In the screen printing industry, water-based vs. plastisol inks are the most popular. While choosing between the two options often cause massive debates, what really matters is you understand how each applies on printing surfaces and see which better suits your needs.
So, what are the water-based vs. plastisol inks’ differences? Let’s go find out!
How water-based screen printing ink works
Just as you’d expect from its name, this type of ink is made with water. Using water-based ink means the fabric of the shirt is dyed directly, its color is fully replaced with ink color. In other words, rather than placing the ink on top of the garment, the best screen printing ink seeps right into the fabric.
What is plastisol printing?
Unlike water-based screen printing ink, plastisol ink is plastic-based, which means it is made of PVC particles or other polymers suspended in a plasticizer. The way it works is that plastisol ink lays directly on top of the shirt fabric and doesn’t get absorbed right into the garment. You can easily recognize the layer of ink on shirts printed with this ink type.
Plastisol vs. water-based screen print inks
From what I’ve mentioned above, you must have figured out the main difference between the two kinds of ink. To help you understand more clearly, I will compare them following these 5 main categories: durability, softness, colors, environmental friendliness, and cost.
Water-based vs. plastisol inks seem like a big argument, but there is not much to argue about their durability. Since the water-based screen printing ink is now part of the fabric, and plastisol stuck permanently on the surface, their prints’ endurance should depend on how the garment lasts.
So, whether your shirts are screen-printed with water-based or plastisol ink, the way you treat your apparel will decide the prints’ quality over time. The ink quality and fabric type also play a big role in keeping the design from cracking or peeling.
Thanks to its ability to absorb into the fabric, the hand from water-based ink usually feels so soft and lightweight that the print is like a part of the shirt (“hand” is how the ink feels like when you run your fingers across the design). In contrast, plastisol print can be felt heavier and thicker since sitting right on top of the garment is a layer of solidified plastic.
How about the hand softness when printing on the darker garment? This is tricky to some extent, but there are different techniques to make it possible.
With discharge printing, a process of removing the pigment out of the fabric, water-based ink is applied to the dark garment. To be more precise, when the chemical from discharge ink has bleached all the pigment out, the base now becomes white will be transformed with your artwork’s dye. Therefore, the water-based ink, not surprisingly, still achieves its softness when we touch the print.
On the contrary, it is required for plastisol ink to have a white ink base underneath to make colors appear vibrant. So, when layering other colors on top, the print seems even heavier, but luckily, as technology develops, there are different procedures to help reduce the ink deposit (if you want).
Water-based ink may win by having the softer and more lightweight hand, but the best plastisol ink can make the final print product look more vibrant and accurate in terms of colors.
The solid plasticized ink allows the colors of the design to stay accurate as well as pop off its brightness and saturation on shirts. It also works beautifully on dark garments. So, if you love your colors to stay true to Pantone, rich, and vivid, plastisol ink is the way to go.
At the same time, water-based ink is more transparent, and discharge ink can make the base off-white, which prevents the print from achieving its vibrancy. Also, despite technology improvements, the color accuracy is far from achieved comparing to plastisol ink. However, if you are into vintage and retro look, and looking vibrant is not too necessary, the soft hand shirts with muted colors are made for you.
Talking about eco-friendly elements, water-based ink definitely wins the round, but only slightly. When it comes to production, each type of ink can create a certain amount of environmental footprint.
While there has long been a lot of claims about plastisol ink’s negative effect on the environment for containing plastics and PVC, water-based ink requires more energy to be used by print shops and sometimes needs other harmful solvents to help with the printing process as well.
Therefore, whether the two ink types are eco-friendly or not will depend on how the print shops manage their production as well as waste treatment.
If you are looking for a more financial option, go for plastisol ink. For water-based printing, there are some difficulties such as the long time needed to cure the ink, dry ink clogging in screens, etc., which results in additional production costs.
Despite having a thicker hand and lower breathability when done, many printing companies still prefer plastisol ink because it is easier to work with and requires less time and cost.
In brief, to know which ink type works best for you, you have to answer some questions first, how you want your print to feel, how the colors appear, how much you can afford, etc. Each one has its benefits and drawbacks, so my advice is that you should not be biased but follow your own needs.
If you find this guide useful and want to learn more about screen printing and related matters, check out my other articles. I have also written about another debate, which is between screen printing vs. digital printing if you love comparisons.
Have fun gathering tips and tricks for your own projects, folks!