Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Labels


The differentiating factor may seem small when choosing between direct and thermal transfer labels. Both label types are used as an identification method in many industries. Therefore, they both serve the same function in a company’s manufacturing process.

While both label types use heat to create an image on a label, their methods are notably different. This article will explain the similarities and differences between these two types of labels.

What Is a Direct Thermal Label?

A direct thermal label uses heat to create an image on the label. While thermal transfer printers create an image by transferring a piece of carbon paper between a roller and the label, a direct thermal printer uses heat to create that image. On Paper Rolls Plus, you can easily order these papers and find them in many different sizes. 

As this type of label is heated, the label’s ink becomes sticky, and then it is affixed to the label’s surface, leaving behind an image that cannot be removed.

Direct thermal labels are also used in various industries and are especially popular in the food and beverage industries. Consumers may recognize these labels as being the typical sticker labels that are applied to food containers at the grocery store.

However, direct thermal labels are also vulnerable to abrasions, contact with water, chemicals, and direct sunlight. Due to these factors, direct thermal printing may not be ideal for long-term use. 

Direct thermal is typically the best option for applications like shipping labels, receipts, tickets, and labels for perishable products where a label must survive less than six months.

Direct thermal printers are also simple and have fewer potentially defective components because they don’t require ribbons to print. These printers are often more affordable and need less maintenance and repair than thermal transfer printers.

Advantages of Direct Thermal Printing 

  • Labels printed using direct thermal technology are clear, high-quality, and easily scanned. 
  • The label image does not need to stay very long; therefore, direct thermal is perfect for applications with a short shelf life. For example, shipping labels and receipts are suitable applications, while product labels are unsuitable. 
  • Because there is no ink, toner, or ribbon to track or replenish, direct thermal printers are easier to use than most other print technologies. 
  • Long-term maintenance expenses remain cheap because there are no supplies other than the content to be printed that need to be replaced. 
  • When direct thermal is used to print labels in groups or on a single sheet, almost no waste is made. 
  • Direct thermal printers promote environmental economics because recyclable materials are accessible. 
  • Because direct thermal printers are often built more solidly than dot matrix or laser printers, they can be used reliably in industrial and office settings.

Disadvantages of Direct Thermal Printing

  • Short shelf life: Since direct thermal labels are printed with heat, they may lose their ability to stick to certain surfaces if they warm up too much. This may cause them to lose their adhesiveness and make them useless in specific applications.
  • No ability to print on both sides: Direct thermal labels can only be printed on one side of the paper. This may be undesirable if you need to print information on both sides of a label.
  • No ability to print small text: Since direct thermal labels are printed with heat, they do not allow you to print small text.
  • Unsuitable for barcodes: If you intend to use a barcode on your label, it must be printed with a thermal transfer label.

What Is a Thermal Transfer Label? 

A thermal transfer label is a type of label that is printed with a particular type of ink. The printing process involves two rollers. One roller is used to print the label, while the other roller transfers the ink from the first roller to the label.

Thermal transfer labels are used for various applications, including product identification, shipping, and inventory tracking. They are a popular choice for printed labels due to their durability, ability to be printed in color, and ability to stand up to harsh environments.

A thermal transfer label is best when you need to print in high quantities on a large variety of surfaces or curved or glossy surfaces. You will also find that thermal transfer printing is an excellent choice for a text that needs to stand out.

It is also great for keeping track of assets, labeling blood bags and lab samples, outdoor use, making permanent labels, and storing things in the fridge or freezer.

For maximum longevity, label materials should be chosen carefully in accordance with the various ribbon types. Also, people who use thermal transfer printers can use colored ribbons to make labels look better or use color-coded labels to make things easier.

Advantages of Thermal Transfer Printing 

  • It is perfect for mass printing. With this printing method, you use ink, which lets you print the same picture on many labels. 
  • It can print on a wide range of surfaces. Since ink is used in thermal transfer printing, it is easy to use on various surfaces. 
  • For printing on curved surfaces, it works perfectly. Because thermal transfer printing employs ink, curved surfaces are simple to print on. 
  • It is suitable for printing on glossy surfaces. Using ink, you can easily print on shiny surfaces with thermal transfer printing. 
  • Thermal paper can be utilized for written text that must be extremely visible. Because thermal transfer printing uses ink, it’s simple to print highly visible text. 
  • Thick or porous materials can also be printed on thermal paper. 
  • It doesn’t significantly affect the environment. 
  • It does not need a lot of room to work.

Disadvantages of Thermal Transfer Printing

  • More expensive: Thermal transfer printers are more expensive than direct thermal printers. This is because thermal transfer printers use more materials to operate.
  • Higher running cost: As thermal transfer printers are more expensive to operate, the cost of printing labels with them is also higher.
  • Longer run time: Thermal transfer printers take longer to run a label than direct thermal printers. This is because thermal transfer printers use more materials to operate.
  • Longer warm-up time: Thermal transfer printers require a longer warm-up time before printing than direct thermal printers.
  • Unsuitable for non-porous surfaces: Thermal transfer labels cannot be printed on non-porous surfaces. This makes them ideal for various situations, such as shipping labels.

What Type of Thermal Printer Should I Pick? 

Both direct thermal and thermal transfer labels are good options for labeling. The decision between the two types of labels comes down to a few factors.

First, you must consider the volume of labels you produce regularly. If you print many different labels, then a thermal transfer printer may be a better option. This is because it allows you to print on both sides of the paper, which can be helpful in certain situations.

Then, you will need to think about the types of products that you are labeling. If you are labeling a product that may be affected by heat, then a direct thermal label may be the better option.

Due to their distinct advantages and disadvantages, direct thermal and thermal transfer print methodologies will continue to coexist and be utilized for various applications within a given business.


When it comes down to it, direct thermal and thermal transfer labels have some notable differences. When deciding which label type is best for your needs, consider the label size, the types of surfaces you will be applying to, and the amount of pressure that will be applied to the labels in your production process.

Need support selecting your label materials? Paper Rolls Plus is here to help, with industry-leading customer service and an extensive product inventory, our team can get you what you need, when you need it.