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Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal Label Printing

When choosing the right barcode label, you’ll need to start by deciding whether to use thermal transfer and direct thermal printing.  It’s the combination of this printing method with the right label materials and ribbon that ultimately determines the right choice for a particular application.

Here’s what each printing type means and how it pairs with the right barcode labels for specific applications and environments.


Direct thermal printing doesn’t use ink, toner, or ribbon; instead, it creates an image directly on printed material. Direct thermal materials offer a shorter life than thermal transfer and may fade over time. They’re usable for basic labeling applications such as shipping labels, where labels only need short-term durability and scannability. However, if your labels will be exposed to extreme temperatures, light, abrasion, or chemicals, or if you’ll need them to last years or more, direct thermal is not a good option.


For more label durability, especially for resistance to extreme temperatures, sunlight, abrasion or chemicals, thermal transfer printing is the way to go. Thermal transfer uses a ribbon to print a durable, long-lasting image on a label. A thermal printhead applies heat to the ribbon, which melts ink onto the material to form the image. This technique provides unmatched image quality and durability on demand. To ensure the right environmental and application resistance, the label material and ribbon must be carefully matched.


Lowry Solutions sells Zebra thermal transfer ribbons

Thermal transfer ribbons are available in a variety of types for a wide range of labeling applications:

  • Wax Ribbons are used when there is little to no exposure to weak chemicals and/or moderate abrasion.
  • Wax/Resin Ribbons are for extreme chemical exposure and/or exposure to moderate abrasion, or where UL/cUL approval is required.
  • Resin Ribbons are used for harsh to extreme chemical exposure and/or exposure to excessive abrasion, and where UL/cUL approval is required.



Different label materials and adhesives are required for adhesion to special shapes such as curved surfaces.


Direct thermal materials generally perform well at application temperatures of at least 25°F and service temperatures of -65°F to 200°F. Labeling outside this range requires thermal transfer and usually a specialty adhesive.


A ribbon with higher resin content will provide improved resistance to rubbing and scratching of your labels.

Applicator Usage

When using a label applicator, the label must be cut differently so it peels off properly from the liner. Perforations aren’t recommended because they change label stiffness and make it difficult to release from the liner.


Chemical Resistance

A thermal transfer label is required if your label will be exposed to moderate to extreme chemicals. A high-durability resin ribbon is also recommended if you need resistance to harsh or extreme chemicals.

Indoor/Outdoor Use

A thermal transfer synthetic material is optimal for outdoor conditions such as sun, rain, and snow.

Print Speed, Darkness, and Dots Per Inch (DPI)

Material and ribbon selection influence maximum print speed, and certain print speeds, printing requirements, and ribbons require higher print darkness and/or a higher DPI. Special materials, such as synthetics, may also be required to ensure proper printing.


The easiest way to find the right match of barcode label and printing method is to contact our team at Lowry Solutions. We’re experts in barcode printing and labeling, and a leading supplier of barcode solutions and supplies from Zebra Technologies. You can also shop our site directly if you already know your needs.

Zebra has 500 stock options, over 1,000 possible combinations, and specialized printers, labels, materials, and ribbons for any direct thermal or thermal transfer application.

Contact us now for a free recommendation.

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