Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal


Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal Labels

What are Thermal Transfer Labels?

Thermal transfer labels require a thermal ribbon when printing.  The labels and the ribbon feed through the printer and the printer applies heat to the ribbon to transfer the wax and resin onto the label (hence the term thermal transfer). The printer uses the ribbon similarly to the way an inkjet printer would use ink to print on paper, but with heated wax and resin replacing the ink. Ribbons are available in colors other than black, so you can have multicolored printing. The resulting label is fairly scratch-resistant, can be detailed, and can last a long time.

Thermal transfer labels are mostly used within the transport and logistics industry, but are also used for consumer durable labeling. Most of our thermal transfer labels are used for shipping labels, for inventory tracking and control,  product identification, and package identification. Our color thermal transfer labels can be used for warehousing and lot separation. However, the markets and applications for thermal transfer are constantly expanding and are not restricted to what is mentioned above.

What are Direct Thermal Labels?

Direct labels do not require a ribbon to print. The labels feed through the printer and the printer applies heat directly to the label (hence the term direct thermal). As the print head runs over the label, it heats the label and a chemical reaction with the face stock causes the heated portions to darken. You can think of a receipt printer when you think of direct thermal. Since direct thermal printers do not require a ribbon, they can be smaller and take up less space. It is also cheaper to buy direct labels since you do not have to purchase ribbon. The downside to direct thermal labels is that they are not scratch resistant (premium direct thermal is somewhat scratch resistant, but not completely heat resistant) and they do not last as long especially when stored in warm places or in direct sunlight.

Direct thermal labels are used widely throughout many markets including food, transport and logistics, and healthcare.  Direct thermal printing can be used for case-ready meats, shipping identification, and prescription information to name a few.

How can I tell the two apart?

Ever wondered how to tell the difference between a thermal transfer label and a direct thermal label? There is one simple test that you can use to tell if a label is direct thermal. Take the label and scratch it quickly with your fingernail as if you were lighting a match. It may take a couple of hard strikes. If a dark mark appears on the label, it is direct thermal. If no dark marks are left on the label, it is thermal transfer. Some coated labels may take a quicker, harder strike to leave a mark. View our short video for another trick to tell the difference.

Looking to learn more about Thermal Transfer and Direct Thermal Labels?

Reach out to one of our representatives for label training at or 866-516-7300. We will walk you through the basics of labeling and answer any questions you may have. You can also visit our Education tab on our website for additional learning and sales tools. Use our Label Quote Request sheet for your next label opportunity.