Can You Write On Thermal Labels?

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If you have been asked to sign on thermal receipts more than twice, you’ll agree that the experience differs from time to time. Our set out to find out what could be responsible for this. Why is it that we can write freely on thermal labels sometimes but at other times, we can’t? Here’s what we found out.

Can you write on thermal labels? You can write on thermal labels with permanent markers and gel pens. But if you use the common ballpoint pens to write on thermal labels, it will smear. Unlike regular papers, thermal label papers are not designed to absorb ink, so you must wait patiently for the ink to dry regardless of the type of writing utensil you’re using. The reason why Gel pens seem to be more ideal for writing on thermal labels is that they dry faster.

As you read on, we’ll show you why ball pens don’t work on most label papers. We will also show you the best writing utensils to write on the most annoying label papers and the types of label papers that you can easily write on.

Can You Write On Thermal Labels?

Why Can’t You Write on Most Thermal Labels?

It’s difficult to write on most thermal labels because they typically have slippery and smooth surfaces. This poses a challenge to most pen types, such as ball-point pens, that need traction to write on surfaces. The labels are also very thin and often have a coating that doesn’t absorb ink. This makes it even more difficult for many utensils to write on thermal labels.

Regular types of paper rolls are just like common copy paper and you can write on them with ease. Thermal rolls are different because they are thin and their surfaces are slick. They tear easily because they are thin, ball-point pens slide over them because they are slippery, and their slick surfaces don’t absorb ink.

You may not be able to use ball pens and other writing utensils on most types of thermal transfer and Direct thermal papers. These papers have a specialized way of making imprints and were never designed to absorb inks.

How Do Thermal Papers Make Imprints?

In the case of direct thermal papers, they have coatings of heat-sensitive chemicals, sensitizers, and dye. These coatings react to change the paper’s color when the thermal printhead heats the label paper. In the case of thermal transfer papers, they are designed to accept melted pigments from thermal ribbons.

What Would Happen If You Write On Thermal Labels?

If you use the common ball pen to write on a thermal paper, the ink will simply slide off. Even if the ink doesn’t slide off, it would smudge except you don’t touch the surface for several hours. But if you write on a thermal label with a gel pen or permanent marker, the ink is likely to dry very quickly and stay on the surface of the paper.

Aside from creating prints, the coatings on thermal labels help protect them from absorbing oils and grease. They also help the label slide easily past the printhead. Because of this coating, the label also refuses to absorb pen ink. Instead, the ink also slides off the label.

This notwithstanding, you sometimes have to write on thermal papers. Some vendors will require you sign on thermal receipts or invoices. How do you do this? Well, a few pen types can still manage to write on thermal papers. Your best bet for writing on thermal labels are gel pens.

Why Are Gel Pens Ideal for Writing on Thermal Labels?

Gel pens are ideal for writing on thermal labels because they contain quick-drying ink. They use water-based gel and powder pigments. Ballpoint pens, on the other hand, use oil-based paste and fully-dissolved dye. Water dries faster than oil and papers absorb it more easily. So gel inks usually dry faster and can stay on the slick surface of thermal papers.

Gel inks are also smoother and write more vividly. So aside from drying quickly, they also create a smooth flow that matches the slick surface of thermal labels. And because the ink is water-based, it also has more age- and water-resistance than the oil-based ballpoint ink. Papers, including thermal papers, trap gel ink such that you can hardly wash, erase, or alter anything you write with it.

So if you are thinking of what kind of pen to get for writing on thermal labels, you should go for gel pens. You are likely to want to use ballpoint pens but they are not compatible with most thermal labels.

Benefits of Writing with Gel Pens

Since the gel ink hardly fades, you can use it for appending your signature to thermal receipts and other permanent documentations. Here are the benefits of using gel pens:

  • They create bolder colors and darker lines because they “sink” into the paper rather than stay on its surface. The dense and viscous gel ink creates perceptible and prominent lines while writing.
  • You will enjoy the writing experience because gel creates a smooth and easy ink flow
  • The chances of smearing are minimal despite the slick surface of thermal papers because the ink dries very quickly.

✅ Video – The 8 Best Gel Pens That Don’t Smear

A quick-drying gel pen will work well on most label papers. Find out the 8 best non-smearing gel pens in this video. Number 6 will surprise you. Who knew that it’s the best gel pen for color-coding?

Some Types of Writable Thermal Labels

Matte papers and varnish-coated papers can absorb ink more easily because of the special characteristics of their surfaces. These coatings make the surfaces of thermal labels less smooth and slippery. And this increases the chances of accepting and absorbing ink.

Let’s take a closer look at the different writable thermal paper types below:

Varnish-coated Papers

Varnish is a type of liquid finish that sticks to the surface of label papers. You can write on labels that have a varnish finish but if the label has a laminate coating, it won’t be writable. Varnish coatings enhance matte papers but laminate coatings create a slippery, un-writable surface.

Matte Papers

Matte labels are writable for pens and pencils but gloss labels are generally not writable. Labels with matte coating have the kind of surface that can absorb ink. Semi-gloss papers are sometimes writable too, but they are not ideal. Plastic labels, on the other hand, will smear if you attempt writing on them.

Video – Glossy vs Matte labels

In this video, an expert in label prints talks about the differences between matte and glossy finishing. If you are wondering how these two types are different and you want to learn a cost-effective way to maximize the benefits of both glossy and matte labels, you should watch this video.

Related Questions

Can you use thermal labels in regular printers?

You can use some thermal labels in regular printers but it is not advisable. Thermal papers are meant for thermal printers, so non-thermal printers will produce poor-quality printing on them. You should always match label papers with the right printer type.

Don’t use thermal papers in regular printers and don’t use regular papers in thermal printers. If you run a non-thermal paper through a thermal machine, you might not see any imprint. Unlike thermal papers, regular papers do not contain heat-sensitive chemicals that can be activated by thermal printheads.

What are thermal labels used for?

Thermal paper rolls are used for shipping labels, price tags, product labels, mail, and receipts, among other things. The applications of thermal labels are wide-ranging and offer great branding and marketing opportunities.

Retail stores, bakeries, pharmaceuticals, shipping companies, and many other businesses use thermal labels. You should get thermal printers and labels if you run a small business that uses price tags and/or print receipts. However, there are various types of thermal labels materials for different purposes.

Are Thermal Labels Toxic?

Bisphenol chemicals (A and S) found on many label papers can be toxic to humans. Thermal papers often use a BPA (bisphenol A) or BPS (bisphenol S) coating. This coating is not only bad with ball pens but can also disrupt hormones in humans.

BPA can help develop color in thermal paper labels but it has hormone-like properties that disrupt human hormones. Experts have raised concerns that excessive exposure to BPA could have negative effects on human health. It could increase the risks of diabetes, developmental disorders, and cancer.

Thankfully, manufacturers now make BPA-free thermal papers. You can get the BPA-free variety for your business to protect your health and that of your customers.


While you can write on thermal labels, the type of thermal label you are trying to write on matters a lot. You have also seen that some types of pen and ink are more suitable for writing on thermal labels than others. You should get one of such pens to carry around in case you have to write or append your signature on a thermal label.

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