If you’re getting started with barcode labeling or want to choose the right label for a new application, the first step is deciding between thermal transfer and direct thermal printing. Your choice of printing method, label materials, and supplies ultimately determines the quality of your printing and the effectiveness of your labels.

Here’s a quick guide to the differences in printing methods and how they impact the labels and supplies you should choose.


Direct thermal printing doesn’t use ink, toner, or ribbon. It creates an image directly on labels, and the image has a shorter lifespan that may fade over time. Thus, direct thermal labels are used for basic short-term applications such as shipping labels. However, if your labels will need to last years or will be exposed to extreme temperatures, light, abrasion, or chemicals, you’ll need to use thermal transfer.


Thermal transfer printing uses a ribbon to print a durable, long-lasting image on a label, so it lasts much longer and can withstand conditions such as moisture, sunlight, chemicals, or extreme temperatures. A thermal printhead applies heat to the ribbon, which melts the ink onto the label material for unmatched image quality and durability. However, to ensure the right environmental and application resistance, your thermal label material and ribbon must be carefully matched.


Thermal transfer ribbons are available in a variety of types for a wide range of labeling applications:

  • Wax Ribbons are used when there’s minimal exposure to weak chemicals and/or moderate abrasion.
  • Wax/Resin Ribbons are for extreme chemical exposure and/or exposure to moderate abrasion, or where UL/cUL approval is required.
  • Resin Ribbons are used for harsh to extreme chemical exposure and/or exposure to excessive abrasion, plus where UL/cUL approval is required.

Key Considerations for Selecting Labels

Different label materials and adhesives are required for adhesion to special shapes such as curved surfaces.

Direct thermal materials generally perform well at application temperatures of at least 25°F and service temperatures of -65°F to 200°F. Labeling outside this range requires thermal transfer and usually a specialty adhesive.

A ribbon with higher resin content provides improved resistance to label rubbing and scratching.

Applicator Usage
When using a label applicator, the label must be cut differently so it peels off properly from the liner. Perforations aren’t recommended because they change label stiffness and make it difficult to release from the liner.

Chemical Resistance
A thermal transfer label is required for exposure to moderate to extreme chemicals. A high-durability resin ribbon is also recommended if you need resistance to harsh or extreme chemicals.

Indoor/Outdoor Use
A thermal transfer synthetic material is optimal for outdoor conditions such as sun, rain, and snow.

Print Speed, Darkness, and Dots Per Inch (DPI)
Material and ribbon selection influence maximum print speed, and certain print speeds, printing requirements, and ribbons require higher print darkness and/or a higher DPI. Special materials, such as synthetics, may also be required to ensure proper printing.

Getting a Recommendation for Your Application

The easiest way to determine the right printing method and find the right match between your labels and printing supplies is to consult with a barcoding and labeling expert.

At SK&T, our experts will guide you through the process and provide you with high-quality labels and supplies from Zebra, the global leader in barcoding. We provide access to over 500 stock Zebra printing supplies options, including over 1,000 possible combinations and specialized materials and supplies for any direct thermal or thermal transfer application. Contact SK&T now for a free recommendation.











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