When you need printed labels on-demand, direct thermal and thermal transfer labels are your go-to solution. Both of these labels have similar qualities, but there are major differences between the two that create unique benefits for your application. To make sure you choose the right label for your needs, we’re putting these two options to the test. Here’s the detailed story on direct thermal vs. thermal transfer labels.


Before we get into the differences between direct thermal and thermal transfer labels, let’s point out some of the similarities.

Direct thermal and thermal transfer labels are both categorized as thermal labels, which require heat when printing. When thermal labels are fed into a printer, the printhead applies heat to help create the final image. Direct thermal and thermal transfer labels use this heat differently to display your print.

Another similar quality of both labels is how they are supplied. Direct thermal and thermal transfer labels can be sold in fanfold stacks or on rolls. Fanfold labels are pre-stacked into bundled quantities for easy distribution. Rolls of labels are available in multiple core sizes and can be easily installed into printer systems. Make sure the type of printer you have can accommodate the core size of the rolls you order.

Both labels also use a pressure sensitive adhesive (PSA) to bond with whatever surface they’re applied to. PSAs are incredibly user-friendly and are quick to apply. This type of adhesive eliminates the need for glue or other application methods, like water or heat activated adhesives. The PSA makes thermal transfer and direct thermal labels ideal for medium to high volume applications where quick stick capabilities are a must, such as inventory warehouses and shipping environments.

Now that you know the similarities between direct thermal and thermal transfer labels, it’s time to show you the differences. This will enable you to choose the correct label for your specific application.

Direct Thermal Labels

Direct thermal labels are constructed with a backing, a special heat-sensitive layer, and an adhesive. Embedded in the heat-sensitive layer of the label is a chemical dye that reacts to heat. When a direct thermal label goes through the printer, the heated printhead activates the dye to create your printed image.

The biggest advantage of using direct thermal labels is that you don’t need to stock other materials, such as ink cartridges or thermal ribbons. This makes them highly cost-effective for your business and allows you to minimize your required inventory.

Direct thermal labels are not recommended for extended use because they are affected by light, heat, and abrasion over time. They are commonly used for short-term, indoor applications, including barcodes, shipping labels, receipts, and ticket printing.

Thermal Transfer Labels

Thermal transfer labels are another thermally printed label available in the packaging industry. Compared to direct thermal labels, thermal transfer labels are a bit more involved. These labels require ink and a thermal ribbon in order to create your printed image. But because of their printing process, they are considered very long-lasting and are excellent for tougher labeling applications.

When printing on thermal transfer labels, the ribbon is heated in order to apply the ink. A heated ribbon distributes the ink to the thermal label and creates a long-lasting image. The ink is melted onto the label where it is absorbed for a durable bond. Different types of ribbons are available, depending on your application needs.

First, a ribbon can be supplied with the ink-coated side on the inside of a material or on the outside of a material. This will affect how your labels are arranged inside the printer. Next, ribbons can be supplied with varying levels of wax or resin. Your basic ribbons are supplied with a simple wax coating while more durable ribbons are treated with a full resin coating. The more resin present in your ribbon, the more durable your image will be.

Thermal transfer ribbons require less heat to activate the ink, which allows you to use them with more types of materials. You can find synthetic backings or multiple types of adhesives available in the thermal transfer label market.

Final Thoughts

To wrap up our discussion about thermal transfer and direct thermal labels, we just want to highlight that each of these labels can be used for numerous applications. The biggest deciding factor between the two is the length of time you need them to be available. Short-term applications benefit from the cost-effective nature of direct thermal labels. Long-term applications require the durability and strength of thermal transfer labels.

Both of these labels are used frequently in the packaging industry, and many companies have a need for both of them in different parts of the business. We are proud to stock name brands of thermal transfer and direct thermal labels, such as Zebra, Sato, and Datamax. We also provide the ribbons and printers you need to keep your operations moving forward. Take a peek at our label inventory today, and feel free to contact us if you need help choosing a label.