outdoor use
  • Extremely durable to temperature, chemical, lighting, & more
  • Has a longer shelf life
  • Can print on a variety of other materials (polyester, polypropylene, etc.)
  • Can print in a variety of colors

Disadvantages of using Thermal Transfer labels:

  • Requires a ribbon
  • Requires a a bit more effort to place in printers because of ribbons
  • Can be a bit more expensive because of ribbons

Common Use for Thermal Transfer labels:

  • Items stored outside for warehouses/gardens/mechanics
  • Long term box marking
  • Shelf labels



To decide which one you need to purchase, take a look at the following questions:


If you answer yes to any of the following questions, then you will need to use Thermal Transfer.

Will you need to print in other colors besides black?

Thermal Transfer labels come in array of colorful ribbons. Direct Thermal only prints in black since it uses the heat of the printer.

Will you need the labels to last a year?

Since Direct Thermal labels prints from heat, Direct Thermal labels can deteriorate overtime because of temperature and lighting. Thermal Transfer can withstand temperature and lighting so it will have a longer shelf-life than Direct Thermal.

Will you be printing high density bar codes (i.e. limited space)?

Using a ribbon, you can easily fine tune a barcode onto Thermal Transfer labels much easier than using heat with Direct Thermal.

Will the labels be around heat or sunlight?

Direct Thermal sitting in direct or indirect heat or sunlight can deteriorate your labels. Thermal Transfer can withstand it.

Will the labels be prone to abuse or  friction?

Direct Thermal labels are subjected to smearing or scratching, especially if they’ll be placed on boxes that are stacked on top of each other. The friction and movement of the boxes can end up damaging the information on the label and render it useless. Thermal Transfer labels will not get damaged by any sort of friction.

Will you be printing on a variety of different material (i.e. papers, films and foils)?

Since a ribbon is being used for Thermal Transfer labels, the ribbons can also transfer itself onto other materials like polyester, polypropylene, film, and a few others. Ribbons come in a variety of strength to adhere to the material so a common ribbon may not work for unique materials.

All Barcode Systems

We carry a wide array of Direct Thermal labels/printers, Thermal Transfer labels/printers, and ribbons with discounts available. Contact us or view our selection to see what we have available.

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