Understanding Thermal Differences

Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Labels

A guest blog from Sarah Thayer

Simple, clear label printing…. explained simply and clearly!

Amherst Label routinely produces beautiful, colorful, and eye-catching labels. Sometimes, though, a customer needs a simpler label: a blank label that can be run through a thermal printer, for example.

 A thermal printer is great for adding variable data like barcodes and serial numbers, as well as static data, on an as-needed basis. Thermal printing creates crisp, accurate copy in seconds, and many of our customers utilize it.

When our customers need labels for their thermal printers, whether they are completely blank or feature a logo or header, we always ask the same question first: Will you be needing labels for a direct thermal printer or a thermal transfer printer? If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, that’s okay; we’re here to help. 

Thank you Epson and Armor for the use of these images.


Both methods of thermal printing use a printhead that applies heat to the surface in order to create the imprint. However, it’s important to acknowledge the differences between methods. Thermal transfer printing requires printer-compatible ribbons (don’t worry – we can get you those, too!) that, when heat is applied, transfer the copy onto the label’s surface.

Direct thermal printing does not require a ribbon, as it prints the image right onto the label. The surface of a direct thermal label is ultra-sensitive to light and heat, so its lifespan is shorter.

If this is your first time ordering thermal printer-compatible labels, you still may not know which is best for you. If you already have a thermal printer, your customer service representative here will be able to tell you which type of label will work best. Maybe you’re just starting your thermal-printing journey, though. How do you know which type of printing to choose?

Pros & Cons of Direct Thermal

We already know that direct thermal labels are sensitive to heat and light. This means that, while they are slightly easier to work with, their imaging won’t last forever, especially if they are exposed to a great deal of sunlight or abrasion. Have you ever left a shopping receipt out in your car and noticed that it started turning black? That’s because they used a direct thermal printer to print that receipt! They likely chose that method because it’s much easier to keep up with—no worrying about ribbons, ink, etc. Just replace the roll of paper with another chemically-treated roll, and you’re on your way. If you’re looking to use a certain material that is not already compatible with a direct thermal printer, we’ve got you covered. We offer a direct thermal-compatible varnish for just about any label material. Direct thermal is a great choice for indoor-use or temporary printing that won’t need to last forever, but should be fuss-free to use.

The Thermal Transfer Alternative

Thermal transfer printing requires more initial set-up, like making sure the ribbons, printer, and substrate are all compatible. Our expert team at Amherst Label can guide you through this process to make sure you’re getting the right products. Once you’re all set up, the world is your oyster. Thermal transfer printing is compatible with a much wider variety of materials, like paper, polyester, and polypropylene to name a few. This is because the heat reacts with the ribbon, which “melts” the copy onto your material, instead of needing to react with the material itself. Although thermal transfer is compatible with more materials than direct thermal would be, it’s not compatible with everything, so make sure to check with your customer service representative if you have any questions. This method of printing is great for creating copy that needs to be more durable or last a long time. It does require more upkeep than direct thermal, though, because the ribbons will get used up and need to be replaced. Thankfully, these ribbons won’t set you back much, and you can order them directly through Amherst Label, either along with your labels, or alone.

Now that you’re in-the-know about thermal printing, the next step will be to call Amherst Label and start a conversation about your label needs. There is a world of possibilities that come along with thermal printing, so let us help you find the perfect use for this versatile printing tool.


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