Plastisol vs water-based ink

The smartphone industry has Apple and Samsung. E-trade has Amazon and Alibaba. The textile printing industry’s answer to those rivalries are Plastisol and water-based ink…

Plastisol, the dethroned king
When plastisol was invented it revolutionized the printing industry. Suddenly, printers were able to manufacture complex designs, print on any fabric type, and execute mass productions they previously could only dream of. The technological quantum leap that plastisol was soon caused the industry to grow to its current size, opening the door for the almost boundless artistic opportunities that brought about the iconic logos we know today.

But like money from a biker gang, such market dominance is for loan, only. In recent years, plastisol’s universal popularity has waned, and the more user-friendly, technologically advanced water-based ink has entered the market in plastisol’s footsteps. New environmental laws and influential trailblazers like Nike and Adidas have engendered a paradigm shift in the textile printing industry’s manufacturing processes and inter alia inspired a complete halt to the use of phthalates.

As many popular brands have embraced water-based ink’s softer hand and superior breathability, plastisol’s manufacturing processes, prices, and printability have irreversibly changed, causing plastisol to lose its market dominance to its water-based counterpart. 90% of all print products in Europe today are manufactured with water-based ink, and the North American market is expected to soon display similar figures.

Is this merited? Is water-based ink, regardless of market data, the ink best suited for textile printing? This is the question we attempt to answer with this blog post. Grab a cup of coffee and read along.

The perfect ink
In the best of all worlds, ink gives us a soft and easy print with exact color matching, complete vitality, adequate breathability, high-resolution that accurately reflects the design, a versatility that allows its use on most clothing products, an unbending durability that withstands wear and tear and washing, simple usage instructions, cost effectiveness, and ecological sustainability. Is that too much to ask?

We’re afraid it is. The disappointing fact is that no single ink can be relied upon to deliver such a wealth of traits, leaving stillborn the hope of uncovering a stock solution to all manufacturing processes. In lieu of blanket solutions, we are compelled to make difficult compromises each time we need to determine which ink is best suited for an order at hand. These compromises bethink individual elements that together comprise the aggregated effect on the fabric and the finished logo. There are many of these elements to consider each time, but let’s get into it and take a closer look at the most important of them.

1. Hand
‘Hand’ is defined as the product’s weight impression and how the ink feels after application. At one end of the spectrum, we have the softest and lightest prints – the most sought-after outcome – and at the other end, we have the hardest and heaviest. Water-based prints provide some of the market’s best t-shirt prints, as they are almost completely absorbed by the fabric and concomitantly left without hand. The reason for this difference in traits between water-based ink and plastisol is plastisol’s plastic base. Plastisol consists of PVC particles or other polymers imbedded in a softener and is basically liquid plastic. When the temperature of liquid plastic increases, it becomes a solid. A plastisol print is thus a layer of hardened plastic applied to a textile surface.

While water-based ink isn’t entirely free of plastic, it dissolves almost completely in water and is absorbed by the textile. When dried, the solvents vaporize, and the colored chemical bonds remain in a small ink deposit. This smaller amount of ink yields the softer hand.

Discharge ink bleaches dye commonly used with water-based ink. Discharge ink contains the chemical formaldehyde, which acts as the color-removing (discharging) element. It works especially well with colored or dark clothing but remains 100% effective on cotton, only. Bleaching the colors leaves an almost completely white base.

Printing on dark clothing with plastisol requires a layer of white ink to act as a color base. Even before all colors have been applied, a heavy print can result from this method. Thinners and techniques for reducing the ink deposit exist, but real plastisol prints with soft hand are the exception rather than the rule.

The verdict: Water-based ink provides a softer hand than does plastisol.

2. Color richness
For color richness (clearness), plastisol is, on darker clothing especially, a catcher in the rye. Water-based inks can bring about rich and colorful prints on lighter apparel, but not at the level of plastisol. When brilliant colors are the print’s raison d’être, plastisol is the best choice.

Plastisol has a manichaeist quality revealed in the exact reason for the ink’s ability to preserve and reflect minute color symphonies: Plastisol is a solid that when dried remains entirely on the textile, heavying and hardening it. The blessing that illuminates and radiates is thus also the curse that heavies and hardens.

Water-based ink prints on dark clothing have a comparatively muted, modest color expression. Where plastisol embeds itself thickly on the surface, water-based ink is absorbed into a thin layer, which the color options reflect. We note, though, that this comparative deficit ends with the perennially classic, vintage look with which water-based ink does better. Muted colors, soft hand, and a worn look – some of water-based ink’s main traits – make for the ideal path to the vintage look.

The verdict: Plastisol provides the richest colors.

3. Color accuracy
What effects plastisol’s superior richness also engenders its superior color accuracy. When precise color choices are important, as will commonly be the case with brands, the ink plays a large part, and plastisol typically plays it best. Water-based ink has made some progress in recent years, but with greatly varying results and not enough to best plastisol. Even just the difference in color richness between the two inks can cause a color to be misconfigured by several color tones – this before even considering elements such as color bleeding, drying, pressure configuration and what have you.

The verdict: Plastisol provides the best color accuracy.

4. Durability
Both inks are well-equipped to win the durability race, in which a print can be negatively affected by numerous elements. The method by which the water-based ink is absorbed into the fabric theoretically ensures the print a longevity to match that of the clothing. Similarly, plastisol’s permanent adherence to the fabric surface ought guarantee that the ink lasts as long as does the shirt. That having been said, the method by which the ink is dried will still, regardless of type, affect durability, while the ink type and its concomitant quality also will factor into the print’s ultimate constitution.

The user’s poor treatment and general lack of care about the clothing’s salubrity is, however, the by far greatest cause of any print’s short life span. Warm washing and poorly chosen detergents and bleaches do logos in as soon as look at them. This a common backdrop that broadly applies across the printing industry, but we’ll go so far as to say that we here at Jet Sport employ our own unique manufacturing process – which we cannot go into here – that imbues our water-based prints with greater durability than our plastisol equivalents.

The verdict: Water-based prints are more durable.

5. Breathability
No, breathability has nothing to do with first aid. It’s a term that conveys the fabric’s ability to let the body’s perspiration escape to the outside and avoid a clammy feeling – a trait especially availed by sports clothing. Water-based ink is absorbed deep into the fabric, leaving untouched many gaps between the fibers. This makes water-based prints more breathable than plastisol prints whose surface placement to a greater degree fuses the gaps, preventing the perspiration’s escape.

A thick layer of plastisol constituting a large, solid print is often called a “sweat patch.” As the solution doesn’t evaporate during drying, and the plastic’s chemical bonds bind to each other, an impenetrable plastic surface is created that keeps out moisture and air.

The verdict: Water-based prints provide better breathability.

6. Versatility
By ‘versatility’ we mean the ability to be used on a variety of fabric types, together with various types of ink and additives, and under disparate pressure conditions. These circumstances are important for textile printers who for cost reasons always try to keep their manufacturing processes as simple as possible. Plastisol is useable for just about any printing purpose in the book.

The same can’t be said for water-based ink, which is best suited for pure cotton fabrics. Mixed fabrics create problems, as the synthetic parts don’t absorb the ink the same way cotton does. And if you dare print water-based ink onto pure polyester, you’re just asking for trouble. When polyester reaches 140° C – the standard drying temperature for most inks – the fabric’s pores open to let the thread colors bleed through and into the ink. That’s why white prints on black polyester shirts turn out grey. Employing water-based ink will inevitably limit which fabric types can be used.

The verdict: Plastisol is more versatile.

7. Sustainability
Captained by environmental laws and a few large brands, the latest decade especially has witnessed a wave of ecological sensibility that seeks to reduce the use of PVC and stop entirely the use of the even more hazardous phthalates. Because of this swell, water-based ink has been marketed as a more environmentally friendly alternative.

But the degree to which water-based ink is actually more of a patron of Mother Nature is quite situation-dependent. Each individual ink solution has a unique footprint, and there are balancing elements to water-based ink that partially negate the benign traits to which ink manufacturers like to call attention. Some of the assertions lionizing water-based ink over plastisol are disputable at best. It is here comme il faut to point out that water-based ink, too, contains plastic in the shape of Acrylic (inter alia known as Plexiglass) and other binding agents.

Water-based ink is indeed free of PVC but on the other hand uses solutions that evaporate and leave pigmented binding agent ingredients on the clothing. Water is the primary solution, but it is often accompanied by other solutions such as formaldehyde and alcohol. These solutions can be harmful and expose the machinery to risk if insufficiently protected from certain fumes.

Water-based ink additionally requires more expended energy during the manufacturing processes. Its drying process´s discharge of moisture is typically more time-demanding than that of plastisol, and the output is lower and with more waste products to boot. These are often – sometimes by mistake, sometimes intentionally – poured down the drain. Plastisol waste products, on the other hand, can after drying be dispensed with in a manner similar to that of ordinary plastic.

The verdict: Water-based ink is a touch more sustainable than is Plastisol.

8. Affordability
Soft-hand prints are exceedingly popular these days, effecting water-based ink’s renaissance. What perhaps is not broadly realized is that this resurrection is typically accompanied by higher prices. Many printers even price it as premium or specialty ink. One possible reason for this is the many challenges working with water-based ink engenders. Water-based ink will dry on the machinery as soon as look at you and as if with a mind of its own flow into just about every nook and cranny it can find. It’s hard to exaggerate how difficult – often impossible – it is to rinse and clean a printing machine that sans due diligence has been seized upon by water-based ink.

Sufficiently quick completion of the printing process before the ink dries on the machine comprises part of such due diligence (the drying deadline can be extended by means of certain inhibiting additives), while judicious storage and handling help prevent the paint from drying in the container and becoming useless. Hence, the fact that climates vary from location to location means that no two printing setups are alike.

After manufacture and subsequent drying – which comes with challenges all of its own – a comprehensive cleaning process awaits, during which unused ink is poured back into its container, mixed with water to stay liquid, and placed back on the shelf. Any ink that ended its existence on or in the machine is removed with pressurized water over a sink designed for the purpose. Contrasted with water-based ink, plastisol has a superior consistency that makes it easier to work with for extended periods of time without the need for additives.

The verdict: Plastisol is cheaper to employ in manufacturing.

9. And the winner is…
Which printing ink should you prefer, then? The final score for our individual verdicts is 4-4. Our analysis hence completes without a clear winner and an easy answer.

With its kaleidoscopic spectrum of manufacturing materials and use purposes of end products, the world of textile printing, with each of its products sired by unique recipes, necessitates a pronounced degree of agility. The customer and manufacturer must on a case-by-case basis consider a product’s traits and use purposes before they can determine which ink suits it best. No universal solutions apply.

But okay. If absolutely compelled to present broad guiding principles for the use of plastisol and water-based ink, we’ll offer this:

1) When applying a design with muted colors on a lightly colored textile, go with water-based ink.
2) When applying a lightly colored and less than fully detailed design on a dark textile, go with plastisol.

The final verdict: Textile printing and color application are art forms as much as sciences.

Thank you for reading.

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