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Difference Between Direct Thermal And Thermal Transfer Printing

Jul 26, 2019

You may have questions as to which type of roll label is most suitable for your specific application. The information in this article will provide a basic understanding of the functionality and printing technologies used by direct thermal printers and thermal transfer printers, as well as the benefits, disadvantages, and required label materials for each.

Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Printers

The following video explores what makes the two roll printers different and how to easily identify which technology you're working with. You can also find a summary of how they work directly below.

Direct thermal printers utilize a thermal print-head to apply heat to your label paper. The face sheet on direct thermal labels is chemically treated to darken when warmed. Thus, your image is created in the path of the print-head. This functionality eliminates the need for ink, toner, or printing ribbons but results in a less-durable final product.

Thermal transfer printers use a thermal print-head, too, but the heat is applied to wax or resin-based ribbon instead of the label. The ribbon ink is then pressed and absorbed into the label paper creating your print. Thermal transfer printers require that thermal ribbon to work, but the final product is much more durable as a result.

Direct Thermal Printers

Direct thermal printers utilize a chemically treated material that blackens when the thermal print-head applies heat to its surface.

Fast Facts

Requires no ink, toner, or ribbons

Prints in black and white only

May fade over time

Costs less than thermal transfer printers

Needs little maintenance or replacement of supplies

Not recommended for high-contact use

Great for common barcode applications such as shipping labels, receipt labels, receipts, and nametag labels


Because it uses heat to create the image, direct thermal printers don't require ink, toner, or ribbons. One of the benefits of this technology is the low maintenance costs — with fewer moving parts and pieces, there are fewer things that can go wrong. They're incredibly easy to operate and maintain.


While there are many upsides to using a direct thermal printer, users should be aware of some constraints. Firstly, that the printed area will fade over time. Because the paper is heat-sensitive, additional heat or excessive light could cause the entire paper to darken. This could make the text unreadable and the barcodes unscannable. For this reason, direct thermal printing isn't recommended for long-term use.

Having said that, the printing technology still provides enough of a lifespan for many projects. Another limitation with direct thermal printers is their ability to only print in black and white. Where barcodes are fine with only black and white information, it doesn't allow for colored logos or graphics.