Plastisol vs. Water Based (The Big Debate)





If you are looking for the right ink to choose for your merchandise or are in the screen printing industry looking to settle the score of plastisol vs water-based, you have come to the right place.


There are 2 main types of ink used when printing apparel, plastisol and water-based. Water-based can further be broken down into normal water based and discharge ink. I’ll start with a brief description of each type of ink and then delve into the pros and cons of each in reference to both the client and the screen printer.


Ink Types For Apparel


Plastisol ink: Is a PVC based ink made of clear plasticizer fluid, PVC resin, and pigment to get the desired color.


Water-Based Ink: It uses water as the solvent (instead of the PVC) and pigment to get the desired ink color.


Discharge Water-Based Ink: Has the same make up of the HSA water-based ink, except a discharge agent is added to the ink. When the shirt is ran through heat, chemical activation occurs where the discharge ink bleaches out the shirt color and replaces it with the discharge ink color.


For The Client


Its important to know the differences in the ink type you will be putting on your garments because it is ultimately going to affect how happy you are with the final product. If you wanted your shirts to be ultra breathable because you are ordering shirts for your ath-leisure brand, but your printer slapped on a logo that feels like it could stop a bullet, you are most likely not going to be happy. It is important for you to know the limitations of each ink type to avoid things like this happening to you.


For The Screen Printer


Knowing the differences between ink types can make or break how a shirt turns out. Knowing how to print them is just as important. You can’t print water-based ink like you print water-based. They are completely different in the way you prep and print.


Pros and Cons of Each Ink for the Client


Plastisol Pros:


 Plastisol is by far the most vibrant ink of all the ink types. The PVC base really allows for bright colors and more accurate pantone matches. When specific pantone matches are required, we suggest using plastisol because of its accuracy in matching.

Plastisol also has the ability to be mixed with a ton of bases for different effects. There are reducers/fashion bases that can be mixed into the ink to give a faux water based feel without losing the vibrancy. There are suede bases that make your print feel like suede, puff bases that balloon up giving your print a nice high density texture.


Plastisol is great for simulated process printing like the one shown here.

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Plastisol Cons:


Plastisol is a bit thicker than water-based ink and may not be ideal for every situation in printing. If you want the softest print possible, we would suggest water-based ink.


Since plastisol is an ink essentially made out of plastic, it is inherently less eco-friendly than water-based ink.


Getting a smoother print also proves more challenging than water-based printing.


Water-Based Ink Pros:


Ideally, water-based is printed on light colored garments in order to ensure pantone accuracy and vibrance. This is because waterbased ink has less body than plastisol, making it more translucent and harder to get bright prints on dark garments.


Water-based ink provides an unparalleled softness to the prints. This type of screen printing is a great option for the fashion/retail market. It is really breathable when worn, more so than plastisol.


There are also a variety of bases that can be added to the ink in order to get different effects, like suede base and puff base.


There are some high solids and medium solid water-based inks that mimic the body of plastisol, which yield a brighter, softer print (still not as bright as plastisol) and is an eco-friendly alternative to plastisol.


Smoother Prints!


Water-Based Cons:


Water based ink is not really made for dark garments.


It is not as bright as plastisol. Pantone matching is less accurate than plastisol.


With the high solids and medium solids water based ink, it is harder to print simulated process on dark garments.


Discharge Pros:


A great way to print water based on dark garments is by using discharge ink. You can get some bright prints by utilizing discharge in your garments.


The print softness is also of premium quality because the ink is literally bleached into the fabric rather than sitting on top of the fabric.

Discharge Cons:


Discharge can only be done on 100% cotton or natural fiber garment.


This ink is the most difficult to pantone match. Because the ink utilizes an agent to bleach the fabric, there may be some inconsistencies from shirt to shirt. This really depends on the quality of the shirt.


No bases can be added for cool effects.


Pros and Cons of Each Ink for the Screen Printer


Plastisol Pros:


As mentioned above, plastisol inks are by far the brightest when it comes to ink colors.


They are also the best for pantone matching.


It also does not dry in your screen like water-based inks!


They are overall the easiest to work with and easiest to learn the art of screen printing with.


Great for simulated process printing.


Plastisol Cons:

Less eco-friendly than water-based ink.


Thicker than water-based and harder to clear through the screen while printing. Also has a heavier hand when laid on the garment.


Water-Based Ink Pros:

Water-based inks are super soft and great for the ath-leisure and fashion clients.


High Solid Acrylic inks mimic plastisol and can get a similar result to plastisol printing with the added benefit of being eco-friendly.


Easier clean up.


More Eco-friendly

Water-Based Cons:

You have to work very, very fast. If that ink sits in your screen too long, it will dry up on you. This problem virtually doesn’t exist with plastisol printing. Make sure to keep a spray bottle handy to mist those inks.


Harder to get accurate pantones.


When printing simulated process prints with water-based, you will get dot loss in the artwork. Make sure you account for that when setting up artwork.


High Solids Acrylic has an even higher tendency to get clogged in your screen than your low and medium solids. So it may be difficult to get that plastisol look.


There are a lot more variables to go wrong when printing with water based than when printing with plastisol. I don’t want to discourage anyone from printing water-based, because if done right the results are 100% worth it.



Discharge Pros:


Super soft prints on dark garments is the main plus to printing discharge. Also eliminating a screen is nice by not needing an under base.


Discharge Cons:


I wouldn’t put discharge in the category of being eco-friendly. Yes, it is water-based, BUT it uses zinc-formaldehyde as the activator agent to ‘bleach’ the garment to the desired color. It doesn’t pose a real risk to the client once its in their hands, but handling it in the shop sure does. Zinc-formaldehyde or ZFS is classified as being an eye, respiratory, and skin irritant. Make sure to handle with gloves and with proper ventilation. I have had my fair share of not doing so in the early days of screen printing and would go to bed dizzy and nauseous. Now we don’t use it in the shop without fans flowing out of the shop and with respirators on. (You can never be to careful when it comes to your health).


Other than the potential health risks here are some of the other cons. There are some inconsistencies when it comes to discharge results from shirt to shirt. This is mainly dependent on shirt quality. Bella + Canvas does a great job in getting consistent results with discharge inks and is our preferred shirt manufacturer when it comes to this type of screen printing.


Other manufacturers re-dye shirts to black. What this means is that when a manufacturer has excess of certain colors for that year, they are sent back to get dyed to black. This is a huge problem when trying to print discharge as the re-dyed shirts will not discharge that well compared to shirts that were intentionally dyed black the first time. We personally have had an issue with Next Level tee shirts when it comes to this. This isn’t a knock on Next Level, their shirts are great and fit well, but when it comes to discharge, we prefer not to use them because of the inconsistent results.


Because discharge is a water-based ink, it will clog, so work fast!


You Don’t Need To Pick Just One!


Now that you know the pros and cons of these inks as stand-alones, you might be relieved to find out that you don’t have to pick just one for your prints. What I mean by this is that you can mix and match ink types in order to get the desired outcome. I call this the Frankenstein Method (and it’s a lot prettier than it sounds, I promise).


Want a super soft print on dark garments, that’s simulated process? Well lets use a discharge underbase and print plastisol with curable reducer on top.


Want a soft base but super bright colors that pop? You guessed it, print a water based white as your base and throw your plastisol on top.


These aren’t the only combinations you can do, be creative!


They All Belong


In conclusion, there is a time and place for all ink types in the custom apparel industry. They all have their benefits and their inherent weaknesses, but when used appropriately you will get kick-ass prints. You the customer will be happy, or you the screen printer will be happy (depending on who is reading this). I wrote this article in this format in order to help out the client who may have questions on ink types or the screen printer who is having some application issues or is having trouble choosing a system. I hope this short article helped someone out. If you have any questions regarding screen printing or this article, feel free to email us.