Home / Barcode Basics / Direct Thermal Printing Costs Less, Best for Short-Term Use

Direct Thermal Printing Costs Less, Best for Short-Term Use

Direct thermal printing is broadly used by a number of industries to create barcode labels for multiple applications. Like thermal transfer printing, it uses heat generated from a print head to create an image. However, direct thermal printing differs from thermal transfer in that it doesn’t use ribbons, ink, or toner to print images on labels.

How does direct thermal printing work?

Direct thermal printing uses chemically treated, heat-sensitive media that turns black when it passes under a heated print head. This creates an image directly on the printed material without the need for ink, toner, or ribbons.

Direct thermal labels are typically used for applications requiring a short shelf life because they become unreadable when exposed to heat, long periods of direct sunlight, and abrasion. However, many thermal labels can last for months under the right conditions.

Benefits of direct thermal printing

Zebra designed its RW 420 mobile printer to withstand the hazards of the road. Great direct thermal printer for receipts, invoices, and labels.

Zebra designed its RW 420 direct thermal printer to withstand the hazards of the road. This mobile workhorse is ideal for printing receipts, invoices, and labels.

Direct thermal has several advantages, including:

Simple to use

  • Prints directly onto the label material
  • No ribbons, toner, or ink required
  • Perfect for mobile printing applications

Good scanner readability and scannability

  • Sharp, quality images
  • Easy to scan
  • Provides ample lifespan for many common barcode printing applications

Affordable

  • Typically costs less to operate than thermal transfer printing
  • Lower long-term maintenance costs because of minimal replacement supplies
  • Virtually no waste due to batch or single-label print options
  • Recyclable labeling materials available

Limitations of direct thermal printing

While a popular option for many companies, direct thermal printing has some limitations, including:

Sensitivity to environmental conditions

  • Can fade over time
  • Overexposure to heat or light darkens materials, making the barcode unreadable
  • Doesn’t withstand abrasion
  • Readability varies greatly depending on usage conditions

Usability issues

  • Less rugged than thermal transfer labels
  • Best for short-term applications
  • Not recommended for lifetime identification applications

Ideal applications for direct thermal printing

Because of their shorter shelf life and good print quality, direct thermal labels are used for a variety of purposes, including:

  • Shipping labels
  • Compliance labels
  • Receipts
  • Pick tickets
  • Invoices
  • Patient wristbands
  • Coupons
  • Event tickets
  • Citations
  • Parking tickets
  • Name tags
  • Visitor passes

Not sure whether to use direct thermal or thermal transfer printing? Compare the two print technologies.

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Nicole Holcomb

Product Manager at System ID
Nicole Holcomb literally grew up around labels and printing. Putting that lifetime of knowledge to good use, Nicole helps customers solve the labeling needs of virtually any application in her role as Product Manager for Labels & Supplies at System ID. This creative problem solver unleashes her artistic side by creating customized clipboards and frames for her small craft business (while also daydreaming about being British, an obsession she’s had since her youth!).

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