Do Thermal Printers Use Ribbons?

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Welcome to this comprehensive article that answers the question of whether thermal printers use ribbons or not. Thermal ribbons are meant for thermal printers but are there thermal printers that work without ribbons? We have all the answers you are looking for, and we have compiled them in this article.

Do thermal printers use ribbons? Thermal transfer printers use ribbons, but direct thermal printers do not use ribbons. Without ribbons, thermal transfer printers will not be able to create imprints on thermal transfer labels. But if you are using a direct thermal printer, you only need direct thermal labels; they require no ribbons. As such, the type of thermal printer you are using will determine whether you need ribbons or not.

As you read on, we will show you all you need to know about the relationship between thermal printers and ribbons? What types of thermal printers use ribbons? What types don’t? What can you do with thermal ribbons? If you’re using ribbons, are there various types to choose from? Which of these ribbon types is the best? Read on to find answers to these questions, and many more.

What Types of Thermal Printers Use Ribbons?

The types of thermal printers that use ribbons are Thermal Transfer Printers. Thermal Transfers require ribbons because the ribbons carry the ink pigment with the the printer create imprints. Without these ribbons, the printer will not be able to print images on your labels. The ribbon material contains ink pigment that melts and glues to the print media to create high-quality, long-lasting imprints.

You can’t do without ribbons if you’re using the thermal transfer technique. Ribbons are very crucial to the thermal transfer process because they serve as ink to create your desired imprints. The cost of buying ribbons may add to your inventory but it makes your printing more efficient and excellent. Label makers also use ribbons but in the form of a special tape.

How Do Thermal Ribbons Work?

A thermal ribbon will melt melts when it comes in touch with heat from the thermal printhead. However, the printhead releases heat selectively on the ribbon only in areas where imprints should be created on the paper. The pigment from the ribbon will melt onto the print media and cool quickly as it glues to the surface of the label.

The thermal ribbon functions as the ink of the printer but in a different way. It’s like solid ink pigments that are applied by heat. This kind of thermal printing mechanism is ideal for permanent and long-term applications that require more than 6 months of durability.

What Kinds of Thermal Printing Applications May Require Ribbons?

All the applications of thermal transfer technique require ribbons. So whatever you can do with a thermal transfer printer may require thermal ribbons. These include inventory, logistics, sales, and medical applications, among others.

The following printing applications may require ribbons:

  • Asset tracking
  • Logistics
  • Blood bags
  • Laboratory specimens
  • Sales applications
  • Permanent identification
  • Outdoor applications
  • Cold storage

Thermal transfer ribbons can print easily on various printing media, including plastic, polyester, and paper. These media have different durability levels but polyester has the longest lifespan. More so, different ribbon types are ideal for different label materials. So you must match them carefully to get the best output possible.

What Types of Direct Thermal Printers Don’t Use Ribbons

The types of thermal printers that don’t use ribbons are direct thermal printers. A direct thermal printer does not require ribbons between the paper and printhead. Instead, the printer applies heat directly to the print media. To print with a direct thermal printer, you only need special heat-sensitive print media, called direct thermal labels.

The printhead of direct thermal printers applies heat just like thermal transfer printers. But it applies heat directly to the label and activates its dye layer. This layer darkens at the points of heat application to create the label image.

The heat-sensitive property of direct thermal labels, however, makes them prone to easy damage and quick fading. These labels are also sensitive to water, direct sunlight, chemicals, and abrasions. So they are best for short-term label applications.

What Kinds of Printing Applications May Not Require Ribbons?

Short-term printing applications may not require the durability that thermal ribbons offer. For such applications, it is better to use the cheaper direct thermal printing technique, which does not use ribbons. Mobile printing applications may also not require ribbons. Without the need for ribbons, it’s easier to carry your printer around for on-the-spot printing.

Applications that may not require ribbons include the following:

  • On-demand receipts
  • Short-term shipping labels
  • One-time use tickets
  • Labels for perishable goods
  • Mobile applications

The ribbon-free mechanism is simpler, so direct thermal printing machines are often more compact with fewer components. Without the need for ribbons, you can easily move the machine around and operate it on the go.

Direct thermal labels cost slightly more than thermal transfer labels but with direct thermal technique, you wouldn’t have to buy ribbons.

What Are The Different Types of Thermal Ribbons?

There are three types of thermal ribbons, namely wax ribbons, wax-resin ribbons, and resin ribbons. These three types differ by the kind of ink coating on them. The ink coating of wax ribbon is made purely of wax while the ink coating of resin ribbon is made purely of resin. Wax-resin ribbons mix both wax and resin ink coatings.

Here’s a brief description of each type of thermal ribbons:

Wax Ribbon

This ribbon type offers the fastest fast printing speed and requires low heat because wax melts easily. It also promotes energy savings because your printhead will not be working too hard to generate heat. Wax ribbons offer the least quality of thermal transfer printing but they still create exceptional imprints on various surfaces. You can use them for product labels and cardboard packaging.

Wax/Resin Ribbon

The properties of this ribbon type are similar to that of wax ribbons. But it contains both wax and resin. As such, it provides greater water-resistance. Wax-resin ribbons are also more resistant to staining and friction. You can use them for vinyl labels (synthetic or glossy).

Resin Ribbons

This ribbon type offers the best quality so they are good for high-end applications. They are often very expensive, so you should reserve them from labels that will ace extreme conditions. You can use resin ribbons for labels that would be exposed to harsh chemicals, extreme temperatures, and outdoor applications.

Benefits of Using Thermal Ribbons

The benefits of using thermal ribbons include their versatility and quality of prints. They work with several media types that are not compatible with direct thermal printing. What’s more, they offer various colors and create longer-lasting labels.

The following are some of the benefits that thermal ribbons offer:


Thermal ribbons work well with various media types that direct thermal printing can’t work with. These include paper, polypropylene, and polyester materials.


Ribbons are the most suitable material for printing barcodes. They print crisp and resilient images that remain clear and legible for a longer time.


Ribbons can create long-lasting wristbands, certificate labels, and asset tags, among other types of tickets, labels, and tags.

Various Color Options

You can find various color of ribbons that are not available in direct thermal printing. This array of colors can help improve the appearance of labels and offer more options for color-coding.


You can safely dispose of used ribbons without causing harm to the environment. Unlike the accessories of many other printing mechanisms, thermal transfer ribbons are environment-friendly.

Ho Do Ribbons Affect Printhead Lifespan?

The presence of ribbons increases the lifespan of the printheads of thermal transfer printers significantly. Experts say that direct thermal printheads often last for only 25-50% of the lifespan of thermal transfer printheads.

The reasons for the printhead lifespan differences are as follows:


Thermal ribbons reduce friction and static between the printhead elements and label materials. This prevents constant abrasion and increases printhead lifespan. Direct thermal printers use no ribbons, so they lack this buffer effect.

The direct thermal mechanism uses direct contact between the printhead elements and label materials to create imprints. This constant contact causes abrasion, which reduces the printhead lifespan. Conversely, the ribbons in the thermal transfer mechanism act as a pad or buffer between printhead elements and label materials.

Debris and Dust

Direct thermal printers gather debris and dust very easily. Label surfaces are often not clean but contain debris and dust. As the label material rubs against the printhead, the debris and dust may attach to the printhead elements and reduce print quality. They could also damage the printhead physically.

Debris and dust also exist on thermal transfer labels. But since the label does not directly rub against the printhead, there is no risk to the printhead elements. The ribbon comes in contact with the paper and protects the printhead from foreign materials. This also increases the printhead lifespan.

✅ Video – Differences in Direct Thermal & Thermal Transfer

This video is all you need for a thorough understanding of the basic differences between direct thermal and thermal transfer techniques. You will also learn the advantages of both types and what application types to use them for.

Related Questions

Can You Use Direct Thermal Labels In A Thermal Transfer Printer?

Direct thermal labels are not designed to work with thermal ribbons, so you should not use them on thermal transfer printers. If you do, the ribbon might print on the paper but the image will be low-quality and have a short image life.

You should always use the appropriate label type for each printer. This will ensure that your imprints are of good quality.

Do Thermal Transfer Labels Fade?

All thermal labels will eventually fade no matter how long it takes, and this includes thermal transfer labels. However, thermal transfer labels have a longer lifespan than direct thermal labels. Although they will eventually fade, the average lifespan of thermal transfer labels is long enough for long-term applications.

Direct thermal printers generally have a short lifespan, so they are suitable only for short-term applications. You can use thermal transfer labels for long-term applications but if you desire to have non-fade labels, laser printers would be your best bet.

Do Thermal Printers Run Out of Ink?

Thermal printers are inkless, so they can never run out of ink. Thermal printing machines use heat from the printhead to print texts and images on labels. This reduces inventory expenses since you don’t have to purchase in cartridges or toners for your printing solutions.

Direct thermal printers use labels that contain heat-sensitive ink pigments. This is why they need no ink. Thermal transfer printers, on the other hand, use thermal ribbons instead of ink cartridges. The ribbon melts under printhead heat to print texts and images on the label.


Thermal transfer printers use ribbons but direct thermal printers do not use ribbons. So before you think of buying ribbons, be sure of the thermal printing mechanism you are using. And as you have seen in this article, there are different ribbons types for various printing materials and applications. Make sure you match them correctly to get the best quality of labels possible.

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