Labels blog

Labels blog

Understanding Thermal labels: Direct thermal vs. Thermal transfer

Thermal labels are the perfect solution for printing information on demand such as barcodes, ingredients and dates. There are two methods to consider, each with their own advantages; direct thermal and thermal transfer.

Direct thermal

Thermal transfer

How it works

Direct thermal materials have a chemical layer applied to a paper or synthetic base that it activated by heat.The labels are printed through a thermal transfer printer where, at the point of the print head, a layer of ribbon is placed on top the label.
When the label is printed through a direct thermal printer the small elements on the printer heat up and activate parts of the chemical layer to create the image required.The print head elements heat up and cause the carbon pigment that is on the ribbon to transfer to the label, creating the required image.

Typical label applications

Short to medium life applications;Long – life applications;
Direct thermal paper labels are best for retail, logistics and other industries where the label is not exposed to high heat or moisture levels after the label has been applied;Thermal transfer paper labels are a good choice where direct thermal is not suitable or the print quality of the ribbon is preferred;
Direct thermal synthetics are a good choice for carton and retail pack labelling in the chilled and frozen food sectors  where the labels are exposed to high levels of moisture and rough handling during transportation.Thermal transfer synthetic labels are suitable for outdoor labelling and applications where high levels of moisture or scuffing are expected.
– Shipping, despatch and warehouse labels;
– Meat carton labels;
– Tags, inserts and cards;
– Price weigh retail labels;
– Laboratory labels;
– Inventory identification labels;
– Industrial and chemical labels;
– Warehouse shelf labels;


– Simple to use; a ribbon is not required as it image directly onto the label;
– Used in most printers;
– Cost effective;
– Greater productivity due to no ribbon changeovers;
– Clear and consistent images for good readability and scannability;
– Suitable for both 1D and 2D barcodes;
– Paper and synthetic material options available;
– The quality, stability and durability of the image is suitable for most common requirements.
– Excellent print definition for text, images and barcodes;
– Ideal for small characters and line work;
– Suitable for both 1D and 2D barcodes;
– Wide variety of paper and synthetic materials available including clear, pearl, metalised, and fluorescent;
– Colored ribbons available for branding and promotional uses;
– Better resistance to heat, moisture and chemicals;
– Stable and durable images that are long-lasting;
– Higher speed printing;
– Longer print head life;


– Can fade over time (6-12 months);
– Overexposure to heat or UV light discolors the material, making the print harder to read;
– Limited abrasion resistance;
– Not all printers are thermal transfer compatible;
– Ribbons must be kept in stock are an additional cost; a ribbon saver can reduce the amount of ribbon used;
– Requires additional setup time and ribbon change-overs;
– Ribbons can wrinkle and compromise print quality;


Not requiredA ribbon is required; these are available in a range of different sizes, colors and grades. The common grades are:
+ Resin – typically used for industrial and chemical applications, where durability under extreme environmental conditions are required;
+ Wax Resin – suitable for general purpose printing, with good scuff, element and chemical resistance;
+ Wax – typically used in short shelf life applications, where ther is low abrasion and low chemical exposure.

We make thermal labels for a wide variety of clients and our team has experience in designing the right solution for every situation. Our team of labels experts have extensive expertise in all things related to thermal labels. We would be delighted to discuss your thermal labelling requirements, share our knowledge and develop a solution specifically for you.

>> Please contact Hirich Labels for more information!



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