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Difference Between Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer Printing

Updated 10/26/2020
The difference between direct thermal and thermal transfer printers

You may have questions as to which type of roll label is most suitable for your specific application. The information in this article will provide a basic understanding of the functionality and printing technologies used by direct thermal printers and thermal transfer printers, as well as the benefits, disadvantages, and required label materials for each.

Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Printers

The following video explores what makes the two roll printers different and how to easily identify which technology you're working with. You can also find a summary of how they work directly below.

Direct thermal printers utilize a thermal print-head to apply heat to your label paper. The facesheet on direct thermal labels is chemically treated to darken when warmed. Thus, your image is created in the path of the print-head. This functionality eliminates the need for ink, toner, or printing ribbons but results in a less-durable final product.

Thermal transfer printers use a thermal print-head, too, but the heat is applied to a wax or resin-based ribbon instead of the label. The ribbon ink is then pressed and absorbed into the label paper creating your print. Thermal transfer printers require that thermal ribbon to work, but the final product is much more durable as a result.

Direct Thermal Printers

Direct thermal printers utilize a chemically treated material that blackens when the thermal print-head applies heat to its surface.

Fast Facts

  • Requires no ink, toner, or ribbons
  • Prints in black and white only
  • May fade over time
  • Costs less than thermal transfer printers
  • Needs little maintenance or replacement of supplies
  • Not recommended for high-contact use
  • Great for common barcode applications such as shipping labels, receipt labels, receipts, and nametag labels


Because it uses heat to create the image, direct thermal printers don't require ink, toner, or ribbons. One of the benefits of this technology is the low maintenance costs — with fewer moving parts and pieces, there are fewer things that can go wrong. They're incredibly easy to operate and maintain.


While there are many upsides to using a direct thermal printer, users should be aware of some constraints. Firstly, that the printed area will fade over time. Because the paper is heat-sensitive, additional heat or excessive light could cause the entire paper to darken. This could make the text unreadable and the barcodes unscannable. For this reason, direct thermal printing isn't recommended for long-term use.

Having said that, the printing technology still provides enough of a lifespan for many projects. Another limitation with direct thermal printers is their ability to only print in black and white. Where barcodes are fine with only black and white information, it doesn't allow for colored logos or graphics.

Popular Brands

There are two brands dominating the market today: DYMO® and Rollo®. Take a look at their costs, label options, and uses to make an informed decision for your small business.

Label Material Options

Shop Direct Thermal Labels

Thermal Transfer Printers

With thermal transfer printers, a thermal print-head applies heat to a wax or resin-based ribbon, which is melted to the label's surface. The ink is then absorbed into the label material.

Fast Facts

  • Requires a ribbon for printing
  • Can print in color with the addition of a colored ribbon
  • Won't fade over time
  • Durable enough to withstand chemicals and extreme temperatures
  • Good for printing logos and graphics
  • Compatible with a wide variety of materials
  • Ideal for product identification, inventory labels, and asset labeling


Because environmental factors will not alter the print quality, this type of technology is known to create an incredibly strong printed area that can withstand extreme temperatures and contact with chemicals. These printers are recommended for labels that need to last longer than six months.

An additional benefit of thermal transfer printing is the ability to print in color. With the purchase of a colored ribbon, you can print a logo, graphic, or text in the color of your ribbon. The color isn't specific to a graphic or individual block of text, however, the color applies to your entire label.

Thermal transfer printers also have the ability to accept a wider variety of material types than their direct thermal counterparts. We offer paper and polypropylene materials for both standard and weatherproof prints.


One of the few downsides to thermal transfer printers is associated with the ribbons. They have to be replaced frequently to continue printing at a high quality. They are also more costly upfront.

Label Material Options

Shop Thermal Transfer Labels

The type of printer that you require will ultimately depend upon the nature of your application. Learn more about thermal transfer ribbons before making your decision. If you know what you want, start picking out your roll label shapes and sizes.

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