Why Aren’t Linerless Labels More Mainstream?

First Published: September 11, 2023

Are linerless pressure-sensitive labels the future of labeling?

Unlike conventional labels, linerless pressure-sensitive labels don’t use a release liner layer in their construction and are not die-cut to size and shape.

They are simply a continuous length of label material, slit to the correct width. The linerless material usually (with some exceptions) consists of the adhesive layer, the face layer and a layer of silicon (or similar low-adhesion product) to allow the material to be rolled without sticking to itself. The label is cut to the correct size, right at the time of application to the product.

This construction offers some serious advantages:

  • There are many more labels per roll – in some cases close to twice as many for the same roll diameter. This improves the productivity of your packaging line by reducing the number of stops for label replenishment and waste liner removal.
  • Potentially lower cost, since it is a more straightforward product with no die-cutting and matrix removal equipment needed to manufacture it. Theoretically, linerless labels should be available at a lower price than conventional labels.
  • Fewer rolls of labels mean less space is needed for storage – free up some room for other items.
  • Reduced number of pallets to ship from your label manufacturer. Reducing costs and carbon footprint has to be a good thing.
  • No waste facestock (from die-cutting) and liner to dispose of. This is an advantage to both the label manufacturer of the labels and the customer that is applying them to products. Dealing with the wasted materials is a cost that needs to be considered when calculating your total labeling costs.

Despite these advantages, linerless pressure-sensitive labels haven’t become mainstream in the US (there has been more progress in Europe and other regions) for various reasons. Here are some of the key factors:

Equipment Compatibility: Traditional label applicators are designed to handle labels with liners. Converting to linerless systems often requires substantial changes to existing machinery or investment in new equipment, which many manufacturers hesitate to do.

The labeling equipment has to handle the exposed adhesive side of the linerless labels and cut the labels to the correct length each time. If the label is used for a print/apply application, the thermal printer also needs to be a modified version to be able to handle these labels successfully.

Initial Costs: Transitioning from conventional to linerless labels often involves a higher upfront cost for equipment modification or new label applicators explicitly designed for linerless labels. In addition, because linerless labels are produced in much lower volumes than conventional labels, the potential cost reductions are not usually seen.

Productivity: Linerless labels may require more frequent cleaning of the applicator heads, which could result in increased downtime for maintenance, thereby affecting productivity, and offsetting the gains made by more labels per roll.

The time need to index and then cut the label material to the correct size can also add to the cycle time, often making it difficulty for the labeler to run efficiently at packaging line speeds.

Label Complexity: Many existing labels have complex shapes and designs, multiple layers, or special characteristics (e.g., RFID tags) that are more easily accommodated with traditional pressure-sensitive labels.

Most linerless systems can only produce rectangular or square labels, making the concept unsuitable for many labeling applications.

Material Limitations: Linerless labels usually require specialized adhesives and face materials compatible with direct thermal printing. This limits the range of material options compared to traditional labels, where many years of development and production have ensured there is a wide range of materials readily available for just about every application.

Supply Chain Adaptation: Converting to linerless labels requires changes not only in the manufacturing process but also in the supply chain, affecting suppliers and retailers.

Quality Concerns: Issues such as adhesive ooze and the curling of labels can affect linerless labels’ performance, making quality control more challenging. Adhesives used for linerless labels tend to be less aggressive than conventional adhesives, which can lead to adhesion issues.

Regulatory Hurdles: Label specifications are strictly regulated for some industries, especially pharmaceuticals and food. Making a switch to linerless could require navigating complicated compliance and qualification issues, especially when a change in material properties is involved.

Market Inertia: The traditional lined label system is well-established, and many companies see no compelling reason to change what is already working for them. Indeed, there is no advantage for most label manufacturers switching to a new product with less opportunity to add value.

Unless some of the larger label converters decide to promote linerless, it will always be difficult to grow the concept.

In summary, while linerless labels do offer some advantages, various logistical, technical, and financial factors have kept them from becoming mainstream.

There are certainly some applications where linerless labels have made some inroads:

  • Mobile printing, where the printers are limited to small-diameter label rolls and additional labels per roll, helps productivity.
  • Kiosks where linerless labels are are used mean less human intervention for roll changes and no need to remove the used liner.
  • Some logistics labeling, especially for lower volume manual apply applications.

Is Linerless the Future of Labeling?

Maybe at some point, but not today!

What’s ironic is that back in the 1980s, linerless labeling (in the form of heat activated labels) was very much the standard for pharmaceutical labeling in North America, before the concept was replaced by pressure-sensitive in the 1990s.

Further Reading

Zebra Technologies Q&A: Zebra Linerless

Let’s go further and lose the label as well: Labelless PET Bottles

New Fox IV linerless print and apply system: Fox IV Linerless

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