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Understanding the Different Thermal Transfer Ribbon Materials

By Online Labels
Thermal ribbons next to thermal transfer printer

Thermal transfer printers work by applying heat to a ribbon made of wax or resin-based ink. The heat applied by the thermal print-head melts that wax or resin onto the paper or label surface, creating your printed image. Below, we outline the properties of each ribbon type and which jobs they're best suited for.

Types of Thermal Transfer Ribbons

What you use the labels for determines the strength and durability you need from your thermal transfer ribbon. Finding the right printing ribbon can be an important step in ensuring your labels are scannable, readable, and reliable. There are three categories available, each serving a different purpose. They are: full wax, wax/resin, and full resin.

Resin-Enhanced Wax Thermal Transfer Ribbons (aka Full Wax)

Transparency test of resin-enhanced wax thermal ribbons

A full wax thermal transfer ribbon is coated with a wax-based ink, requiring a low melting temperature.

Key Facts

  • Most common type of thermal transfer ribbon
  • Recommended for coated and uncoated paper stock
  • Softer image durability
  • Inexpensive
  • Good for shipping, shelf, bin, retail, and warehouse labels

Durable Wax-Resin Thermal Transfer Ribbons (aka Wax-Resin)

Transparency test of durable wax-resin thermal ribbons

The hybrid of wax and resin-based thermal transfer ribbons have a melting temperature between that of full wax and full resin ribbons. They create sharp and clear images on a wide range of material types, and have been tested extensively with our thermal transfer products.

Key Facts

  • Ideal for both standard and weatherproof thermal transfer labels
  • Harder printed area than full wax; more resistant to occasional heavy handling, moisture, and temperature changes
  • Intermediate price bracket
  • Good for barcode, shipping, prescription pharmaceutical, and shelf labels

Full Resin Thermal Transfer Ribbons

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Transparency test of resin thermal ribbons

Full resin thermal transfer printer ribbons are made of pure resin. They melt at a much higher temperature, dissolving into the material on which they're printed, resulting in extreme durability. Unlike certain situations where having the top-of-the-line product is better than an economy version, full resin ribbons can be overkill when the situation doesn't call for it. You should likely bypass them for either of the more economic options detailed above if your project doesn't necessitate their durability.

Key Facts

  • Most expensive ribbon type
  • For use on non-paper, synthetic stocks
  • Most durable of the ribbon types
  • Good for labeling very sensitive medical applications and chemicals, textile or garment labels, automotive labels, and flexible packaging

Thermal Transfer Ribbon Buying Guide

Duration of Use Full Wax Wax-Resin Full Resin
Short term / temporary
Medium term
Long term / permanent

Type of Use Full Wax Wax-Resin Full Resin
Shipping, shelf, bin, retail, and warehouse labels
Barcode, shipping, prescription pharmaceutical, and shelf labels
Sensitive medical applications and chemicals, textile or garment labels, automotive labels, and flexible packaging

Paper Type Full Wax Wax-Resin Full Resin
Uncoated paper stock
Standard and weatherproof thermal transfer labels
Non-paper, synthetic stocks

Exposure To Full Wax Wax-Resin Full Resin
Light handling / scratching / abrasion
Moderate temperature changes
Medical applications / machines
Heavy handling / scratching / abrasion
Extreme temperature changes
UV exposure

Did you learn enough about the different ribbon types to figure out which one will best suit your printing needs? If the answer is yes, jump over to our Thermal Ribbon Calculator to determine the exact number of ribbons your specific print job will require. If you're still not quite sure, learn more in our article, Thermal Transfer Ribbon Buying Tips, or hop on a call with our customer service team. They can walk you through the process and help you decide which thermal transfer ribbons make the most sense.

Ready to get started? offers a small selection of wax and wax-resin thermal ribbons for use within popular Zebra®, Datamax®, and Sato® printer models. View our thermal transfer ribbon offerings.

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