Thermal Transfer - Topcoated vs. Non-Topcoated

While reviewing a product summary guide from one of our major suppliers, I learned a shocking statistic.

They now offer 19 different thermal transfer paper materials (that count goes NUTS once you add films to the count).  Now add in 5 more key suppliers and we have a salad bar of thermal transfer options available.

There is one property that divides the list that you should consider.  Topcoating.


Top coating is added to a thermal label material to provide an ideal printing surface.  They allow thermal labels to withstand higher temperatures, harsh cleansers and solvents.  They also allow for better thermal transfer ribbon receptivity.  Simply, the topcoat offers you a better print and increased durability.


In the dawn of thermal printing, most/all materials were top-coated.  Then cost and competitive pressure took over.  Better scanning equipment made part of this possible but so did the drive to lower cost.  The result is non-topcoated thermal materials.

Non-topcoated labels do have their place but you need to be careful.  This is what you can expect:

  • Generally used for short term use
  • Fade faster
  • Scuff easier
  • Lower barcode readability
  • Lower print speeds
  • Less cost

Testing becomes critical when moving to a non-topcoated material.  Simply, since thermal ribbons do not bond as well, you must work with your speed and energy (heat) setting to get the image desired.  You will not get the deep blacks desired and you will not be able to run at higher speeds.  We commonly see a need to change thermal transfer ribbon formulations to get acceptable results.


Both topcoated and non-topcoated have their place.  In my label-utopia everyone uses a topcoated material but I do understand cost is always a consideration.  With that in mind, test any non-topcoated material and align with a knowledgeable label supplier that can walk you through your transition (like Labelmatch).