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Screen Printing Ink Types : The Battle of the Inks

One of the most common questions we get here at Superior Is “What is the difference between traditional plastisol and water-based ink?” We are going to break out the main differences for these two main screen printing ink types, both for feel, printability, and the overall ingredients for each. Let’s dive in and see why you’d want to choose plastisol vs water based inks, or water based vs plastisol!

The first and most notable difference between these two is the hand, or feel, of the ink. The printing process and chemistry of water-based is much different than plastisol. With any water-based or discharge water-based ink the pigment actually integrates or soaks into the fabric. 

Plastisol ink pigment sits on top of the fabric. This is one of the main reasons water-based ink has such a soft feel and is becoming more and more desirable for printing onto fashion blanks.  If you are looking to create soft custom t shirts, water based ink will give you the softest tees possible.

Screen Printing Ink Types

Pros and Cons of Water Based Ink Screen Printing

As we discussed, water-based screenprinting ink is typically a better option when printing on fashion blanks because the hand (feel) of the ink is so much softer. If done right, you should not be able to feel the ink on the garment once it’s been washed.

Water-based ink by itself does not have a high opacity (coverage) due to the viscosity (thickness) of the ink. It is truly liquid form with low density making the colors very dull when printed directly on on dark garments.

In order to use this ink on dark shirts, you need to print a white base or add a discharge agent to the ink. The discharge agent creates a chemical reaction. Once heated to the proper temperature, it actually pulls the dye from the fabric and integrates the new ink pigment. This allows for nice bright coverage.

Unfortunately, not all shirt dyes have the same chemical compound. This can make for inconsistent color matching. We recommend several fashion brands that we found work the best for this process.

The other downside to printing water based ink is the limitations for sourcing the right fabric. If printing on a dark garment, the majority of the fabric must be cotton.

For best results and bright colors, 100% cotton is required. Water-based ink can be used to print on tri-blends or 50/50 blends, but the colors will be muted.  The dye holds to the cotton fibers only. When you have other foreign materials in the fabric such as polyester, rayon, or modal, the reaction process is limited, causing the print to look faded or dull.  So a 50/50 tee would only show roughly 50% opacity since the Polyester won’t hold water based screen printing ink.

One option to mitigate this problem is called hybrid printing. This is the process of using a discharge base, which pulls the dye out creating a soft underlay, and then printing plastisol or fashion based ink on top. This will help reduce the hand (feel) of the ink while still keeping the colors bright.

The other downside to this ink from a production standpoint is the shelf life. Unlike plastisol, water-based ink will dry out and go bad. Once you add discharge agent to the ink, you only have 48 hours to use it again or it expires. This can be offset by not adding the agent to the ink until ready to print, but it can be difficult to judge how much ink to mix for each job.

This process causes more waste. With this considered, although it is a more sustainable option, there is excess waste for this process which can offset the “green” or eco friendly values of the product. That being said, water based printing is still the most eco friendly screen printing ink type available.

PRO’S FOR WATER BASED INK

  • Softer Feel
  • Natural ingredients (for light garments)
  • Allows skin to breathe through print (less sweaty)

CON’S FOR WATER BASED INK

  • Fabric limitations
  • Less color accuracy
  • Shelf Life

 

Pros and Cons of Plastisol Based Ink

Plastisol ink is one of the most commonly used screen printing ink type and has been around for decades. It has been the primary ink  until fairly recently as more and more companies have been converting. Plastisol is a much more user friendly ink, as it is more accurate for matching Pantone colors. It does not have a shelf life so you can mix extra ink for the job to use at a later time.

The viscosity of plastisol ink is much thicker making for a more opaque print. Making the coverage much better, especially on dark garments.

Since there’s no fabric dying involved in the printing process, plastisol can be used for most fabric types. The ingredients of the shirt do not have much effect on the outcome of colors. This is a preferred process from a production standpoint, as it is a standardized ink that works across a multitude of different garment substrates.

The downside is that the ink has a much thicker feel to it. Since it is sitting on top of the fibers versus soaking into them, it is a noticeable hand and can often feel similar to rubber or plastic if not based down.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the thickness of the ink. By using a soft hand or fashion soft base, we are able to eliminate the thickness and give it a much softer feel. However, it is very difficult to achieve the same results as what you would get with water-based ink.  Plastisol is not the way to go if you are looking for eco friendly screen printing options.

 

PROS FOR PLASTISOL INK

  • Good coverage
  • Little to no ink waste
  • Very few fabric limitations
  • Additives can be used to offset thick feel

CONS FOR PLASTISOL INK

  • Thicker feel
  • Doesn’t let skin breathe through fabric
  • Less sustainable ingredients

 

Plastisol Vs Waterbased Screen Printing: Which One is Best For My Job?

We are here to help you decide what makes sense for your project.  As a general guideline, see if there’s one detail that you value more than everything else.  If you’re looking for the eco friendly screen printing option, than you won’t want to go with plastisol.  Printing on dark blended (not 100% cotton) fabric and need a super bright print?  Plastisol really is the only option, or a mix of both processes.  Looking to make super soft custom t shirts?  Then water based ink is the clear winner.

Great results truly can be produced with both ink types and the right approach in just about any case.