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Swag Tips: Water-Based Ink vs. Plastisol Ink

Swag Tips: Water-Based Ink vs. Plastisol Ink
January 14, 2020

In this article

In screen printing, there are two popular ink types: water-based and plastisol

You know that each has their own advantages and disadvantages, but how do you know which one is right for you? Let’s dig into the theory of how each type of ink works. Then we’ll see when to pick one over the other.

What is water-based ink?

Water-based ink uses water to dissolve substances and create a solution.

As its name suggests, water-based ink uses water as a solvent. Because of this, water-based ink will actually permeate fabric to dye cotton fibres a new color. 

This gentler method explains:

  • Why water-based screen prints feel softer to touch
  • How ink isn’t sitting ‘on’ a shirt but actually penetrates the fabric (this is in direct contrast to plastisol ink, which you can instead picture as a layer of ink applied on top of the shirt fabric)

How does water-based ink work?

Water-based ink permeates fabric to change its color.

Because water-based ink permeates the fabric and changes its color, all that needs to happen for the ink to cure (set) is evaporation.

The process can happen at room temperature over time or it can be sped up through a dryer.

💡 Pro tip: The brightness of the print will vary depending on the fabric used. For example, cotton absorbs ink, but synthetic materials won’t absorb as much. 

As a result, if you use water-based ink with a tri-blend or other mixed fabric then you will get a slightly less vibrant print compared with printing on a 100% cotton shirt.


  • Excels at that super-soft feel
  • Great option for vintage/worn college style apparel
  • Eco-friendly (doesn’t contain PVC/plastics)
  • More breathable (no awkwardness of wearing a t-shirt that traps your own sweat)
  • Your design print will stretch with the fibers of the shirt (no flaking)

Recommended products to use with: Premium Cotton Tee, any light colored apparel, and thicker fabrics (e.g. towels)

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Because ink absorption varies depending on the fabric used, water-based ink may not be for you if exact color matching and brand consistency is a priority. This is because with water based ink:

  • You can’t Pantone match
  • Colors may not come out as vibrant (especially in comparison to plastisol ink)

Water-based ink works best with specific garments (i.e. 100% cotton). 

And one more thing to consider: higher production costs. Water-based ink is more difficult and time-consuming to cure compared to plastisol, leading to greater production costs that may not be worth it.

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What is plastisol ink?

Plastisol ink uses PVC and dries through extreme heat.

Plastisol ink is probably the most commonly used ink in the screen printing industry. And for good reason - plastisol ink is color consistent and printable on almost anything.

Unlike water-based ink, plastisol doesn’t use a water solvent. 

Instead it is based on polyvinyl chloride (PVC). So to cure a thermoplastic ink, you’ll need to heat it to extremely high temperatures between 200-300 degrees ºF. This makes the curing process a little more straightforward and faster than working with water-based ink.


  • Excels at highly accurate Pantone matching (resulting in consistent colors and vibrant prints)
  • Sits on top of the shirt for a brighter appearance
  • Faster and less expensive to work with
  • Can be used on almost anything

Recommended products to use with: any dark colored apparel, sweatshirts, and tote bags

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If versatility is all you are looking for, you can’t go wrong with plastisol ink.

However, if comfort and print durability is more important, you may not want to go with plastisol ink. Here’s why:

Plastisol ink will sit on top of the fabric instead of permeating it as water-based ink does. This means that plastisol ink will give you a brighter print, but water won’t be able to seep through the print area. Plastisol isn’t water soluble.

In other words, plastisol ink prints are less breathable compared to a water-based ink print. This is how you get those shirts where it feels like all the sweat just gets trapped inside - it’s because the sweat can’t escape through the plastisol ink print area.

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For the same reason, a plastisol ink print will feel a bit thicker and more noticeable than a water-based print. Take a plastisol ink print shirt and compare it with a water-based ink shirt.

You’ll notice that on the plastisol ink print shirt the print looks like it bumps out a bit from the material. This makes sense, since the ink sits on top instead of permeating the fabric.

Lastly, plastisol ink prints have a higher risk of cracking over time. This typically happens as a result of improper care. You can’t iron a plastisol ink print item or use too high heat in the dryer, as there’s a risk of the design melting/smearing.

Bottom-line: plastisol ink print garments need proper care to ensure longevity.

Which ink’s right for you?

Get the perfect result with the right ink choice.

Choose water-based ink if:

  • You want that vintage/worn college look
  • You’re looking for an incredibly soft print that’s basically part of the shirt (because it is)
  • You want something eco-friendly and breathable (read: less sweaty)
  • You want a high quality texture and long lasting print (no cracking or peeling)

Choose plastisol ink if:

  • You want an ink that can work with light or dark fabrics (versatility)
  • You’re looking for a way to Pantone match and get exact color consistency
  • You want a vibrant print with the ability to achieve halftones and gradients
  • You prefer a simpler printing process that takes less time and money

Still have questions? Need help deciding? Contact one of our Swag Experts to get started, or start choosing your swag today!


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