Here’s a question that comes up regularly: which is better for screen printing, plastisol ink or water-based ink?
The short answer is: it depends.
Obviously, that answer requires some further clarification.
Printers tend to have strong preferences, so here we will take a quick look at the pros and cons of plastisol vs water based ink for screen printing.
What is Plastisol?
If you guess that the “plasti” part of “plastisol” has something to do with plastic, you would be correct. Plastisol inks contain PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a manmade product from salt and oil. The PVC and some other polymers float in plasticizer.
Plastisol is flexible, durable, and when printed, lays directly on top of the material. Heat helps plastisol bind permanently to just about any material.
Is Plastisol Bad for the Environment?
We’ll be honest. No high-performance ink has yet to achieve environmental neutrality. Creating both plastisol inks and water based inks involves chemicals and plastics. Plastisol is relatively energy efficient to work with (compared to water based inks) and there’s little waste when printing with it. Still, there’s not yet a totally chemical-free way to produce inks, and some water-based ink manufacturers greatly exaggerate it’s pro-environmentalness.
They’re both kinda yuck, but not horrible.
What are Water-based Inks?
“Water based” can be a bit of a misnomer, since water based inks still contain acrylics (which some from plastic too!). The difference between water-based inks and plastisol is that water based inks do contain water, and get applied with water. That water starts to evaporate anytime the container is opened! So water based inks can be a little tricky to work with, as you might imagine.
Water based inks permanently stain a garment to the desired color, so they work best on lighter-colored materials.
“Discharge ink” is another kind of water based ink. It bleaches the color out of garments. A chemical, similar to formaldehyde but still applied with water, discharges the color out of the material where applied. Discharge ink is, therefore, a water based ink that can work well on darker colored materials.
How Do You Print a Vintage-looking T-shirt?
Water based inks generally work best for a vintage-looking t-shirt.
To look vintage, prints should have a worn, aged look, distressed texture and softer color.
Does Plastisol Print Better Colors?
We say water-based inks work best on lighter-colored materials, and that the print might look vintage. What are we really saying? Isn’t that a bit like when a house is described as having “a cottage feel” but what they really mean to say is, “small.”
Yeah, that’s one way to look at it: getting an exact color match with water-based inks can be difficult, nigh impossible.
Plastisol, on the other hand, can match the exact Pantone color desired. Plastisol inks include iridescent’s, glow-in-the-dark, glitter–any color one might imagine!
For exact designs and to match logos or branding, it prints truer colors.
Which Ink is More Durable?
High-quality t-shirt inks perform pretty equally. Plastisol screen printing ink binds so permanently, it will last as long as the garment itself. Similarly, water based inks permanently stain materials (or permanently bleach out/discharge the color). So, that print should last just as long as the material you print it on.
Which Ink is Cheaper?
When it comes to price, plastisol inks win. Water based inks are so difficult to work with, many printers won’t use them. When they do, you pay premium pricing. Plastisol inks have price points, like how glow-in-the dark costs more than regular. But in comparing ink colors between ink types, plastisol costs less.
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