Which Screen Printing Ink is the Best? Lets Compare Water-based Ink vs. Plastisol.

In the decorated apparel world, there are various methods to print custom graphics, and screen printing continues to be the fan-favorite. However, there are two categories of inks: Plastisol and Water-based.

The next question is: Which one is better? In this post, We’ll compare & contrast the two main types of inks to give you the answer.

Water based vs. Plastisol: Which ink is better?

There are many things in this industry. The answer is, it depends. If you’ve light-colored cotton t-shirts and you’re printing a detailed design with muted colors, water-based is the way to go. If you’ve dark-colored t-shirts, plastisol is the best choice if you are going to print a not-so-detailed design. However, it still depends, even with such specific examples.

plastisol_ink_screen_printing
Plastisol may stay like this for a long time & still be fluid and ready to use.

Ideally, what we all want from the ink is a soft & lightweight print that achieves accurate color matching along with optimal levels of vibrancy, i.e., breathable, holds the details of a design, is versatile enough to print on a variety of garments, is durable enough to stand up to years of wearing & washing, is easy to use, cost-effective, & eco-friendly.

Is there a kind of ink that can do all that? Nope. Is that too much to ask? Probably.

The main question is not which ink is better, but which is best for which circumstance? There are many factors to consider, & for this post, we have broken them down into the top eight. Keep in mind there will be different considerations for different customers, & a different set if you’re a printer. Let’s quickly go through them.

1. Water based ink has a softer hand (usually)

In printer language, “hand” refers to the way a print feels, along with its weight. The hand could be super soft and light (yes, please), or rough and heavy (no thanks), or somewhere in between. Water-based ink can produce soft & light t-shirt prints out there, and in the best cases, there is virtually no hand–which is a good thing.

Why does the water based ink have a softer hand?

The reason for this is the fundamental difference between both inks. Plastisol is plastic-based and made from PVC particles or other polymers suspended in plasticizer. It is primarily liquid plastic. When exposed to a high temperature (or cured), it becomes a solid. Thus, a Plastisol print is a layer of solidified plastic that sits on top of the fabric.

plastisol-vs-water-based-print

Water based ink is not entirely free of plastic. It is mostly water-soluble & absorbs into the fabric. When this ink gets cured, water-based solvents evaporate, leaving behind pigmented binder compounds – less than plastisol’s ink deposit. The hand gets so soft on some water-based prints that it seems to be just a dyed fabric.

The softer hand of water-based ink on darker garments is accomplished with the help of another type of ink.

Discharge

This ink, commonly used with water-based inks, leaves nothing at all behind–in fact, it takes something away.

Discharge ink has a chemical (formaldehyde) that bleaches the dye out of the garments. It is particularly useful for dark or colored clothing, but can only be used effectively on 100% cotton. When you “discharge” a dye from a garment, you create an (almost) white base.

Printing dark garments with plastisol, on the other hand (or should we say heavier hand), requires a layer of white ink to create an opaque under the base to print vibrant colors. It can make a heavier print even before all the colors are placed on top of it. There are thinners and methods to reduce the deposit of ink, but soft-hand plastisol prints are the exception, not the rule.

Bottom line: Water-based inks are able to achieve a softer and lighter hand between these two inks.

Yet they don’t do so with flying colors.

2. Plastisol ink has a better color vibrancy

Color vibrancy (saturation, brightness) is where plastisol shines, especially on darker garments. Water-based inks can produce a vibrant print in lighter garment colors, but still not. When you need colors to be dynamic and brilliant and pop off the print, go with Plastisol screen printing. It is one reason it remains the long-time industry standard.

plastisol-color-vibrancy

The reason is that it has a heavier hand: a layer of plasticized ink that covers the color of the garment. Plastisol is considered to be 100% solid, so every bit stays on the fabric when it gets cured. It blocks the dye & creates a mostly opaque under the base to print bright, bold colors–even fluorescent colors & specialty inks such as glow-in-the-dark and puff.

The vibrancy of water-based ink prints on dark garments is minimal. Not only are the inks transparent than plastisol, but it is also harder to get bright white under base, and using discharge printing gives you an off-white under-base, minimizing the overall potential for a vivid print. Colors appear more muted, which is usually desired.

3. Plastisol ink has better color accuracy

For the same reasons that the colors with screen printing plastisol inks are more vivid, the color match can be achieved up to a particular Pantone shade. If your print colors need to be accurate (let’s say for branding consistency), plastisol is the way to go. No matter the t-shirt color or the type of fabric, if you need the color to be bright red 185 C, that’s what you get.

The results may vary with water-based inks. Improvements have been made over the years. However, they are not enough to defeat plastisol. The difference in vibrancy on its own can account for the color being a few shades off. And that’s before you make any other things like color shifts due to dye migration, curing, pressing conditions when Mercury is in retrograde, and everything else.

4. Both inks are incredibly durable

Many factors contribute to a print’s durability. Because of the way water-based inks get absorbed into the fabric, the print should last as long as the garment does. Since plastisol is permanently bonded to the surface, it should also last as long as your T-shirt does.

In other words, if printing is not properly cured, no matter what type of ink used, the durability of printing is affected. Other factors, including the quality of the ink and the type of fabric, have a role to play. The most significant factor by far is the treatment & care of the garment itself–if you wash with hot water, heavy detergent and bleach every week, neither print will hold up well over time.

5. Water-based ink has better breathability

Breathability, although it sounds like it is airflow, is more about the ability of moisture to move through the fabric. Water based screen printing inks absorb more in-depth into the fabric; many of the openings between the fibers are left open. It brings more breathability to water-based prints than the Plastisol print — which helps to close those tiny gaps.

Plastisol’s thick layers make a large, solid print is sometimes referred to as a “sweat patch.” Since none of the solutions evaporates during curing and the plastic compounds bond to each other, it can create an impermeable synthetic surface that doesn’t let moisture or air through it. Hence the sweat patch.

Air & moisture can still pass through the fibers of most water-based prints.
Air & moisture can still pass through the fibers of most water-based prints.

6. Plastisol ink has greater versatility

By versatility, we mean the flexibility to be used on different fabric types, with various kinds of inks & additives, and under different press conditions. If this sounds like an essential factor, it is mainly for screen printers. It is one of the key reasons why plastisol has remained the industry standard for decades, although as DTG printing is nipping at its feet.

Plastisol print can be done on just about anything else. (That doesn’t mean you should, but you can)

Metallic silver ink print using Plastisol
Metallic-silver ink print using Plastisol

Water-based inks are not so much. They are best suited for 100% cotton fabrics. You start to run into some difficulties with blended fabrics because the synthetic parts of the fabric do not absorb the ink as cotton does. If you print water-based inks on polyester, you’re going to have a bad time. It’s going to get real tricky fast.

Bottom line: Your garments options will be limited if you want a high-quality water-based screen print.

7. Water-based ink is more eco-friendy (slightly)

Recently, there has been a significant drive toward “eco-friendly” production methods, led by some major brands, to reduce the use of PVC and to move entirely away from phthalates (an even more toxic polymer). As a result, key players in the industry are marketing water-based inks as a solution.

How much better are water-based inks for the environment?

Every ink has a different environmental footprint, and there are water-based ink trades that negate some of the positive attributes that ink manufacturers claim. Some of the claims made, in particular pro-waterbased and anti-plastisol, are questionable at best.

It may be a good time to point out that water-based inks also contain plastic in the form of acrylics & other binding agents.

While water-based inks are PVC-free, they depend on solvents that evaporate, leaving the pigmented binder compounds on the garments. The first solution is water, but they usually contain co-solvents such as formaldehyde & alcohol. These co-solvents can be harmful & put printers at risk unless they are adequately protected from the evaporative fumes.

Water-based inks generally require more energy to be used by print shops. Driving out moisture during the curing process can take much longer than plastisol. They usually have a lower yield than plastisol– & therefore more waste, which often (and mistakenly) gets poured down the drain. Once cured, plastic waste can be disposed of as regular plastic.

This isn’t to say that dried ink that ends up in a landfill is fine, but to emphasize that water-based waste is not much better.

Curing Plastisol is as easy as cranking up the heat.
Curing Plastisol is as easy as cranking the heat.

What’s bad about PVC?

Polyvinyl chloride, known as PVC, and even more widely known as vinyl, appears to have had a bad reputation over the years. Of course, there are some issues with it, as there are for any mass-produced chemical products. However, many of the charges against it are overblown & have been debunked.

PVC is exceptionally easily recyclable, low maintenance, and it doesn’t off-gas or leaches harmful chemicals if it comes in touch with water. Moreover, the PVC manufacturing process doesn’t require an excellent deal of energy. Therefore the PVC itself is lightweight, which dramatically cuts down the carbon footprint of manufacturing and shipping PVC products.

Plastisol Ink
It might look like icing on a cake, but don’t eat it.

PVC remains one of the most popular and common plastic products in the world, across a wide range of industries. However, there is a push to replace this ink compound. Alternatives are showing some promise until those alternatives can match the versatility, consistency, & reliability of plastisol; it’s not happening anytime soon.

Bottom line: how “green” a print shop has much more to do with how it’s managed than which kinds of ink it uses.

8. Plastisol ink has a lower cost (usually)

Softer-hand prints are all the rage these days, so water-based ink enjoys a resurgence on its own. What people might not realize is that it comes at a higher price. Most of the printers even price it as a premium or specialty ink. There is a multitude of difficulties with it (see below), resulting in additional costs that will often be passed on to you.

In other words, shops specializing in water-based printing are able to reduce these costs. Additionally, there is a lot of competition out there, so the prices will vary from printer to printer. Here at Wannaink, we like to keep our prices competitive.

Plastisol Ink Print on T-shirt

PRO TIP: Plastisol ink is easy to use and has a higher yield.

Customer trying to order T-shirts for your team, these will not be a factor for you. If you’re a printer, they are. Plastisol remains stable for the most part and therefore maintains its workability. It’s also pretty straightforward as far as getting a job done. In most situations, you can go straight out of the bucket, to the screen, to the t-shirt, to the dryer, to the box.

Metallic Print

Water-based inks are usually harder to work with. They’ve high viscosity & many things that can go wrong.

Because of these reasons, most of the print shops don’t even bother with water-based printing. There are different complications & formulas for different types of garments, so as a printer, you should know what needs to be done. You need to use low-cure additives, dye blockers, and “high-solid” acrylic inks to avoid problems. Plus, it’s starting to dry out. (There’s no pressure!)

Wannaink recommends: Plastisol

Our overall verdict between the two inks is that plastisol comes to the top. It is versatile enough to be printed with full-color vibrancy & precision on any garment. It can achieve photo-realistic simulated process printing and supports a wide range of specialty / special-effect inks. It’s affordable, durable, and can be printed without leaving a heavy hand.

Plastisol Screen Print

For a review of this article, see the infographic below. When you’re ready to create your design and order custom printing, get in touch with an apparel consultant at +91 965-454-6400.

water based screen printing vs. plastisol screen printing

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