Direct Thermal Vs. Thermal Transfer Printers

on 06/28/2017

Thermal label printers use one of two technologies: Thermal Transfer Printing or Direct Thermal Printing. Both thermal printing methods have distinct applications that they are ideally suited for. Businesses looking to purchase a label printer might be confused by the differences between direct thermal and thermal transfer printers, so we've created this handy guide to explain the pros and cons of each so that you can make an informed decision that is right for you.

Both Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer printing methods use print heads that apply heat to the labeling media fed through the printer. Direct thermal printers apply heat to the surface of the label material itself, which is specially designed to blacken upon this contact. This straightforward option requires minimal maintenance and is quite cost effective for companies who are looking for short term, high volume printing.

Thermal transfer printing is just a bit more complex. This method utilizes a 'Thermal Transfer Ribbon' to print. The print head applies heat to the ribbon, which melts either wax or a special resin onto the label media, bonding to it. This option has a higher initial cost than direct thermal, but prints at a far higher quality, is able to print in color, and is the more versatile and durable option.

Pros and Cons of Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal Printing

The most expensive and fragile component in a label printer is the print head. Since contact is made with the thermal ribbon, instead of with the label itself, Thermal Transfer print heads have a long life, making this method especially suited for high volume use applications.

Thermal Transfer printing is highly accurate, with great edge definition useful for printing exact bar widths needed in barcode printing. Unlike Direct Thermal, which require a special kind of label material, Thermal Transfer printers are capable of printing on a wide variety of media including paper, polypropylene, and polyester.

Differences Between Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Printing

Direct Thermal printing requires a simpler setup, which keeps printing cost low. Direct Thermal does not require ink, ribbon, or toner to print, instead using nothing but heat-activation as print head makes contact directly with label material. This is great for keeping maintenance simple and straightforward, but there are some associated downsides that should be understood as well. Direct Thermal printers can only print in black, unlike Thermal Transfer. Direct thermal labeling media is sensitive to heat, and is liable to fade, which reduces the life of the printed material. If exposed to too much light, the label media will darken and can make bar codes unreadable. If the labels you print need to last for upwards of 6 months, use a Thermal Transfer printer instead.

The print head is prone to wearing out more quickly in Direct Thermal printers due to the direct friction created when the print head makes contact with the label media. It is also easier for particulate build up to accumulate on the print head if dirty media is fed into the printer, which is not uncommon if labels are stored somewhere dusty. This accumulation can scratch the print head and cause wear more quickly than a Thermal Transfer printhead.

Recap: Direct Thermal Vs. Thermal Transfer Printers

Direct Thermal Printing


  • Ideal for short term, high volume label printing
  • Low printing costs, no ink, ribbon, or toner needed
  • Easy to maintain


  • Can only print in Black
  • Label fading is possible if exposed to too much heat & sunlight
  • Printhead is prone to wearing caused by friction with label media

Thermal Transfer Printing


  • Excellent print accuracy, edge definition
  • Able to print in color, useful for branding & logos
  • Can print on a wide variety of media, including paper, polyester, & polypropylene
  • Long life is ideal for high volume use applications


  • Higher initial cost
  • Has more components, such as thermal ribbon, that need occasional replacement

It is worth understanding the difference between direct thermal and thermal transfer printers so that you can be sure you pick the better option for your particular business needs. The purpose of this guide is to give you the information you need to make an educated decision.

LLT Labels is your one-stop labeling & barcoding solution, offering both Thermal Transfer and Direct Thermal Printers and supplies to suit your unique business needs. If you are still unsure which thermal printing method is right for you, our knowledgeable staff is available to help.

Further Reading: Maintaining your Thermal Transfer Printer