Which printer is best for printing durable labels - laser or thermal transfer?

Which printer is best for printing durable labels - laser or thermal transfer?

One of the most common questions asked when considering printing durable labels is ‘which printer is best for me, laser or thermal transfer?’ The truth is that both printers can produce very durable labels, therefore choosing the right printer really depends on your specific requirements such as label durability, label format, budget, working environment etc.
This article focuses on the advantages of both printing methods with real examples where laser and thermal transfer printers are used effectively in industrial and laboratory environments for printing durable labels.

Laser Printing

Laser printers are popular due to their usability and availability. Most workplaces have multiple units negating the need to purchase new printers and should any problems arise, a secondary printer is often available to continue label production. Laser printers are capable of printing high quality durable labels.

Key Advantages

  1. Low or no capital investment for printer required (you may already have one)
  2. Printers are easy to use. Simply ‘plug and play’
  3. Exceptional print quality of up to 1200 dpi
  4. Labels can be printed in batches or sets and are easy to store / distribute
  5. Perfect for medium-volume print cycles
  6. Laser printing offers a huge range of label sheet sizes (up to A4)
  7. Full colour printing available
  8. Laser printers are generally low maintenance and easy to replace toners and to troubleshoot
  9. Various label adhesives are available, options include:
    - Permanent solvent acrylic
    - High-tack solvent acrylic 
    - Heavy-duty high-tack solvent acrylic 
    - Removable
    - Ultra-removable
    - Void/tamper evident
    - Opaque
    - Water soluble
    - Repositionable
  10. Durability - Laser labels are resistant to:
    - Extreme temperatures (-196°C to +388°C)
    - Harsh industrial processes (wave solder, infra-red ovens etc.)
    - Harsh laboratory processes (autoclave and sterilisation cycles etc.)
    - Mild chemicals and solvent e.g. 90% alcohol, IPA, etc. 
    - Fuels: Diesel and petrol splashes
    - Weathering/UV exposure
    - Abrasion / frequent handling
    - Humidity, moisture and salt water
    - Industrial fluids (hydraulics, brakes, fuels and oils)
    - Grease / hydraulic oil

Thermal Transfer Printing

Thermal transfer printers are chosen for their compatibility with the widest range of materials, providing the greatest label durability. They are ideal for printing individual labels or runs of thousands. Models range from compact desktop printers to larger more robust metal encased industrial units.

Key Advantages

  1. They are ideal for all print volumes, from one-at-a-time to tens of thousands
  2. Very good print quality up to 600 dpi (dots per inch) sharp enough for all text, data and barcode information.
  3. Print speed is excellent (up to 10 inches per second)
  4. Thermal transfer printing ensures accurate print alignment for consistent print placement
  5. Interchangeable ribbons (the right combination of ribbon and label and computer Imprintable coating results in a highly durable, scratch and solvent resistant labels)
  6. Thermal transfer printers are able to print long labels up to 39” (990.6mm) and up to 8.5” (216mm), ideal for use on hoses, pipes and cables.
  7. Thermal transfer printers can be used as a ‘standalone’ print station without the need of connecting to a PC
  8. Maintenance agreements are easy to set up for the smooth running of your labelling operation
  9. Various label adhesives are available, options include:
    - Permanent solvent acrylic
    - High-tack solvent acrylic 
    - Heavy-duty high-tack solvent acrylic 
    - Removable 
    - Ultra-removable 
    - Void/tamper evident 
    - Opaque 
    - Water soluble 
    - Repositionable
  10. Durability – Thermal Transfer labels are resistant to:
    - Extreme temperatures (-196°C to +388°C)
    - Harsh industrial processes (wave solder, infra-red ovens etc.)
    - Harsh laboratory processes (autoclave and sterilisation cycles etc.)
    - Improved resistance to chemicals and solvents such as: Skydrol®, Acetone, Xylene, 
      petrol rub, thinners, Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), Hydraulic fluids, Brake fluids
    - Cleaning solvents, Isopropyl alcohol (IPA), Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), Tetrahydrofuran (THF), Toluene etc.
    - Grease and Degreasers
    - Fuels: Petrol and diesel
    - Abrasion / frequent handling
    - Weathering/UV exposure
    - Humidity and moisture
    - Industrial fluids (hydraulic, brake, etc.)

4 Examples of ideal printer choice

Example 1: Large format labels
An international chemicals producer required durable A4 size labels to identify chemical drums and barrels. Due to the large size of the label as well as the added requirement of needing to print colour pictograms, laser printing was their best option. 

Durable Drum and barrel labels could easily be laser printed with important data including compliance and safety information. The computer imprintable durable labels were permanently applied to both metal and plastic drums safe in the knowledge that they would withstand the harshest of transport and storage conditions, resist chemicals, petroleum, weathering, cleaning solutions, water & humidity etc.

Example 2: Durable label sets

A clinical trials co-ordinator of a large pharmaceutical company needed to provide sets of 40 durable sample identification labels for individual patients which could be distributed easily to nurses and later stored in a freezer at -80°C. It was also important to have the option to print coloured indicator strips to enable easy sample tracking and identification. 

The clinical trial coordinator already had a colour laser printer therefore only needed to have the computer printable durable labels supplied 40 per sheet, part-printed with patient, study and sample information, ready for variable data to be added and then distributed. Laser sheets proved much easier to handle and store while data remained protected against sample processing, moisture and -80°C freezer storage.

Example 3: Acetone resistant labels for industrial environments

An automotive manufacturer needed to print durable labels to provide critical safety and operational information which would remain firmly affixed for the life of the vehicle. The labels needed to adhere to smooth, textured and sometimes oily surfaces and resist the effects of high temperatures, abrasion and harsh chemicals and solvents such as Acetone and MEK.


The best printing solution for their needs were industrial grade metal cased thermal transfer printers. These rugged printers are equipped to print accurately in high volume with the option to print on a wide variety of label materials giving production flexibility to create a broad selection labels for ‘under the hood’ use, as well as labels for the vehicle interior. Printer maintenance agreements were chosen to ensure the continuous running of the label printing station within the production line.

Example 4: Ultra-Solvent resistant labels

A global provider of laboratory consumables needed to print ultra-solvent resistant labels for Slide Labelling kits which could survive prolonged exposure to Xylene (and other aggressive solvents such as IMS and IDA) without text smudging, lifting or labels falling off slides.

There are no laser label materials durable enough to withstand prolonged exposure to xylene, therefore the only solution was to use a thermal transfer printer with a specific CILS RRD ribbon combined with labels featuring a compatible computer imprintable coating.

Need help?

CILS will work with you to determine the most efficient method of printing durable labels for your applications. Contact one of our label technicians today to discuss your specific needs.