Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal: 5 Key Considerations

 Barcodes being printed by a thermal printer

Direct thermal and thermal transfer are two different printing methods for producing high-quality labels and other media.

Both methods are excellent for printing things such as barcodes, text, and images. But picking the best one for you will be difficult if you’re unfamiliar with the differences between the two types. 

Thankfully, you’re in the right place. We’ve compiled a list of five key considerations when choosing between these two printing methods.

Let’s compare the differences between direct thermal vs thermal transfer printing.

1. Thermal Print Head Lifespan 

Direct thermal printing requires the print head to come in contact with the label material directly. This is because the label material is being pulled over the printing head.

On the other hand, thermal transfer uses a thermal ribbon which also acts as a buffer between the print head and the label material. Most thermal ribbons feature a back-coating that reduces static and friction.

When using direct thermal printing, there’s no way to protect the head from friction and static, resulting in increased wear and tear compared to thermal transfer.

It’s not uncommon for dust and debris to get onto the label material during printing. The direct thermal printer head will collect these impurities resulting in a low-quality print and increased wear. The same can happen to thermal transfer printers, but dust and debris never reach the print head, thanks to the thermal ribbon.

A print head on a direct thermal printer has a significantly lower lifespan than in a thermal transfer printer. Generally, direct transfer thermal printing heads last nearly half as long as thermal transfer printing heads. 

Three rolls of thermal transfer ribbon

2. Printer Configuration

Thermal transfer printers can be configured to use a thermal ribbon or direct thermal transfer, enabling more flexibility. 

Direct thermal transfer printers usually cost less since they lack the hardware for pushing the thermal ribbon. Moreover, operators don’t have to deal with driving and configuring the ribbon.

It takes several minutes to change the thermal ribbons even if you have the fastest printing operators in the world. However, some thermal transfer printer models feature a large label and ribbon roll capacity. This significantly reduces the downtime since the operator doesn’t have to turn off the machine every two and a half hours to change the ribbon.

3. Printing Media Choice and Cost

Your choice of printing media directly affects the lifespan of the print head. It also dictates the quality of the print and how quickly you can print.

These are extremely important considerations since they can impact your production costs. 

With direct thermal printing, the print head and label are in direct contact with the media. Therefore the print media acts as an abrasive as it’s pulled across the print head. If the media is too abrasive, it will prematurely wear down the print head resulting in increased maintenance costs.

Moreover, different media will produce images at different temperatures. This means that the chosen printing media directly affects the machine’s abrasion levels in the long run. 

While comparing the costs associated with media and thermal transfer printing, you must factor in the costs of thermal ribbons. Eliminating the ribbon will drive down production costs but increase the maintenance costs.

As a general rule of thumb, direct thermal labels cost more than thermal transfers plus the ribbon. However, the cost differential can be as low as 5% or as high as 50%, depending on what you’re printing and how quickly.

4. Label Lifespan Requirements

Requirements regarding the label’s lifespan are directly tied to the difference between direct thermal and thermal transfer labels.

Direct thermal labels can’t withstand prolonged wear and tear.

So, if you’re printing a label on a product that would be in the supply chain for an extended period, go for thermal transfer. You should also consider thermal transfer printing if you need to print small text that needs to be easily readable.

You don’t need to worry about wear and tear if you’re printing a label on a product with a short lifespan. For these situations, direct thermal printing is the way to go.

 A person scanning a package with a thermal label on it

5. Environmental Impact 

The lower your carbon footprint, the better. Unfortunately, the thermal transfer ribbon uses a poly-based carrier derived from crude oil

So, if you want to reduce your company’s carbon footprint, you should opt for direct thermal printing since there are no ribbons. However, this is not suitable for all applications. Thankfully, new direct thermal printing technology is advancing each day. It’s only a matter of time before this method produces long-lasting labels.

Find the Ideal Printer For Your Business at Busys

Thermal transfer vs direct thermal—have you decided which is best for you?

No matter what your business’s printing needs are, you’ll find the ultimate solution at

With over 35 years of experience, we are Canada’s #1 managed print and copier service. Our award-winning advanced copier technologies and exceptional customer service have helped us build partnerships with thousands of businesses in the GTA and across Canada.

Let’s start elevating your business processes. Contact us today. 

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