Skip to main content

Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer
Distinguishing the difference between a direct thermal printer and a thermal transfer printer is important because each one has its own advantages and disadvantages that will directly impact how you can use your labels. Businesses need to pick the one that is most suitable for their products so they can maximize the time and money they spend printing labels to get the greatest return on their investment.

Direct Thermal Printers
Direct thermal printers have the advantage of being cheap and easy to use, as the only part that must be swapped out is the stack of thermal-activated paper. In other words, Direct Thermal Printers have no ink, no toner, and no ribbon. Direct Thermal Technology is typically durable and easy to use.

Examples of Direct Thermal Printer “Best Use Cases”:

Barcode Applications on Shipping Labels
Patient Identification or Visitor Identification for Wristbands
Receipt Printing
Ticket Printing

Keep in mind: Using Direct Thermal Printers in excessive heat or light will cause label material to darken and the information being printed will no longer be legible. 

Thermal Transfer Printers
Thermal transfer is more complex to maintain than direct thermal. Thermal Transfer Printers require both a thermal ribbon and the printing medium. It can print onto a wide variety of mediums and in an assortment of different colored “ink” that can be used to help in product differentiation, marketing, and brand image, whereas direct thermal printers are usually limited to one type of medium and black “ink”. Thermal transfer can also print much more closely-spaced barcodes and text, making it possible to use smaller labels that contain just as much, if not more, information than a direct-thermal-printed label. Unlike Direct Thermal Printers, a Thermal Transfer Printer can withstand extreme heat or cold, ultraviolet exposure, chemicals and sterilization.

Examples of Thermal Transfer Printer “Best Use Cases”:

Product Identification
Laboratory Specimens
Cold Storage and Freezers
Outdoor Applications
Certification Labels (ie. UL/CSA)
Circuit Board Tracking
Permanent Identification
Asset Tagging
Inventory Identification
Sample and File Tracking

Quick Comparison


Labels print only in black, unless they are pre-printed with special thermo chromatic ink
Labels have a shelf life of one year or less
Labels are not good with excessive sunlight or heat
Labels are not good to friction or abuse
Uses: Shipping labels, receipt or ticket printing, identification bands


Labels can be printed in colors other than black
Labels have a shelf life of over one year
Labels can withstand excessive temperatures or sunlight
Labels are able to withstand abuse or surface friction
Uses: UL recognized film labels, labels for outdoor use, cold storage, shelf marking labels, product labels, permanent identification
Labels contain high density barcodes
Labels available on a variety of different substrates (ex. paper, films or foils)

How to Choose

Ultimately, the choice should come down to which printer is most suitable for the greatest percentage of a business’s products, in order to maximize overall cost efficiency. For example, a business that needs to label a large amount of food products would make great use of a Direct Thermal Printer for many reasons: food is generally kept in cool, dark areas, thus eliminating the threat of sunlight and heat denaturing the thermal paper; and food, especially produce, has a short shelf life, which coincides nicely with the shorter shelf life of direct thermal print materials.

Thermal Transfer Printers can be the optimal choice if a business needs to print onto a variety of mediums, or if longevity is required. Cost efficiency can rise above that of direct thermal printers if many of the products require labeling that must last longer than a year, as they will not have to be replaced as often. Combined with the ability to print a variety of colors, thermal transfer printers are an excellent choice if flexibility and longevity are of special importance.