Feb 13, 2017 / Written by Woody Myers
Direct Thermal or Not Direct Thermal: That Is the Question

One of the most common questions related to barcode printing is whether direct thermal or thermal transfer printing is the right option for any given application. Both offer advantages for specific types of products. Labels only expected to last for six months or fewer, for example, would be well served with a direct thermal printer. But for products that will deal with harsh conditions or that need to last longer, thermal transfer may be a better solution.

Let’s take a look at each barcode printing option.

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Direct thermal uses heat to create the image or text directly to the material—in the form of chemically treated label stock-without the use of a ribbon. This involves the print head coming into direct contact with the heat-sensitive material. Although this decreases the print head life, users will save money on printer configuration costs.

The direct thermal process involves no ink, ribbons or toner. The printed materials are more susceptible to damage from air, sun, fluids, light and heat abrasion compared to thermal transfer. This may result in images being unreadable due to fading or normal wear and tear. However, this might not matter for products that have a short supply chain life, such as visitors’ passes, shipping labels and event tickets.

Additionally, direct thermal printers tend to be simple and easy to use. They also have a chemical coating, making them resistant to water damage. These printers, for the most part, only do black and white printing and cannot create very fine lines necessary for some types of barcodes.


This process uses a heated ribbon to apply heat to the printing surface. Thermal transfer printing is best for barcodes because it produces a high-quality, accurate and long-lasting image. It also can create precise widths that are often necessary for barcode lines.

Thermal transfer printers accept a wide range of materials beyond paper, including polyester, polypropylene and other synthetic materials. This durable printing technique is ideal for outdoor uses, identification tags and other uses. Thermal transfer can withstand a variety of conditions, including ultraviolet exposure and extreme temperatures. And, they are available in a wide variety of colors, label stocks and adhesives.

As you make your decision, it’s important to understand your actual needs and whether it’s worth investing in a thermal transfer application over a direct thermal printer. Speak with a barcode printing expert if you need assistance with this decision.

GoDEX offers a broad range of feature-rich printers, along with excellent customer service. The company started making barcode printers 20 years ago, and since then has been in the business of delivering value for a global customer base.

Learn More About Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal Labels.