Businesses looking to purchase a label printer can get confused by the differences between direct thermal labels and thermal transfer labels, so we’ve created this Infographic to explain the differences between them and help you make a correct decision.

Direct Thermal Labels vs Thermal Transfer Labels difference

Direct Thermal Labels


Direct thermal labels have a special heat-activated chemical layer on their surface, this is where the black printed image will be formed when the heated print head gets in contact with the label.

How Does It Work?

Direct thermal labels are used for direct thermal printers. The printer works by applying heat to its print head. As the label passes through the hot print head, the chemically treated label darkens to produce your image.


  • Cost-effective since it does not require any ink or ribbon.
  • It saves time since there are no ribbon changeovers.
  • Ideal for short-term, high-volume label printing.
  • Easy to maintain.


  • Can only print in black color.
  • The direct thermal label is heat sensitive. Overexposing to heat or excessive light will fade the label.
  • Low scratch resistance.
  • The label printing will fade in 6 to 12 months.

Best Used For:

Since the direct thermal label can easily fade, it is used for temporary information.

  • Meal labels
  • Receipts
  • Shipping labels
  • Name tags for identification
  • Weight labels
  • Visitor passes

Thermal Transfer Labels


The printer uses a ribbon which is a thin film that is wound on a roll that has a special black coating on one side. The coating is usually made from a wax or resin formulation.

How Does It Work?

Thermal transfer labels are used for the thermal transfer printer. The print head applies heat to the ribbon, which melts either wax or a special resin onto the label media, bonding to it. You will be able to see the ink is removed from the ribbon to be bonded with the label to create your image.


  • Excellent print accuracy, and clear edge definition.
  • Able to print in multi-colors, useful for branding & logos
  • The printed label is fade resistant and can withstand heat exposures, liquids, and a variety of chemicals.
  • High scratch resistance.


  • Ribbons are additional costs.
  • Ribbon setup and change-overs require additional time for printing.
  • Wrinkled ribbons can lessen the print quality.

Best Used For:

Since the thermal transfer label is more durable. It is used for:

  • Warehouse shelf labels
  • Inventory identification labels
  • Asset tags
  • Outdoor
  • Freezer applications
  • Chemical labels
  • Laboratory labels

Quick Tips:

Not sure whether your label is a direct thermal or thermal transfer? Simply scratch the label with your fingernail. A dark mark will indicate that it’s a direct thermal label, or else it is a thermal transfer label.

How to Choose the Right Label For Your Business?

Here are some tips to help you make a quick decision on choosing the right labels:

  • If you are looking for short-term use, choose direct thermal labels. If you are looking for long-term use, please choose thermal transfer labels.
  • If you are using a small printer that prints up to 4” (100mm) width, you can use direct thermal labels. If you are using large printers, you can use thermal transfer labels.
  • If you don’t want to invest in an expensive printer, you can use direct thermal printers with direct thermal labels.
  • If you want to save money on the labels, you can choose thermal transfer labels since direct thermal labels are generally slightly more expensive than thermal transfer.
  • If you are still not sure what labels you should use, simply ask your label printer supplier, they will give you the advice.


It is worth understanding the difference between a direct thermal label and thermal transfer label so you can pick the right option for your particular business needs. If you are looking for more information about labels, kindly visit our website or send us an email: [email protected], our team would be glad to help you.

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About the Author: Frank Ouyang

Frank Ouyang is the sales manager at Panda Paper Roll Company - a leading factory of thermal paper rolls, label rolls, and other print-related products in China. With extensive experience in the industry, Frank is an expert in thermal paper knowledge and enjoys sharing his insights and expertise with clients, helping them achieve their goals and maximize their success.

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