Quick Guide to Choosing the Right Barcode Label



If you need to use barcode labels in your business, you always want a few basic things.

You want your label to stick, and you want it to be easily readable and scannable throughout the life of your application.

Those seem like pretty simple requirements, but they can become a lot harder to achieve if you don’t choose the right barcode label for your application. And that means picking the right label based on the environment where you’re applying it, how and where it’s going to be used, and specific challenges these factors might create.

This is why there are thousands of barcode labels to choose from, including many with specialized materials and matching ribbons to make sure your labels stick and remain readable and scannable for as long as you need.

But you can quickly narrow down your choices and find the right label by understanding the following key factors in label selection.

In this quick overview, our label experts at Tri-State Business Systems will walk you through the factors you should keep in mind, and provide some initial tips to help point you in the right direction. And once you have a good idea of what sort of label you might need, we can work with you to help select a specific solution from our selection of over 500+ stock Zebra labels and printing supplies products. Or we’ll connect you with Zebra and help you design a custom solution for your application.

For now, let’s jump into our quick guide to choosing the right barcode label and review the main factors to consider. 

Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer

Direct thermal printing is designed for applications that require a shorter lifespan, such printing labels for office use or shipping.

Direct thermal printing doesn’t use ink, toner or ribbon. It creates the image directly on a paper label. But this means the image has limited durability.

If you need a long-lasting and durable label image and/or protection against temperatures, abrasion or chemicals, you need to use thermal transfer.

Thermal transfer uses a thermal printhead to apply heat to a printer ribbon. This melts ink onto the label, forming a much more durable image.

This process, combined with specialized label materials, can meet demanding application and environmental requirements. But you need to choose the right label and match it with the correct thermal transfer ribbon.

Thermal Transfer Ribbons

Wax Ribbons are for applications with little to no exposure to weak chemicals and/or moderate abrasion.

Wax/Resin Ribbons are for extreme chemical exposure and/or exposure to moderate abrasion, or where UL/cUL approval is required.

Resin Ribbons are for harsh to extreme chemical exposure and/or exposure to excessive abrasion, and UL/cUL approval.

Application Factors

Label Lifespan

If your label only requires readability for a limited time and doesn’t need resistance to chemicals, moisture, and/or abrasion, a direct thermal paper label will meet your needs. Otherwise, a specialty thermal transfer synthetic label is almost certainly required.


Different materials and adhesives may be required to adhere labels to curved or unusual surfaces.

Extreme Temperatures

Application temperature is the temperature at which you apply your label. Service temperature the range when your label is in use.

Standard label materials perform well when the application temperature is a minimum of 25°F, and service temperature ranges from -65°F to 200°F.

If you’re labeling outside these ranges, you need to use thermal transfer printing and labels, and probably a specialty adhesive.

Abrasion Resistance

If your label needs resistance to rubbing or scratching, use a ribbon with higher resin content.

Applicator Use

If you’ll be using a label applicator, the label must be cut differently so it peels off properly from the liner. Perforations aren’t recommended because they alter label stiffness, making it difficult to release from the liner.

Chemical Resistance

If your label will be exposed to moderate to extreme chemicals, use thermal transfer printing and labels. In the case of harsh and extreme chemicals, a high-durability resin ribbon is also recommended.

Indoor/Outdoor Use

If your label will be regularly exposed to outdoor conditions such as sun, rain or snow, it’s best to use a thermal transfer synthetic label.

Print Speed, Darkness and Dots Per Inch (DPI)

Certain label materials and ribbons will cause printing to be slower or faster, and some combinations will require higher print darkness and/or higher DPI. Synthetic labels may also be needed for proper printing. Keep these factors in mind and ask your label provider what you can expect.


Getting Help with Choosing Your Barcode Label

These guidelines should help you narrow down the barcode labels and printing supplies you’ll need to consider. But if you’d like to get expert advice, contact our team at Tri-State Business Systems to request our Zebra label and supplies selector guide, and get professional guidance.


We’ll walk you through the selection process and make sure you choose the right label, materials, and ribbon for your application.