Direct Thermal Print or Thermal Transfer Labels for Barcodes?

So should you choose direct thermal print or thermal transfer labels to print barcodes? 

There’s a misconception in the industry around these technologies: many people believe that direct thermal (because it has no ribbon) is a less expensive option than thermal transfer.
But don’t be caught up there: it’s critical to first understand which technology is more efficient for whom.

The bottom line: The cost difference between the two is negligible — until you start looking at what happens to your product after it leaves your factory floor. Before you buy any equipment, make sure you know the pros and cons of both technologies.


At first glance, it seems cheaper to not require a ribbon in your direct transfer labelling system. But “whether you save on ribbon costs” is the wrong question to ask when you’re assessing this technology.

Think about these things instead:

Your label’s edges and the texture of your paper wear down the print-head faster — especially when printing barcodes in the easier-to-read “picket fence” orientation. Bottom line: you’ll buy print-heads more often with direct transfer barcode printers.

Beyond 6 months, direct transfer print will turn yellow, and the print will fade to grey because the print contrast in direct thermal systems is not as good as thermal transfer systems. Bottom line: if your product has to last longer than 6 months on a shelf, you’re risking label legibility.

Major heat, humidity, sunlight and friction from contact (such as frequent scanning or abrasive transportation) will rub off a direct transfer label. Bottom line: if your product’s barcode is in contact with rubbing, or condensation, direct transfer labels will not work for you.

The criticism of thermal transfer barcode printing is not actually about the quality of printer — rather the quality of the installers. For instance, what your product’s package will experience environmentally, over time, indicates which ribbon will adhere to your product’s packaging film. 

Once you have that match right, you can enjoy the typically overlooked benefits of thermal transfer label systems.


1. The smooth, waxy surface of the thermal transfer ribbon creates less friction when applying your barcode to the product. Bottom line: manufacturers working to a deadline can enjoy a higher print speed — especially when printing and applying the barcode label (because the ribbon protects the print-head). Bottom line: Print-head life is frequently doubled with thermal transfer compared to direct thermal barcode printing.

2. The ribbon’s film applies a wax or resin onto the surface of your product. Bottom line: a thermal transfer barcode is highly resistant to any chemicals, humidity, UV sun rays, abrasion and climatic changes that your packaging may encounter on its journey through the supply chain.

3. These labelling systems can typically work at higher speeds. Bottom line: if your production line is fast, you will achieve a better result with a thermal transfer labelling system.

Quick thumbnail guide:

The last thing any company ever wants to hear is that the new equipment they’ve just bought doesn’t actually suit their purposes — or won’t, in 6 to 12 months’ time. So don’t get caught up in a simplistic comparison that leaves you paying more, or with more headaches, than needs be. Here’s a quick guide…

Direct Transfer: suits companies with perishable goods (less than 12 months) because the label doesn’t need to last a long time.

Thermal Transfer: suits companies whose products need to endure friction, changes in temperature or dampness and last more than 6 months, i.e. “long-life” manufactured goods.
If in doubt, ask for guidance. Getting the right help to choose fit-for-purpose equipment — the first time — means you’ll avoid the awkwardness, and disappointment, of discovering hidden costs now, and later.