Water Based vs Plastisol Inks: What's the Difference?

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Think About Your Ink

Choosing the right ink for your screen print is a very important step in the t shirt making process.  Here is a quick guide to help when deciding between plastisol inks or water based inks.

The Skinny

Water Based & Discharge Inks

To achieve a super soft feel to your printed designs, water based and discharge inks on quality t shirts are the perfect marriage. Generally, this type of printing was only available on 100% cotton t shirts but now water based inks are being offered on a larger number of garments than ever before. Even a select number of cotton poly blends and tri-blend t shirts can be recommended and can be used to achieve a faded or vintage look.

If you care about comfort and quality, ask us how to make water based inks a part of your next order.

Plastisol Inks

If you care about bright and vibrant designs that will last wash after wash, plastisol printing is the way to go. Achieve the brightest of brights with plastisol ink. Perfect for pantone color matching or printing across a variety of different fabric colors.

Chino soft hand additive can be used to have a softer print feel on the shirts. This is a perfect alternative to printing water based inks (which are generally much softer in hand) on t shirts that do not discharge print well.

The Deets

Water Based & Discharge Inks - Pros

No hand

I know what you're thinking, "what does no hand mean." It is an industry term used to describe the fact that the design cannot be distinguished from the shirt itself. Plastisol is a very thick ink that definitely has a feel to it when touching the design on a shirt. For water based inks, the ink can barely be felt after printing. However, after the t shirt is washed, the ink can no longer be noticed by touch and feels just like the shirt it is printed on. This is the best quality of using water based inks because it considerably adds to comfort of the shirt and its print.

Unique Style

Water based and discharge printing is not nearly as common as standard plastisol printing. Just about every apparel screen printer in the world can print with plastisol inks, but the same cannot be said about water based inks. This is because plastisol ink are much easier to work with than water based inks and they are the first inks printers usually learn to work with.

Water based ink, on the other hand, can be incredibly difficult to work with, especially to the untrained hand. The ink dries very quickly when coming into contact with air so printers must work very quickly and efficiently whereas plastisol only dries with heated. The inks also require a different set of chemicals, emulsions, and equipment to produce properly and efficiently. Both these reasons create a huge barrier to entry for printing water based.

If you look at most of the t shirts in your own closet, chances are that they are printed with plastisol ink. You can tell by seeing if you can feel the ink on the shirt. If you can, it is probably plastisol ink. In fact, probably 80-90% of the t shirts you find in stores are going to be printed with plastisol.

So because we offer water based inks you have the option to use it when creating apparel and it makes for an original and unique design over standard plastisol prints.

No Cracking

One of the best things about having a water based print is that you will never get cracking which can happen on a plastisol print. A correctly cured plastisol print should not crack, however, over a long period of time, even when printed correctly, this can eventually happen after years of use.

Vintage Look

A vintage look can be achieve with both water based and plastisol inks. In fact, most of the distressed look is usually done pre-production in an art program like Photoshop.

The advantage to using water based and discharge inks for this, however, is that the print will already be soft as if the shirt and design are more worn in. A plastisol print with a distress may still have a thick print or bold colors with can be counter intuitive to the vintage feel.

Water Based & Discharge Inks - Cons

Colors Can Fade

When printing with water based inks it can sometimes be difficult to get a very vibrant print. So a super bright pink might be pretty difficult or impossible to do with water based or discharge inks. 

Difficulty of Print

This isn't so much of a con for our customers as it is for printers - actually, that is the case for many of the cons on this list. However, water based inks are much more difficult to work with. Actually, many printers do not even offer water based printing for this very reason. It is a skill that printers usually take a while to learn - there is less room for error, inks dry quickly and require the printer to be very efficient with their time. 

Limited Color Accuracy

Dischage inks removes/bleaches the dyes in a garment to its natural cotton color, and replaces that dyes with pigements. Once the shirts are cured and the water is removed then the pigements are left on the garment to achieve the esired colored. Due to the switching of dyes, the natural color of the cotton, and the pigements sitting within the fabrics of the shirt, the colors are not entirely accurate. This isn't a problem with plastisol ink because plastisol colors are printed on top of a white based and sit on the outer side of the fabric. It is much easier to retain the true color of the ink. So the color of the fabric can influence the color of the ink. This makes color matching very difficult and we do not guarantee color matching with water based inks. 

Plastisol Inks - Pros

Excellent Vibrancy

Plastisol inks are very thick inks that holds a lot of pigment in it. This allows for extremely bright and bold prints. Plastisol ink also has a large variety of specialty inks or additives like shimmer, reflective, glitters, puff, glow in the dark etc.

On dark t shirts, a white under layer of ink is printed first then brighter colors are printed on top Printing under base layers is similar to using a white primer on a wall before painting over it with your color of choice. This allows colors to show bright even though they are printed on a dark background.

Water based discharge inks work by bleaching or removing the dye of a t shirt to it's original cotton color and replacing it with the pigments in the water based inks. This can affect the color in a couple ways.

Firstly, some colored t shirts bleach better than others.  T shirt colors like royal blue, or kelly green, may not discharge as well as an indigo blue, or forest green and will result in different than intended print colors.

Secondly, discharge inks set into the fabric and dyes the thread fiber so naturally, the colors will be a bit muted. This is different in that plastisol inks sits on top of the threads of a shirt, as it's only layer of pigments of color which allow for brighter prints.


Okay, forever might be an overstatement but these inks are made to last and keep their brightness over the life of a t shirt. Plastisol ink should maintain it's color, and should not peel or crack. While cracking and fading will eventually happen, as all things do with age, they should last over 100+ washes.

Industry Standard

Plastisol inks are the industry standard when it comes to printing t shirts. A majority of the shirts you see in the retail stores are printed with these bright and bold inks. This is probably due to the ease of use when printing, the longevity of the prints, the affordability of these inks, and the simple fact that a fewer number of printers offer water based inks.

Pantone Perfect

Businesses and organization will often require the inks to be a very specific shade of color in order to maintain their brand integrity. We can match exact pantone colors with our custom pantone ink mixing system. That means if you want a specific amaranth rose red color, we can get you pretty darn close to the amaranth rose red.

This can be much trickier when dealing with water based inks as it is much harder to get exact colors. In fact, the same water based discharge ink color on one shirt can look completely different if printed on a different color ink. This is due to how water based inks set into the dye fibers of a t shirt. Plastisol, on the other hand, provides a pretty consistent shade of color regardless of the variety of colored garments they are printed on.

Plastisol Inks - Cons

Thicker Print

Soft prints can be attained using a combination of additives, high screen meshes, and printing techniques. However, in many cases there will be at least some feel to the print on a shirt whereas discharge water based inks leave little to no feel at all. This is because the plastisol ink is thicker and sits on top of the fabric instend of blended into the fibers. This isn't always a negative as some people like the feel of a thicker print.

Environmental Effects

This should not be a problem when dealing with plastisol inks so long as the user takes the proper steps and care when printing with these inks. Actually, some similar care should be taken with water based inks as well. There is an common misconception that water based inks do not harm the environment either but it can as well. Sadly, many companies do not follow the proper disposal practices of these inks. Rags used to clean plastisol ink should be ran through dryers to cure ink on them, excess inks should be stored and sealed in barrels before disposal, and water waste should be filtered before entering the sewage system. Same necessary filtration goes for the chemincals used in the clean up process for these inks.

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