Do Thermal Printers Need Special Paper?

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Thermal printers need special papers to print, and it’s important to get the right kind of paper for your thermal printer. You are about to read the most comprehensive article you will ever find on thermal papers, their benefits, and the various applications you can use them for.

Do thermal printers need special paper? Thermal printers only work with thermal papers, which are more expensive than regular papers. Thermal printers require special papers because the thermal printing mechanism relies on the ability of these papers to print images without ink. However, direct thermal paper rolls are different from thermal transfer papers. 

Thermal printing machines are good investments but if you don’t feed them with the right paper type, they will either not work at all or damage quickly. But then, why do thermal printers require special paper? What are these special papers? How do they work? Are there different types for various applications? Read on to find out.

Do thermal printers need special paper?

Why Do Thermal Printers Need Special Papers?

Thermal printers need special papers because it is an inkless mechanism that uses heat to create imprints. In the case of direct thermal printers, the papers contain heat-sensitive pigments. The heat from the hot printheads of direct thermal printers activates these pigments to make imprints on the paper. In the case of thermal transfer printers, special papers are designed to accept melted pigments from thermal ribbons. Without these special papers, you would not be able to print with your thermal printer, and you can even damage the printhead.

Direct thermal printers have no ink. They only have a thermal printhead that generates heat. When you are printing with a direct thermal printer, the printhead gets hot and directly touches the paper as the paper passes over the printhead. If the paper does not have thermochromic (heat-sensitive) ink pigments, no imprint will appear on the paper.

In the case of thermal transfer printers, they use thermal ribbons to generate imprints. As the ribbon passes over the thermal printhead, the print head’s heat melts the pigments on the ribbon. The thermal transfer paper is usually directly under the ribbon, waiting to accept the meted pigments. They have a surface that’s designed to accept and retain melted pigments from thermal ribbons. Without this type of surface, no imprint will appear on the paper.

Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer

You may have noticed that there are two different types of thermal printers – Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer. These two printer types use different types of papers because they operate different printing mechanisms. To learn more about the differences between these two mechanisms, you can read our post on The Difference between Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer.

The papers used by direct thermal printers are simply called Thermal Papers. Direct thermal printer is the earliest type of thermal printer. Thermal transfer printers were invented later, so their papers are called Thermal Transfer Papers. Both direct thermal papers and thermal transfer papers are called Thermal Labels.

Note the distinction between the terms, “Thermal Papers” (which refers to the special papers for direct thermal printers) and “Thermal Labels” (which refers to both thermal papers and thermal transfer papers, as well as synthetic print media). Consequently, Thermal Papers are also known as Direct Thermal Labels while Thermal Transfer papers are known as “Thermal Transfer Labels”.

Thermal Labels vs. Thermal Papers

The table below shows a simple mapping of the different terms and the type of mechanism they work with:

Thermal LabelThermal Paper
Thermal Transfer Paper
Direct Thermal Printing
Thermal Transfer Printing
Direct Thermal LabelThermal PaperDirect Thermal Printing
Thermal Transfer LabelThermal Transfer PaperThermal Transfer Printing

What Are Thermal Papers?

Thermal papers are special heat-sensitive papers that create images when their transparent dye coating reacts with heat. The heat from the thermal printhead causes a reaction that changes the paper’s color, usually to black, at the specific points where heat is applied.

Thermal papers usually have two to three layers, depending on the manufacturer. The substrate layer refers to the paper material itself. But sometimes, this layer could be made of synthetic media like polypropylene instead of paper. The second layer is a coat of heat-sensitive chemicals mixed with transparent dye to create images.

Some manufacturers add an optional third layer of top coating to their thermal papers. This layer serves to protect imprints on the paper from common elements that could degrade them. But the real layer responsible for image development is the second layer.

How Thermal Papers Work

When the thermal printhead of a direct thermal printer heats the thermal paper during printing, it activates the heat-sensitive chemical in the paper, often called the developer. The developer then bonds with dye molecules to produce an image on the paper.

In direct thermal printing, the paper comes in direct contact with the thermal printhead. Thermal papers have a slick and smooth surface that ensures this contact is safe for the printhead. If you feed a standard paper into a thermal printer, the paper’s surface might damage the thermal printhead.

Standard papers do not contain heat sensitive chemicals so the heat from a thermal printhead will not create an imprint on them. Thermal papers are the only paper type compatible with direct thermal printers but they usually produce only one color of imprint, mostly black. These days, however, you can find other image colors, including red and green.

✅  Video – How Thermal Papers Work

This video demonstrates a simple home experiment to show how thermal papers work. You can also use this experiment to find out the coated side of thermal papers. Not one word is spoken, yet this short video makes a lot of sense. You should watch it.

What Are Thermal Transfer Papers?

Thermal transfer papers are special papers designed to accept and retain melted ink pigments from thermal ribbons. The heat from the printhead of a thermal transfer printer melts ribbon pigments onto the thermal transfer paper during printing. As the melted pigment touches the paper, it cools quickly and glues strongly to the surface of the thermal transfer paper. If you are using resin ribbon, it diffuses into the surface of the paper and forms a more permanent imprint.

In thermal transfer printing, the thermal printhead does not come in direct contact with the paper. The ribbon forms a buffer between the pins of the printhead and the surface of the paper. As such, there is less abrasion on the thermal pins of the printhead, and they tend to last longer.

Can You Interchange Papers For Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer?

You cannot use thermal transfer papers in a direct thermal printer. But you can use direct thermal labels in a thermal transfer printer. The thermal printheads of thermal transfer printers generate heat in the same way that direct thermal printers do. So if you run a direct thermal label through the printer, it will create imprints. Thermal transfer papers, on the other hand, do not contain heat-sensitive pigments. So no image would appear if you run them through a direct thermal printer.

While you can use direct thermal papers in a thermal transfer printer, it is not advisable to do so. The printheads of thermal transfer printers are not designed for direct contact with paper surfaces. As such, the constant abrasion from the surface of direct thermal labels may quickly wear out and damage the printhead of your thermal transfer printer.

There are, however, a few printers designed to handle both direct thermal and thermal transfer printing. If you have one such printer, feel free to interchange the papers as you like. But make sure to insert thermal ribbons appropriately if you are printing with thermal transfer papers. More so, don’t forget to change the printing mode whenever you are switching from one printing technique to another.

Types of Thermal Labels

Thermal labels for both direct thermal and thermal transfer printing could be paper media or synthetic media. Some paper media are standard papers while other are premium. And then, some labels have a layer of top coating while others don’t. These three major variables define the different types of thermal labels.

Let’s take a deeper look at each variable:

Paper or Synthetic Media

Thermal labels can either be paper or synthetic media. An example of synthetic media is polypropylene. Unlike thermal papers, which could be standard or premium, synthetic media are always of premium grade. They are very durable and tear-resistant. They are also resistant to water and other elements that could cause degradation and fading.

If you store synthetic thermal materials properly, their imprints should remain legible for about 20 years. They are ideal for outdoor applications that include parking violations, warning notices, delivery notices, and traffic citations, among others. Synthetic media are more commonly used with thermal transfer printers than direct thermal printers.

There are also plastic tape media for embossing label makers. They are also a type of synthetic media but they don’t work with the conventional thermal printers.

Standard or Premium

Thermal labels come in either standard or premium grade. Standard thermal labels are similar to standard bond paper. They are thicker than heavy-weight receipts but have no top-coat. They typically remain legible for 7-20 years under the right storage conditions.

Standard Papers

You can use standard thermal labels for documents that require logos and graphics. You can also use them for the following applications:

  • Repair estimates
  • Service records
  • Repair and maintenance reports
  • Product and work orders
  • Price quotes
  • Product promotions
  • Appraisals
  • Accident reports

Premium Papers

Premium thermal labels, on the other hand, are like high-quality 20 lb. bond papers. They usually have a layer of top coating. Their durability is usually for about 20-25 years under the right storage conditions.

Premium-grade papers are good for various document types. These include the following:

  • Traffic citations
  • Parking violations
  • Accident reports
  • Emergency instructions
  • Safety certificates
  • Invoices and receipts
  • Barcode labels
  • Chemical datasheets
  • Work statements
  • Delivery notices
  • Repair authorizations
  • Financial plans
  • Contracts

The Presence of a Top Coating

The dye in thermal papers is sensitive and could damage, even from careful handling. The optional layer of top coating protects the dye layer from damage due to handling, as well as several substances and conditions that may degrade the thermal paper and its imprinted image.

Some of the benefits of top coatings are as follows:

  • They make the thermal paper resistant to discoloration due to sunlight exposure.
  • The paper becomes resistant to imprint fading due to high temperatures.
  • They also offer resistance to incompatible substances, including oils, grease, and water
  • Top coating increases archival storage and durability.

You can use thermal papers with no top coating for applications that need no protective benefits.

Benefits of Using Thermal Labels

Thermal printing will be impossible if you don’t have thermal labels. As such, without these special papers, your thermal printer would be useless. But when you have the appropriate thermal label type for your printer, you can print diverse kinds of labels with it. These include POS receipts, transaction documents, barcodes, and faxes, among others.

Now, let’s look at some of the benefits and applications of thermal labels:

Benefits of Thermal Labels

Here are a few reasons thermal printing, using thermal papers, is of great benefit:

  • When using these special papers, the printer only has to generate heat. Since the printer is not mixing or thrusting out ink, it works quietly and hardly vibrates. This creates a serene work environment.
  • Thermal printers last longer and are more reliable because you don’t have to change ink cartridges or move their parts too often.
  • Thermal labels reduce your maintenance cost. The only things you have to buy are the thermal label rolls and thermal ribbons (for thermal transfer printers). You don’t have to buy ink cartridges.
  • Thermal labels use a shorter path. This reduces the chances of a misfeed or paper jam.
  • When using thermal labels, you don’t have to bother about ink or toner spill.

Related Questions

Do Inkjets Need Special Paper?

You can use any type of copy paper on inkjets printers if you are not after quality. But for the best output, you should use inkjet papers for inkjet printers. As such, you need special inkjet papers for the best printing experience on inkjet printers.

You can also use regular copy paper on laser printers. But if you use inkjet papers on laser printers, the paper might melt and damage your printer. The ideal practice is to use inkjet papers on inkjet printers and laser papers on laser printers.

Does Used Paper Hurt Printers?

Used papers can hurt printers, so avoid reusing papers on your printers. Avoid reusing papers to prevent jamming or other forms of irreparable damage to your printer. All used papers must be disposed of in the recycle bin if you don’t want the output.

You should also avoid feeding papers that allow two-sided printing into your printers, especially if you are using a laser printer. Laser printers heat the paper and such papers can damage your printer beyond repair.

Is There A Difference Between Copy Paper And Printer Paper?

Copy paper and printer paper are not the same. Copy papers are less expensive and slightly thinner. You can use copy papers to print documents that contain text only. But you should use printer paper for documents that contain logos or photos.

If you are printing a text document, there won’t be so much difference in the output. The only major difference would be how much light passes through the sheets of paper. And this even depends on the paper’s weight.


The right paper type will ensure high-quality print output and increase your printer’s lifespan. A wrong supply might be cheaper but the output would be poor and your printer might be damaged. Cheap label rolls often shed debris and dirt in your printer. These would eventually scratch your printhead. You can avoid all of these by using only thermal papers for your thermal printers.

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