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Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Labels

For goodness sake, what is the difference?

We get that question a lot.  Here are the main differences.

Direct Thermal Labels have have heat applied directly to the label to create the pattern or image. The heat initiates a chemical reaction in the label which causes it to darken – hence the term “direct thermal”. The heater is in direct contact with the label. See image below.


Thermal Transfer Labels require a ribbon when printing. Both the label and ribbon feed through the printer. The heat causes the ribbon to transfer the ink, or wax, onto the label. Hence the name thermal transfer. See image below.


Choose Direct Thermal if:

  • label life is less than 12 months
  • label will not be exposed to continuous sunlight
  • label will not be exposed to harsh environmental conditions (i.e. dusty air, chemicals/abrasives in the air)
  • label will not be exposed to high temperatures

Examples or direct thermal labels are retail store receipts, gas pump receipts and shipping labels.

Choose Thermal Transfer if:

  • label life expectancy is greater than 12 months
  • label could be exposed to continuous sunlight
  • label could be exposed to high temperatures
  • label could be exposed to chemicals or abrasives
  • you want to print on different label types (i.e. papers, foils and films)

Consideration for Thermal Printhead Life & Cost

Direct Thermal printers work by the printhead (heater) being in direct contact with the label as it is pulled through the printer. This means that any dust or other abrasive material on the label can be transferred to the heater. The foreign material can burn itself onto the heater resulting in poor print quality or premature heater failure. See what happens when a heater fails.

Thermal Transfer printers have a thermal ribbon, which is designed to increase the print head life by reducing static and friction forces. These labels often result in longer printer life but have higher label cost due to increased label material.

Still not certain which is best for you?

Contact us at 712-722-1181 and we will help you determine which method works best for you.