CB21-004 - Pigment ink vs sublimation ink What is the difference

What is the difference between pigment and sublimation ink?

When printing you need to use the best ink for the job. You may be a crafter, but all the different types of inks needed for t-shirts or photos may be better left to the printing pros. So figuring out which ink to use will leave you questioning what’s the difference between pigment and sublimation ink. 

The difference between pigment and sublimation ink is what they’re made of, the type of job, and the printer each ink is used for. Pigment ink is made from pigment powder. Comparatively, sublimation ink is made of solid plastic or plant-based material that’s heated before printing. 

Both pigment and sublimation ink last for years depending on storage, but they are made to be used in different ways. The benefit of knowing how to use them properly means you’ll always get the best results.

Here we’ll go over the best printers and ways to use pigment ink and sublimation ink. Get your printers ready because with either ink you can print anything your heart desires. 

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What is the difference between pigment and sublimation ink?

The difference between pigment and sublimation ink is the application of each ink and the materials they’re made of. Pigment ink is made from pigment powder and sublimation ink is a solid vinyl chloride copolymer made to be heated and turned into gas. 

Some of the most notable differences between pigment ink and sublimation ink:

  • Pigment ink is made of pigment powder/Sublimation ink is a solvent-based dye made of vinyl chloride and other substances
  • Pigment ink is used on paper/Sublimation is used on textiles  
  • Both inks are water-resistant, but Pigment ink is rarely water-soluble/Sublimation ink is water-soluble
  • Pigment ink is used in inkjet printers/ Sublimation ink is used in dye-sublimation printers 
  • Both last up to 100 years depending on storage, but pigment usually lasts a bit longer

As many differences as sublimation and pigment ink have they are similar in their overall uses. They are both high-end inks that can be used for a multitude of long-lasting projects. 

Both pigment ink and sublimation ink are more stable than other dye-based inks. Neither ink will smudge easily and can stand up well to light. The dyes won’t fade easily either, but pigment ink is more resistant to oxidation, humidity, and light than sublimation ink.

What is pigment ink?

Pigment ink is made up of solid particles from pigment powder. The tiny parcels are colored materials that bond together to sit on top of printed objects. Pigment-based ink is more costly, but doesn’t smudge and lasts longer than other dye-based inks. 

Most inkjet printers use dye-based inks and they fade when they are exposed to sunlight. Pigment ink is different because it’s not made up of dye that dissolves in water like dye-based ink. 

Pigment ink, therefore, is better for prints that will be saved for a long time. The chance that your project may smudge in storage is a good reason to choose pigment ink over dye ink

You’ll find that pigment ink is more expensive and used in top-end photo printers. The cost may be worth it when you need high-quality photos that need to absorb the light around them. 

However, pigment ink is not only for documents, you can use them to print on fabric and other materials as well. Since pigment ink resists water and light it can avoid fading for up to 200 years on whatever material you print on. 

What is sublimation ink?

Sublimation ink is more about the process of printing than the ink itself. In sublimation printing, heat and pressure turns ink into a gas. The ink transfers from paper to fabrics in a heat transfer or press without ever turning into a liquid. 

Sublimation ink is made to withstand high temperatures without fading or cracking. While the ink can be used on paper, it’s mostly transferred onto textiles. 

The ink is special because it fuses with materials like polyester, instead of sitting on top. The durability of the ink is why it’s used for specific items like mugs, t-shirts, flip flops, or coasters

Do you need a special printer for pigment or sublimation inks?

Pigment ink doesn’t require a special printer. Pigment ink can be used in an inkjet printer or a sublimation printer. On the other hand, sublimation ink was specifically made for a sublimation printer. 

You will need a sublimation printer to use sublimation ink. Sublimation ink prints motifs from a sublimation printer onto sublimation paper. You then take that paper and use a transfer press or mug heat press to transfer your design.

In the past, it was general practice to try and convert an older printer into a sublimation printer. Some inkjet and Epson printers can be converted into sublimation printers, but there is no need. Today, good quality sublimation printers can be purchased and are more affordable than in the past. 

It’s best to purchase a sublimation printer to get the best quality you can.

Can pigment inks be used for sublimation printing?

In some cases, pigment inks can be used for sublimation printing. However, it may be better to use pigment ink for high-quality photos. 

While in general, pigment ink can possibly last slightly longer than sublimation ink considering it’s used in an inkjet printer on paper. 

If you use pigment ink for textiles, they work best on cotton. Simply because on polyester, it won’t bond with the fabric the way sublimation ink will. 

The job you are doing and the material you are using is the determining factor on if you should use the ink for sublimation printing. 

Sublimation ink is made to be slightly transparent when transferred onto t-shirts and mugs which plays a role in how bright the color looks on textiles. The number of times you wash a t-shirt will help you see the difference between using pigment ink and sublimation ink.

Sublimation ink will provide a more vibrant color on polyester than pigment ink. However, nothing can beat pigment ink when it comes to printing high-quality documents. 

The choice is still up to you, but the fact is sublimation ink is more affordable than pigment ink. Depending on the project pigment ink could work for sublimation printing, but sublimation will work best in most cases. 

What material can you print on with pigment or sublimation inks?

The best part about pigment or sublimation ink is it can be printed on paper, cotton, vinyl, polyester, and more fabrics. Pigment ink works best on paper and cotton while sublimation ink works great on polyester and other textiles.

Each ink was made to be used for their specific printing process. So pigment ink is still best in inkjet printers on paper and sublimation is best for sublimation printing and using heat presses. 

Sublimation ink is perfect for printing on:

  • Tshirts
  • Flags
  • Banners 
  • Mousepads
  • Mugs
  • Flip Flops

Pigment ink is perfect for printing:

  • Magazines
  • Posters
  • Brochures

While sublimation ink is made for sublimation printing on fabrics and other materials like vinyl, pigment ink can also be used for anything sublimation ink can be used for. 

Are pigment and sublimation ink safe for skin?

Pigment and sublimation ink is not meant to be used on the skin. Therefore, pigment and sublimation ink are not considered safe for skin. Ink can cause irritation to the eyes and skin, so avoid contact.

Be careful not to confuse pigment ink for tattoos with pigment ink for inkjet printers. Tattoo ink is made for the skin using bright “pigments” for color. Pigment ink for inkjet printers is powder suspended in liquid and not made for the skin. 

If you are exposed to pigment or sublimation ink during the printing process they can be washed away. However, ink may stain your skin temporarily. Rubbing alcohol is the most effective way to get the ink off of your skin. 

Summary: Pigment vs Sublimation ink

Pigment and sublimation ink are different and similar in many ways. They are both vibrant and long-lasting, but even more so when used properly. 

While it’s possible to use pigment ink for sublimation printing, for best results use them as directed. To use each ink you may need a special printer, for example, an inkjet, a sublimation printer, and a heat press. 

While pigment ink can’t be beaten on paper documents, sublimation ink works best on polyester t-shirts. Play around with both inks for different projects, after all, crafting is meant to be fun. If you’re using your prints for big business be sure to get the right printer and right ink for the job. 

Have fun printing away on all sorts of materials like cotton, vinyl, polyester, and paper, but keep both pigment and sublimation ink away from the skin.