Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Labels

An industrial, desktop, and mobile printer sit with thermal labels and ribbons

Thermal printing is a popular widespread printing method that produces accurate, high-quality images and text with clean definitions. This process is widespread for its ease of use, quick speed, and overall efficiency. 

There are two different varieties when it comes to thermal printing: direct thermal and thermal transfer. It is important to know the differences as each have their own pros and cons to printing as well as varying degrees of application.

Let’s take a look and see what each method has to offer so you’ll know if direct thermal or thermal transfer is right for you.

Direct Thermal 

Direct thermal (DT) printing utilizes heat sensitive paper that has ink embedded within the label material. When this paper comes into contact with the hot temperature of the print head, it changes color before rapidly cooling and leaving behind the desired text or image.

Direct thermal printing is best for paper materials, as non-paper and synthetic substrates will not produce clean definitions with texts or images. Color is not available with this method as it only prints in black ink. 

Direct thermal printing is easier to load since it does not require the use of ink, toner, or ribbon. This means less supplies and lower maintenance costs overall. They can be used in industrial, desktop, and mobile printers.

Because it uses heat sensitive materials, these labels do not have a long shelf-life, usually lasting around six-months or less. They have a tendency to scratch easily and overexposure to direct sunlight or high temperatures will cause the print to fade faster. 

For these reasons direct thermal is ideal for indoor, temporary usage, such as shipping and barcode labels, receipts, and name tags.

Need to find direct thermal labels? Visit or call at 1-800-875-7000 to order your labels.

  • Simple to load and operate
  • Low maintenance
  • No additional cost of ribbon, ink, or toner
  • Best for indoor & short term print jobs
  • Short-life span of six months or less
  • Only able to print on paper
  • Overexposure to heat and sunlight causes ink to fade faster
  • Scratches easily
  • Only prints in black ink

Thermal Transfer 

Thermal transfer (TT) printing functions by using heat-sensitive carbon ribbon. The ribbon acts as a buffer between the print head and the label material. As the thermal ribbon passes over the heated print head, it melts onto the label. This printing method produces a darker text for more clear images.

Thermal transfer is able to print on paper as well as synthetic materials, such as polypropylene and polyester. These labels are more scratch and rub resistant than direct thermal, and able to last for up to two-years. 

Thermal transfer printing does depend on several factors: media type, printer model, and application. Specific thermal ribbon materials are best suited for specific substrate materials, as the overall print quality can be affected. 

They are typically found in large, industrial sized printers but can also be used in some desktop printers. Certain printers will require the thermal ribbon to be wound with the ink facing inward or outward from the ribbon core in order to properly print.

Thermal transfer labels are ideal for outdoor applications as well as withstanding exposure to direct sunlight, high temperatures, chemicals, and water.

Need to find thermal transfer labels? Visit or call at 1-800-875-7000 to order your labels.

  • More durable than direct thermal
  • Can print on synthetic substrates
  • Longer shelf-life, up to two-years
  • Best for exposure to sunlight, chemicals, and temperature changes
  • Able to print color
  • Requires a ribbon to print
  • More costly method of printing
  • Ribbon must be compatible with the correct printer model