Understanding Thermal Labels: Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer

Understanding Thermal Labels: Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer

Among the most commonly used labels by businesses across the world are thermal labels, including direct thermal and thermal transfer labels. Thermal labels are those that are printed using thermal printing technology, using heat to print the desired pattern on label stock. Compared to traditional printers that use laser, inkjet or dot matrix technologies, thermal printers are more reliable, fast, and cost-effective for printing labels.

Having an in-house labelling system offers immense benefits and opportunities for cost savings, especially if your business deals with a large volume of products. If you require customised and on-demand labels, then a labelling system is a must have. For an adequate labelling setup, all you need is a pos software or labelling software, label printer and label consumables such as label rolls, and ribbons if applicable. A one-time investment in the label printer will last you for years, and you can experiment with different kinds of label rolls depending upon your labelling requirements.

Thermal labels are fast to print, have reduced printing costs, and produce good quality labels. Even though direct thermal and thermal transfer labels both use heat to produce the designs, there are significant differences between the two. The biggest differences are in terms of printing quality, durability, and costs. While direct thermal labels are more suitable for short to medium life span applications, thermal transfer labels have a longer shelf life.

Here is a comprehensive comparison of direct thermal and thermal transfer labels, so that you can choose the right type of labels for your business needs.

What are Thermal Labels?

In general, thermal labels are any kind of labels that have a design created using heat. Thermal printers are fast, quiet and cost-effective, making them ideal for printing low cost labels in bulk, while still supporting customisation. Since thermal printers are lightweight as compared to other printers and smaller in size, they are portable and can be setup wherever the need arises. They also consume less power, adding to their cost-efficiency.

Thermal labels have plenty of applications, including product labels, barcodes, ingredients, dates, food labels, price tags, pharmaceutical labels, and shipping labels. Thermal labels can easily be produced in bulk, making them ideal for a variety of industries such as retail, grocery shops, convenience stores, and eCommerce.

There are two types of thermal labels, namely, direct thermal labels and thermal transfer labels, based on the printer technology used for printing the label.

1. Direct Thermal Labels

Direct thermal labels are printed by direct thermal printers that use specialised heat sensitive paper and a heated print head to transfer the desired pattern. There is no need for any additional ink, ribbon or toner, since the pattern is printed on chemically treated paper using heat. Despite the costs of specialised heat sensitive label stock, the overall printing costs are low. However, since the label material is heat sensitive, it has low durability and a short life span. Direct thermal labels are typically printed in black, or at the maximum support two colours, and are easy to print. These printers are generally compact and well-suited for environments where space is a constraint.


  • Simple to print
  • Cost effective
  • Suitable for bulk printing
  • High clarity labels suitable for barcodes
  • Can be printed on paper and synthetic materials


  • Short shelf-life
  • Exposure to heat and abrasion can damage the labels
  • Cannot have multiple colours

2. Thermal Transfer Labels

Thermal transfer labels are printed using thermal transfer printers with a heated print head and ribbons with coating on one side. The print head expresses heat onto the ribbon, transferring the desired pattern to label material passing through the printer. The ink from the ribbon forms a long lasting and durable print on the label, due to which thermal transfer labels are ideal for long-term and outdoor use. The print quality, clarity and definition are greater than that of direct thermal labels, and multiple colours can be used. Thermal transfer labels are weather resistant and a wide range of materials can be used for the labels. While the costs of label stock can be low, there are additional printing costs involved due to replacements of the printer ribbons.


  • Durable and heat-resistant
  • Can have multiple colours
  • Suitable for high definition images and barcodes
  • Wide range of compatible label materials
  • Fast printing


  • Additional costs for printer ribbons
  • Greater downtime due to replacements of ribbons and label materials
  • Ribbons and label materials must be compatible

Comparison of Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer Labels:

Selecting and setting up a labelling system is a big decision, and does involve investment of money and time. While the benefits are abundant of having an in-house labelling setup, the decision of which type of labels will depend upon your labelling needs. Every type of label comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, and needs to be compared with its relevant applications in your business. If you are upgrading or switching from an existing labelling setup, consider what worked and didn’t work, and what you wish you could have done differently.

Direct thermal and thermal transfer labels are both immensely popular, but they have their own distinctive ideal applications. A clear differentiation is the durability and life span of the labels. While direct thermal labels have a short to mid-range life span, thermal transfer labels have a much longer life. Nevertheless, there are many other factors that define thermal labels, and all aspects should be considered before you make a choice. Consider the intended applications of your labels, their desired durability, expected life span, colour requirements, label materials, speed of printing, and your budget to select a suitable type of labels.

Printing Technology

The printing technology used by your label printer will have a major impact on the quality of labels, compatible label rolls, durability and overall costs. The label printer will be the single most expensive component of an in-house labelling setup and a one-time purchase. In comparison, consumables like the label materials, and ribbons (if applicable) are relatively low cost and need to be purchased frequently, giving more scope for experimentation. The size of the printer also matters if you have limited space available.

  • Direct Thermal Labels: To produce direct thermal labels, direct thermal label printer is used where a heated print head reacts with specialised heat sensitive label material to create the desired patterns. Direct thermal printers are compact, and do not require any additional inks or ribbons, only specially treated label materials. It is easy to print direct thermal labels, and also cost-effective, although the durability is limited and multiple colours are not supported. As there are limited moving parts, direct thermal printers are less likely to breakdown or require maintenance, giving greater reliability. Poor quality label materials should be avoided to prevent damage to the print head, which is directly in contact with the label materials.
  • Thermal Transfer Labels: To create thermal transfer labels, thermal transfer printer is used, where a heated print head presses against ink ribbons to print designs on label material passing through the printer. For quality label printing, it is necessary that the ribbons and label materials be fully compatible. Thermal transfer printers are sturdy and can be setup indoors or outdoors, and in nearly any temperature setting. As ribbons are used between the print head and the label materials, wear and tear of the print head is reduced, giving the printer a longer life. The label materials do not need to have any special characteristics for thermal transfer printing, and so a wide range of materials can be used.


The most important factor to influence your choice of labels should be the intended applications of the labels. Over the years, the uses of labels have evolved and diversified, and they now serve multiple purposes ranging from informing, to identifying, warning, instructions and advice. For businesses involved in the sale of large volumes of products, labels are useful for inventory management and at point of sales. With the flexibility of adhesive capabilities, labels can be attached almost anywhere required.

When identifying the intended applications for a labelling system keep in mind who would be the targeted user, the purpose of the label, and the environment it would be in. For employee usage you can opt for more basic labels, while for customers having colourful and eye-catching labels would be beneficial. The applications of the labels would also influence the durability requirements. Products with a long shelf life or those placed in outdoor environments would require more durable labels as compared to indoor and short shelf life products.

  • Direct Thermal Labels: Cost-effective and easy to print with a short to medium life span, direct thermal labels are ideally suited for indoor applications. They are great for applications such as retail, logistics, price labels, coupons, barcode systems, shipping labels, weight labels, meat labels, tags, price weight labels, compliance labels and temporary name tags. When printed on synthetic media, direct thermal labels are also useful for labelling freezer items that are exposed to cold temperatures and moisture. Although direct thermal labels are primarily available in black, by using a coloured label material, the labels can be made more striking. Direct thermal labels are immensely versatile, but are not suitable for environments with high temperatures.
  • Thermal Transfer Labels: With support for good quality and high definition prints, thermal transfer labels have excellent durability and a long shelf life, making them suitable for a wide range of applications. The right combination of ribbons and label materials can be used to create any type of thermal transfer labels for indoor or outdoor use. Popular applications include product labels, promotional labels, permanent labels, certifications, chemical labels, outdoor tags, laboratory labels, asset tracking and branding labels. Thermal transfer labels can be colourful and vivid, while also being long lasting. They are excellent for promotional purposes as thermal transfer labels are eye-catching and long lasting.

Printing Quality

The expected quality of the printed labels is an important factor to consider when choosing label types. The basic goal of labels is to convey information to the viewer; however, it matters who the viewer is and what kind of information is to be conveyed. If the labels are for store personnel usage, for example, in a storeroom setup or for inventory, simple and straightforward labels can work. If the labels are intended for customers, to inform them about a product, or to encourage a purchase, the labels need to be of better quality. The printing quality also matters if you are printing barcodes, as some barcodes involve greater density patterns and require sharper printing.

  • Direct Thermal Labels: The printing quality of direct thermal labels is decent with adequate clarity and consistent performance. The labels can support printed text, 1D barcodes and 2D barcodes that are readable and scannable. While the printing quality is fine for basic tasks, only black coloured printing is available, or with specialised label materials you may get one more colour. Direct thermal labels are prone to smudging and can be damaged by heat, which can damage the print quality if not carefully handled.
  • Thermal Transfer Labels: With thermal transfer labels you get high print definition for texts, barcodes and images. The labels can include a combination of printing small characters, line work, logos, 1D barcodes and 2D barcodes. Thermal Transfer Ribbons are available in resin, wax and wax resin grades and a vast variety of shades to print colourful labels that are useful for branding and promotions. Thermal transfer labels are durable, scratch resistant and heat resistant, due to which they can better maintain good quality prints.

Label Materials

The material used for printing the labels will have a significant impact on the final printing quality of the label, its applications, durability and cost. Commonly used label materials include papers, polyester, vinyl, polypropylene, foils and other blends. Among the label materials, there are different finishes available, including matte, glossy, semi-gloss, fluorescent, reflective and transparent.

The label materials that you can use will depend upon the printing technology used by your label printer. If the label material and printing technology are not compatible, you can end up with poor quality and blurry labels. Fully compatible label materials and printers will produce clear, crisp, and good quality labels. The adhesive capabilities of label materials vary from removable and temporary adhesives to more long-term permanent adhesives.

  • Direct Thermal Labels: When it comes to direct thermal labels, there are relatively fewer label material options available. As there are no ribbons or inks involved, the label material needs to be specialised and heat sensitive in order to print the desired pattern. While some direct thermal label rolls can be used for thermal transfer or other printing technologies, only dedicated direct thermal materials can be used for direct thermal printing.
  • There are primarily two types of label materials available for direct thermal labels, and these are papers and plastics. Papers are suitable for most general purpose direct thermal labels while plastics support better durability and resistance to chemicals, moisture and abrasion. The cost of direct thermal label materials is higher than general label rolls, however, since no inks or ribbons are involved, the overall printing cost for the labels remains low.
  • Thermal Transfer Labels: There are a wide range of label materials that can be used for thermal transfer labels, as ribbons are used to print the desired pattern. However, it is necessary that the material be compatible with the ribbons in order to get the desired printing quality and durability. While there are dedicated thermal transfer label materials available, most general label rolls also support thermal transfer label printing.
  • The most popular label materials for thermal transfer labels are papers, plastics and polyesters, although films, foils, vinyl, and mixes can also be used. Papers are suitable for high definition prints with strong adhesives. Plastics have great resistance to smudging and water, and are also immensely flexible, and can be used for a variety of surfaces. Polyesters provide the best durability and are waterproof, scratch resistant and tear resistant, making them ideal for outdoor applications. The costs of thermal transfer label materials vary, and depends upon the quality of the material, adhesives and finishes.

Label Durability

The durability of a label reflects its capability of withstanding wear and tear, high temperatures, and rough handling, along with its general life span. When choosing a labelling setup, it is vital to consider the required durability of the label as different types of labels have different strengths, capabilities, and longevities. The durability of a label is dependent on multiple factors, including the printing technology used, the label material and ribbons, but the printing technology has the biggest impact.

Consider the desired applications of your labels, type of environment the labels would be in, and the desired life cycle of the labels. For example, if the labels are to be used mainly indoors in a temperature-controlled environment, then heat-resistant labels might not be needed. In comparison, if the environment may become hot, or the labels are being used outdoors, weather resistant labels can be a good option. For temporary labelling needs, you can opt for labels with a small to medium range life span, while for more permanent labelling requirements you can choose more durable long-term labels.

  • Direct Thermal Labels: The durability of direct thermal labels is limited, since the label materials are heat sensitive and the design is printed without any inks or ribbons. They are most suitable for indoor applications and have a short to medium lifespan, tending to fade over the course of 6-12 month. As the direct thermal labels are heat sensitive, overexposure to UV light and heat can damage the prints on the labels. There is limited abrasion resistance and scratching the labels can lead to smudges. Using good quality label materials such as plastics can increase the durability of direct thermal labels to a certain extent.
  • Thermal Transfer Labels: When thermal transfer labels are printed, ink from the ribbons is absorbed into the label material, creating labels with high definition quality and excellent durability. Thermal transfer labels are ideal for long-term and outdoor applications, and can easily last for over a year. These labels can withstand extreme temperatures, harsh industrial processes, laboratory processes, cleaning solvents, fuels, weathering, UV exposure, and industrial fluids. The thermal transfer labels are not damaged by frequent handling, abrasions, humidity or moisture. There are numerous types of adhesives available with thermal transfer labels, so that you have full flexibility in how long you want the label to stick.


A big advantage of having an in-house labelling setup is that you can print labels whenever you need them, in as much volume as you require. However, if you have instant needs for customised labels, then it may help to consider the speed and reliability of label printing when you choose a labelling setup.

Although there are variations with specific printer models, the speed and reliability depend upon the printer technology, how fast it can print, and how much downtime is likely. If you do not have requirements for fast labels and are likely to pre-plan any label printing, then slower printing speeds can also work. In general, thermal printing is fast, but there are slight differences between printing direct thermal labels and thermal transfer labels.

  • Direct Thermal Labels: Printing of direct thermal labels is reasonably fast and efficient. Since there are fewer moving parts, with only the print head creating the design against heat sensitive label materials, there is minimal chance of malfunctions requiring repair. With no ribbons involved, and quickly loading label rolls, direct thermal labels can be printed at any time, whenever required.
  • Thermal Transfer Labels: For thermal transfer labels, the ribbon transfers the ink directly to the label material, making the printing speed faster than most direct thermal printers. However, as there are more moving components in a thermal transfer printer, including for the ribbons, these printers often require repair and maintenance. Replacing the ribbons also takes time, increasing the downtime of printing thermal transfer labels.


The benefits of an in-house labelling system make it well worth the investment, but it does involve costs to setup. The biggest cost will be of the label printer, and subsequently you will need to factor in costs of consumables such as label rolls and inks. There may also be occasional repair and maintenance costs. Consider the applications of labels first so that you know which type of labels you can invest in.

  • Direct Thermal Labels: The cost of a direct thermal label printer is low, and there are no recurring costs for any ribbons or ink. However, the label materials need to be specialised and heat sensitive, due to which the cost of label rolls can be higher. The printer head tends to wear out faster because of direct contact with label materials, so you may have to replace the printer head at some point. Overall, the per label print cost is low, and the printer cost is also low.
  • Thermal Transfer Labels: A thermal transfer printer tends to be more expensive and there are additional recurring costs for replacing ribbons as per usage. Label materials are available in a variety of price points, depending on the type of material. In general, the maintenance costs are higher for thermal transfer printers since there are multiple moving parts. However, the print head has a longer life because ribbons act as a buffer between the label material. The cost per label and for the printer are higher, but you also get better printing quality, coloured labels, and greater durability.


The popularity and importance of labels continue to rise as the applications of labels diversify and grow. Thermal labels are the most commonly used type of labels, offering fast and good quality label, including high volume printing. Nevertheless, there are significant differences between direct thermal labels and thermal transfer labels.

Direct thermal labels are cost-effective and have good clarity with a short life span, making them ideal for temporary and indoor applications. For high definition and colourful labels, thermal transfer labels are a better choice and are durable for long-term and outdoor use. When selecting a type of label, consider its applications in your business, the printing quality required, and the durability expected.

Reach out to POS Plaza for help in finding the best labelling setup for your business needs, including direct thermal and thermal transfer label printers, label rolls and printer ribbons.

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