Thermal transfer and direct thermal printing are two printing technologies commonly used in business today. Compared to inkjet and laser printers, these heat-dependent gizmos have the advantage of producing crisp, smear-proof images at much faster speeds. And in the competitive world of commerce, that is definitely an advantage.

But how do you know which one is right for you? Here, we explain the basic differences between the two technologies.

A direct thermal printer with its label exposed.

What Is Direct Thermal Printing, and How Does It Differ from Thermal Transfer Technology?

In direct thermal printing, the printhead warms up and imprints computer images on heat-sensitive paper. The printer used here is called a “direct thermal printer.” The heat-sensitive paper is called “thermal paper,” and it is spiked with heat-activated colorants. A direct thermal printer does not need ink, toner, or ribbon, unlike other office printers.

On the other hand, in thermal transfer printing, the printhead is not directly in contact with the medium. Instead, a colorant-filled ribbon runs between them. When the printhead warms up, the ribbon’s oily colorant melts and is transferred onto the medium’s surface. The medium used in such printers can be made of paper, plastic or fabric.

The printer used here is a “thermal transfer printer,” whereas the ribbon is called a “thermal ribbon.” The printing media are referred to as either “thermal media” or “thermal transfer media,” depending on who you talk to. The thermal ribbon and printing medium occupy two separate holders inside the printer.

The thermal ribbon’s oily colorant can be made of wax, resin or a combination of both. Generally, the higher the resin content, the more enduring the print is. 

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Some direct thermal printers also have thermal transfer functionality built in them. An example is the TSC TE210 printer.

TSC TE210 printer

What Are the Uses of Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer Printers?

Direct thermal printers are used for printing everyday items like:

  • Lottery and transport tickets
  • Queue numbers
  • Receipts
  • Coupons
  • Faxes

In retail, direct thermal labels are commonly used for creating shipping labels, price tags, visitors’ passes, product barcodes and many others. They have multiple uses in various industries. Examples of direct thermal labels are enKo Products’ Zebra, Brother, Rollo and Dymo labels.

Meanwhile, you can use thermal transfer technology for printing similar documents and more. But it can also come in handy when you’re designing clothes and other handicrafts. In retail, thermal transfer labels are perfect for barcoding and branding. They let you create fade-proof and smear-proof color prints, which are perfect for crafting beer labels, freezer labels and other tags intended for long storage.


Is There a Difference between Thermal Transfer and Direct Thermal Labels?

People shopping for labels often ask this question.

Yes, there is a difference between the two. For starters, the facestock of direct thermal labels is always made of paper. Meanwhile, thermal transfer label facestock can be made of paper, plastic, fabric, etc.

As to the kind of paper these labels use, it’s also easy to tell them apart. Direct thermal labels have heat-activated colorants. Scratching the top surface, which creates friction and heat, will leave a dark mark. On the other hand, scratching thermal transfer labels will not change their color.

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Can a Direct Thermal Label Outlast a Thermal Transfer Label?

The simple answer is no. Direct thermal labels have a lifespan of 6-12 months. They are best used for printing short-term documents and labels, like the ones we mentioned previously. Meanwhile, thermal transfer labels make fade-proof prints that can last for years.

Can a Direct Thermal Label Outlast a Thermal Transfer Label

A thermal transfer printer with its ribbon and label exposed1

Can You Use Thermal Transfer Labels in a Direct Thermal Printer?

Again, the answer is no. Thermal transfer labels do not have the heat-activated colorants that direct thermal labels have. You will not be able to create any images by running them through a direct thermal printer.

Is Thermal Transfer Printing Better than Direct Thermal Technology?

Not necessarily. It really depends on your reasons for printing.

Thermal transfer printers are typically more expensive than their direct thermal counterparts. If your goal is to print shipping labels routinely—which most recipients tear up after receiving their packages—thermal transfer technology will make the task too expensive.

Thermal transfer printers need thermal ribbons to function. In contrast, direct thermal printers do not need such consumables. When you think about it, direct thermal technology may be better for the environment because it produces less waste and does not use petroleum-based colorants.

Direct thermal printers use heat-sensitive paper. The technology is cost-effective if you’re printing large volumes of short-term labels for your business. However, thermal transfer technology is more versatile in that it can handle a wider variety of label types and let you accomplish a longer list of tasks. You can make more permanent labels and badges from thermal transfer printing.

When you need to print in color, thermal transfer printers can print using a wide color spectrum. Ribbons are available in multiple colors. On the other hand, direct thermal printers can print only in black or red because of the limitations of both printheads and thermal paper.

Thermal transfer prints are perfect for branding, which requires that product labels’ colors are reproduced consistently. Direct thermal printers are not, although they usually suffice for their intended uses.

Below is a table summing up the differences between these two technologies:


Direct Thermal Printing

Thermal Transfer Printing

Printer cost

Uses consumables?

Uses heat-sensitive labels?

Uses non-paper labels?

Print colors?





Black and red only


Yes (Ribbon)



Wide Spectrum

Both technologies have pros and cons, and we recommend that you base your choice on what you need for your business.

Just to Highlight Their Differences…

Thermal transfer and direct transfer printing are heat-reliant printing technologies that the business world depends on. Thermal transfer printheads transfer colors onto their medium by warming up a thermal ribbon. In contrast, direct thermal printers use direct heat contact to create images on thermal paper.    

These printers produce similar types of labels and documents. However, direct thermal prints are better for short-term use, whereas thermal transfer prints are meant to last longer. You can use one for branding, but not the other, and their prices also differ. Ultimately, when you need to choose between the two, it is best to decide based on what your business requires.

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