Solve Your Label Fails: How to Choose the Right Label for Every Surface and Application

Editor’s note: This article was updated March, 2021

Matching the label, surface and application saves you time and money

Using the right tool for the job increases efficiency and just makes sense. The same is true with labels. Surface roughness, hardness, curvature and corrosion resistance, for example, can all affect how the adhesives on labels adhere to a surface. 

Additionally, the environment where labels are used can wear away or destroy the print on a label or even the material of the label itself. When you have a label that fails to adhere, becomes illegible or falls apart from exposure in a heavy-duty environment it’s a waste of time and money.

side by side comparison of paper label and industrial film label on a stainless steel machinery surface the paper label is peeling and scratched from heavy duty use while the durable industrial label is securely adhered and has no scratches

Not all labels work on all surfaces or for all applications. Choose the right label to avoid label fails that cost you time and money.

Label fail #1: peeling edges or labels that fall off

When labels fail to stick, adhesive strength is not always to blame. Other factors can include: (1) adhesive compatibility with the chemical makeup of the surface, (2) roughness and curvature of the surface and (3) surface condition and 4) environmental and surface temperature.

Adhesive-surface chemical compatibility. A great example are cyanoacrylate adhesives (commonly known as instant glue or SuperGlue®), which are extremely strong adhesives. If you’ve ever tried “original” or basic versions of instant glue on high density polyethylene (HDPE), you’ve witnessed chemical incompatibility firsthand.

It will never work because basic cyanoacrylates are not compatible with the chemical makeup of HDPE plastics. For labels that stick securely it’s critical to choose labels with adhesives compatible to the surface, for example, ID labels designed especially to work on HDPE, PP and LDPE plastics.

Roughness/curvature of surface. Roughness and curvature of a surface can prevent labels from sticking because the adhesive cannot make contact with enough surface area to fully “grab hold.” Label materials like vinyl allow for more adhesive-to-surface contact.

Surface condition. Surface coatings, oil, water, dirt, rust and any other debris that forms a barrier between the label and the surface can all affect how well it adheres. Start with a clean, dry surface to prevent labels from peeling and ensure maximum sticking power.

Environmental and surface temperature. Standard office label adhesives are generally designed to work in temperatures ranging from 32°F to 248°F. Extreme temperatures, for example marine conditions, require heavy-duty labels with expected adhesive service temperatures between -40° F and 300° F.

Applying labels to excessively cold or hot surfaces can also the compromise the ability of the adhesive to properly wet out and bond to the surface. Recommended application temperature for most labels are above 50° F.

Label fail #2: illegible labels & barcode labels that won’t scan properly

Fading, scratched and smudged or smeared ink are the primary causes of labels that are hard for people and scanners to read. Contributing factors include: (1) exposure to sunlight, (2) abrasions from rough/excessive handling and (3) improper printing processes.

Exposure to sunlight. The natural process of photodegradation (often referred to as sun bleaching) occurs when exposure to ultraviolet light causes colors to fade. Photodegradation is especially detrimental to barcode labels as it destroys the sharp contrasting colors that make barcodes work. 

In direct sunlight, labels and printing processes with UV resistance or protective UV-resistant coatings are the only way to ensure that the printed information remains readable.

Abrasions/rough handling. Abrasive damage can scratch, scrape and rub the print right off of a standard label, making it difficult or impossible to read. Solutions to preserve print stability include, durable abrasion-resistant label materials; laser, pigment inkjet and thermal transfer printing processes; and using self-laminating labels.

Improper printing processes. Different label materials are designed to work with different printing processes and inks. For example, some labels are designed specifically for laser printers and some for inkjet while some can be designed to work with both.

Checking your printer and ink compatibility with the label material is perhaps the most significant factor in print stability. Ignoring it is the leading cause of smudged or smeared labels.

Label fail #3: the label itself falls apart

Avoiding labels that fall apart comes down to one simple thing: choosing the right label material.

The use of standard paper labels in heavy-duty environments is the main cause of ripped, torn or disintegrating labels. Regardless of the quality, paper has its limitations when it comes to tensile or tear strength, which is the measurement of how much force can be applied to a material before it breaks or tears.

Tensile strength is one of the main determining factors of how well a label will resist wear and tear from high-traffic areas, frequent use and rough handling. Engineered plastic film labels made with materials such as polyester (PET), polypropylene (PP) and other synthetics are maximized for durability.

Label fail #4: labels damaged by water and/or chemicals

Solvents, ranging from simple H20 to potentially hazardous chemicals, can easily cause standard labels to peel up, become hard to read, fall apart or some combination of the three. In other words, water and chemicals can lead to all of the above label fails that occur in industrial facilities.

Dissolving adhesives. A splash of water or common household chemicals won’t cause your label to immediately fall off. However, labels that are exposed to prolonged humidity, industrial-strength chemicals, wet environments or may be submerged in water require special waterproof and chemical-resistant adhesives.

Lifting ink. Water and chemicals easily damage ink on labels, from smudging and smearing, to fading and even lifting the print off altogether. Durable water-resistant, waterproof and chemical-resistant labels are designed to prevent this when printed according to manufacturer recommendations.

Laser, pigment inkjet and thermal transfer printing processes provide the most stability when printing labels that come into contact with water and chemicals. Self-laminating labels also provide protection from light splashes or wiping with common household cleaners.  

Weakening label materials. How many times have you seen a label on a dish or mug submerged in water with the adhesive still intact and the label a mushy disintegrating mess? Paper labels by themselves simply do not mix with water and much less so with chemicals.  

For labels that won’t fall apart from water and chemicals, durable films such as polyester (PET), polypropylene (PP), vinyl (PVC) or protective lamination are required. For prolonged exposure to water and chemicals, extremely durable marine-grade labels and outdoor vinyl labels are required.

Label fail #5: labels that damage surfaces

Well-applied labels with permanent adhesives, are generally difficult to remove without scraping and/or solvents which can easily damage surfaces, especially drywall, or leave behind gummy residue. On the other hand, many temporary or removable labels do not stick well to industrial surfaces such as rusted or painted metal.

Industrial labeling that will be updated frequently or used on easily damaged surfaces, such as drywall or glass, requires specialized removable adhesives that sticks securely and removes cleanly. Removable adhesives for industrial labels may also be further divided into safe for wall surfaces (drywall, glass, metal, etc.) or for bins, racks and shelves.

Industrial label application and surface reference table with quick links

Application
Surface
Labels to Use

Social distancing guides
Managing indoor traffic (directional signs and stop signs)

Sealed concrete
Commercial tile
Sealed wood

HazCom/GHS compliance
Overseas shipping
Wet workspaces
ID labels on items that require hospital-grade disinfecting

Chemical containers
Marine equipment

Temporary signage
OSHA compliance
Safety signs & labels
Directional signs
Notice signs
Protocol/procedure reminders

Drywall
Glass
Stainless steel
Doors
Painted walls

Outdoor signage
Long-term indoor signage
OSHA compliance
Safety signs & labels
Directional signs
Notice signs

Walls
Glass
Metal
Concrete
Wood
Cinderblock
Curved industrial tubing

Vinyl sign labels

Temporary ID labeling
Bins, shelves and racks
Inventory/parts management
Warehouse organization

HDPE, PP and LDPE plastic
Textured plastic
Rusted metal
Painted metal
Bare metal

Long-term ID labeling
Tools & equipment labels
Bins, shelves and racks
Inventory/parts management
Warehouse organization

Metal
Plastic
Glass
Paper

Heavy-duty asset tracking
PPE tracking

Electronics
Tools & equipment
Machinery

Tracking valuable assets
Discouraging theft

Electronics
Tools & equipment
Machinery

More resources for choosing the right label

For more help choosing the right labels, download one of our free white papers like the Asset Tags Evaluator’s Guide or shop blank labels by usage. You can also get detailed composition and performance information for every label on our site by viewing our blank label material comparison page.