Understanding the Difference Between Dye and Pigment-Based Inks

by Rich on August 6, 2010

Dye- and pigment-based inks are two common types of inks that make a big difference in how your printer performs. The type of ink your printer uses will tell you whether it’s designed to print photos, black and white text, or colour graphics. Compared to industrial oil-based inks and those based on alcohols, they’re considered ecologically friendly—but they both have their own strengths and drawbacks.

Pigment-based Inks 

Pigment-based inks are not water-soluble, although if you break open a pigment-based ink cartridge you’ll see a liquid. These inks are basically small pigment spheres suspended in water. They’re created by grounding chemically-based polymer resins into a small powder and then added to water.

Pigment-based inks are more resistant to UV waves than dye-based inks, so they won’t fade as quickly when exposed to sunlight. They have a longer life expectancy overall. But the colours themselves aren’t as brilliant as those you’ll find in a dye-based ink printout. Because they’re not water soluble, these inks aren’t likely to smear when they come into contact with water—so they do a better job than dye-based inks of resisting both water and UV light.

Pigment-based inks are not often used for colour desktop printing, because they tend to be more expensive and difficult to produce than dye-based inks. They can also run together and block the cartridges if they’re used heavily. Colour printers that use pigment-based inks tend to cost more, because they require special hardware that keeps the ink from running together, blocking the cartridges and producing overly dense colours.

However, they do tend to be used more often in black printer ink cartridges. With black ink, colour brightness isn’t as much of an issue—and the fact that pigment-based inks are more resistant to water and light than dye-based inks make them more desirable in that regard. Many printer manufacturers use pigment-based black cartridges in conjunction with colour ink cartridges that use dye-based inks.

In addition, pigment-based ink is usually considered more desirable for archival printing, because it retains its original colour and look much longer than dye-based inks do—even if it’s exposed to sunlight or comes into contact with water.

Dye-based Inks 

Dye-based inks are easier to incorporate into digital printers because they’re cheaper and easier to make than pigment-based inks. Dye-based inks are water soluble, and they’re made by dissolving a colourant enhanced by optical brighteners into water. The resulting colours are much brighter than what you’ll get with pigment-based inks.

However, dye-based inks do tend to fade much more quickly in the sun and to have a shorter shelf life overall than pigment-based inks do. This is because the optical brighteners used to make the colours more vivid are also strongly affected by light and chemical exposure—and they’re likely to break down over long periods of time. Dye-based ink printouts can also take longer to dry than those made with pigment-based inks, which means that if you handle the paper too quickly when it comes out of the printer, it could smear and ruin the printout. Since dye-based ink is water soluble, it’s also more likely to smear if it comes into contact with water—even if it’s already dried on the page.

Dye-based inks are more often used for producing professional-level colour graphics and photos. If you have a colour inkjet printer, chances are it uses dye-based inks in its colour cartridges. Pigment-based inks, however, are generally only used for black and white or grayscale printing. It’s possible that your inkjet printer uses pigment-based ink in its black ink cartridges.

As to which type of ink is better for you, it depends on the type of printing you’re doing. If longevity is more important than any other factor, pigment-based inks are probably a better choice than dye-based inks. But if you need printouts that display brilliant colours, you’ll need dye-based inks—and the industry has already made that choice for most consumers by including dye-based inks in most colour inkjet printers. If you’re printing only in black and white, the other benefits offered by pigment-based inks may outweigh the fact that their colours aren’t as bright as those of dye-based inks—and you should make sure your black ink cartridge contains ink that’s pigment-based.

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