Guide to direct thermal and thermal transfer label materials

Which material is best for your operation?

One of the key considerations when selecting the best label substrate for your job is the ability to overprint variable information. Standalone printers are commonplace in many operational settings these days, but whether a direct thermal or thermal transfer process will perform better in your unique environment is not always a straightforward decision.

We’ve put together a guide to thermal transfer labels to help you think through some of the most important considerations when deciding which label material is best for you.

Label lifespan:

Will your label have a short life?

If your label or tag only needs to be in place for a short amount of time, say a couple of days e.g. a despatch tag, then a thermal uncoated material will do the job, and will be less expensive than a coated material.

Will your label have a mid-life?

If your label will be in place for more than a couple of days but less than three months, a goods-in label, for example, a thermal coated material will be more robust and is mid-priced.

Will your label have a long life?

If your label or tag needs to be extremely robust and remain in place in excess of three months, then a machine coated paper or a synthetic material should be considered; overprinted by thermal transfer with a quality ribbon.

Process conditions:

What special conditions will your label need to withstand?

Think about what conditions your label will have to withstand as it travels through your production process. Does it need to be ovenable or freezer proof and, if so, within what temperature ranges? What contaminants will it come in contact with along the way eg grease, hot liquids etc?

There are label materials to cover all eventualities or, in some cases, adding a special coating may do the job.

Cost considerations:

With machine coated materials being around 9.5% cheaper than thermal uncoated materials, you might think it would always make commercial sense to use a thermal transfer printer. It’s worth doing the calculation though; by including the cost of thermal transfer ribbons, you may find that it makes sense to go for a direct thermal material to save the ribbon cost.

Our example shows that you could be saving as much as 15% on your labels by using a direct thermal material:

Machine coated labels

(for thermal transfer printer)

Typical ribbon cost £1.80
The total cost of thermal transfer £8.12
Thermal uncoated labels

(for direct thermal printer)

Potential saving with thermal material 15%

We hope this short guide is helpful. Clearly, the needs of each individual operation are different so please do get in contact if you would like help selecting exactly the right material for your environment.