4 Main Reasons for Faded Prints and Dull Colors in DTG Prints

Faded print is one of the most common errors in direct-to-garment (DTG) print-on-demand printing.

Here, you have an image that is bright and vibrant. The printed image on the T-shirt, however, looks much dimmer than what the image looks like on the screen, and the colors are not as vivid. Instead, they look muted, dull or washed out.

There are four main reasons for this faded print issue. I’ll list them in the order of the least to the most common:

1. The design is in RGB and the print is in CMYK

This is actually a minor reason - most of the problems with faded prints have nothing to do with this, but it’s often cited by big POD print shops as the culprit (we’ll talk about this more below).

2. High polyester content or low quality cotton shirt

Shirts or hoodies/sweatshirts with high polyester content, or low quality 100% cotton shirts can cause the print to fade.

3. Not enough ink and/or pretreat

Not using enough DTG ink and/or pretreat (basically a liquid primer that lets ink bind to the fabric’s fibers) can cause faded print.

4. Wet-on-wet DTG printing method

This is actually the most common reason. We’ll delve into the details of the two different DTG printing techniques, their strengths and limitations, and why print shops choose one over the other.

Faded Print vs Poor Washability

Before we get into the four reasons, let’s distinguish the issue of faded prints with prints that deteriorate in the wash.

Here, we’re talking about the problem where the printed image is already faded before the shirt is washed. This is distinct from the problem where the printed image shows up colorful and vibrant, but then deteriorates quickly after the shirt is washed.

We’ll talk about the root causes of prints deteriorating (peeling or chipping or washing away) when the shirt is laundered in a different article.

Backlit RGB Monitor vs Matte Printed T-Shirt

Oh, and let’s get one thing clear before we start: the printed image on the shirt will not look as bright as the image on your monitor, no matter how well it is printed.

On your screen, the image is displayed by RGB pixels which literally shine light into your eyes, whereas the printed image on the shirt is CMYK ink on a matte fabric.

Dark colors are vividly displayed on screens - that will not be the case when they are printed on a shirt. For example, dark greens might be easily distinguishable from dark blues on the monitor, but will blend into each other on the matte printed tee. Black will look black on the screen, but will look darkish gray on the shirt.

Colors will also vary because monitors aren’t uniformly calibrated - the colors displayed on your screen would be different than on other people’s monitors.

Okay, with that in mind, let’s get started! Here are the four reasons for faded prints on DTG-printed images:


Like I mentioned above, your screen has RGB (red, green, blue) pixels, whereas the image on the shirt is printed with CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) ink set on a matte cloth surface.

RGB and CMYK are two different color models, which produce colors in a different way (we won’t get into how RGB is an additive color model whereas CMYK is a subtractive model, but when discussing faded prints, suffice it to say that they’re different).

The key point here is that RGB is a larger color space than CMYK, meaning your monitor can display many more distinct colors than what can be printed on a shirt.

Colors can indeed shift when you change the design from RGB to CMYK color spaces. This is often cited by big POD print shops as the reason that the printed tees look faded. But this is actually a minor factor.

The color shift that happens from RGB to CMYK is most noticeable in the colors at the edges of the CMYK space, such as neon magenta, neon purple, neon yellow and neon green colors.

Colors that are well within the CMYK and RGB color space overlap (which are most of the colors you’d use for the image) do not shift much at all. Certainly not to the extent that would explain the dull/muted/washed out colors printed on the T-shirt.

As you can see in the image above, the color shift from RGB to CMYK is actually not significant at all.


DTG is best printed on 100% cotton garments, but many print shops try to use DTG to print shirts with high polyester content (like 50/50 cotton/polyester, and even 100% polyester tees).

This will almost always lead to faded prints - especially on dark-colored and black high polyester-content garments - due to dye migration.

Polyester is a synthetic fabric that is dyed with a specific kind of dye (called Disperse dye). This type of dye will “migrate” or seep into the CMYK ink layer of the printed image over time. This migration is sped up with heat.

After the image is printed, it has to be cured with heat - either with an industrial heat press or a conveyor belt dryer - so the ink cross links itself onto the fabric’s fibers for a permanent bond. Without this curing step, the ink would wash out in the first wash.

But the heat needed to cure the ink will also speed up the dye migration we mentioned above. Here, the dye from the polyester fabric (especially dark dyes like black and other deep colors) will migrate or seep into the ink layer and cause the colors to fade.

The issue is not as bad with lighter color poly fabric (like very light blue or light yellow) and is not a problem with white polyester shirts (which have no dye).

You might ask that if dye migration is an issue, then how come you can screen print polyester tees? The answer is that there is a dye blocker that can be applied as the first layer in the screen printing process. This dye blocker prevents the polyester dye from migrating into the color ink layers above it.

There is no dye blocker for DTG printing, but some print shops have developed their own “printing hacks” like curing the shirts longer at a lower temperature to lessen the dye migration issue. But ultimately, dye migration would still happen over time (and the fading issue would be worse as the customer washes and dries the shirt over and over again).

If you must print on 50/50 cotton/polyester or 100% polyester shirts, it’s best to use a different printing technique (like sublimation or Flex Digital Print technique). If you must print on a polyester shirt with DTG, then make it a white tee or a very lightly colored polyester T-shirt.

Faded print can still happen with 100% cotton tee, if the shirt is low-quality.

T-shirts are knitted from cotton yarns. High quality tees use “ringspun” cotton yarn that has been spun to soften and straighten the fibers. These fibers are then “combed” to remove impurities. When knitted, the combed ringspun fibers produce a very soft and smooth surface for printing.

In contrast, basic or low quality tees use carded open-end cotton where the fibers are bound together by a wrapped fiber that is perpendicular to the bundle. This results in thicker and fuzzier fibers, which in turn creates an uneven knit.

The uneven knit in low quality tees cause a lot of peaks and valleys in the fabric surface. When printed, the rough surface causes an uneven layer of ink that lets the underlying shirt color show through and that can look like fading.


This one is pretty straightforward: when the print shop doesn’t use enough ink, then the printed image would look pretty bad, especially on low quality shirts.

But why not just use more ink?

The answer is: DTG ink is expensive. It’s actually one of the highest cost factors in printing and often it’s more expensive than the blank T-shirt itself.

To cut costs, some POD print shops use “draft mode” or “eco mode” to cut down on ink usage.

Similarly, when the print shop doesn’t use enough pretreat (like I mentioned above, this is basically a liquid primer that lets ink bind to the fabric), then the printed image quality will suffer.

Interestingly, too much pretreat will also cause problems. Here, the T-shirt would look great but the image would wash out or deteriorate quickly in the wash. Too much ink would also cause problems - here, the image would look mottled and the colors would run or bleed.


This is the main reason for faded prints and washed out/dull/muted colors. To explain, I need to step back and tell you that there are two ways to print with DTG.

The first is wet-on-wet printing technique. Here are the steps for this technique:

1. The print operator loads a blank T-shirt onto the printing platen
2. A layer of pretreat is sprayed onto the shirt. This pretreat (also called fixation agent) is a primer that lets DTG ink adhere or bind to fabric
3. While the pretreat is still wet, white and CMYK ink are sprayed onto the shirt to print the image
4. The shirt is taken off the platen and put onto a conveyor belt dryer to cure

The second method is the wet-on-dry printing technique. Here are the steps:

1. The print operator loads the T-shirt onto a pretreatment machine platen
2. Wet pretreat is sprayed onto the tee
3. The print operator takes the shirt off the pretreatment machine and loads it onto an industrial heat press or onto a conveyor belt dryer
4. The pretreat layer on the shirt is dried (this step actually takes a significant amount of time)
5. The print operator loads the T-shirt onto the DTG printer’s platen
6. Wet ink is sprayed onto the dried layer of pretreat to print the image
7. The shirt is taken off the printing platen and put onto a conveyor belt dryer to cure

As you can see, there are additional steps to dry the pretreat in the wet-on-dry printing technique.

Wet-on-wet printing technique is fast, uses less labor and is cheaper to run. The print quality, however, is relatively low. Colors are muted/washed out/dull and the print (especially fine lines) looks fuzzy.

In contrast, wet-on-dry printing technique is slower, uses more labor and is more expensive to run. But, as you can see in the side-by-side print comparison image, the print quality is very high. Colors are vibrant and fine lines are printed sharp.

Because they compete on cost and quantity, big POD print shops like to use the wet-on-wet printing technique. They often blame print quality issues on the art (like how it’s designed in RGB instead of CMYK), when, in reality, that’s not a major factor.

Smaller, indie print shops like NeatoPOD tend to use the wet-on-dry technique because they compete on quality.

The four reasons I listed above are the main causes of faded prints. There are many other factors such as the print shop using the wrong color profile (no professional print shop will do this, by the way), poorly maintained machines, improper printing environments, using low quality ink and pretreat, clumpy white ink that isn’t properly agitated and so on. These aren’t significant factors in professional T-shirt print shops.

Let’s end this article by dispelling two “hacks” that people often suggest as ways to fix faded prints.


In this hack, you copy and paste the same image to create a double layer to be printed. The idea here is that if a single layer of the image is not enough, then printing the same image on top of it would solve the problem.

It does not work because the print shop gets a single flattened image. No matter how many layers you add, the print shop will get (and print) just a single image.

(To be complete, there is a rare exception to this: if the image has semi-transparent areas, doubling up on that image would cause that semi-transparent area to become more opaque - and that may print better).


Instead of using # FFFFFF (the hex code for the color white), some people suggest using an off-white color like # FEFEFE or something similar.

The idea here is to force the printer to lay down more white ink on the shirt. First, the printer would lay down a layer of white ink as an underbase, and then it would lay down an additional layer of (mostly) white ink on top. This double layer of white + almost white would make a better print.

In practice, even with # FFFFFF, the printer would already lay down two layers of white when printing. Changing the color to # FEFEFE doesn’t add any additional layer of white ink.

Ink usage is a machine-level setting. You cannot trick the printer into laying down more ink than what the print shop has already predetermined. Because ink cost is a significant factor, a print shop that is competing on cost will often reduce ink usage to save money - this is a business decision that you cannot override by this hack.

Lastly, if you're looking for high quality print-on-demand print shop, please check out NeatoPOD (don't miss the side-by-side print comparison).

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