The Difference Between Decals and Stickers

Sticker versus decal - what is the difference?

We often hear people ask the question, “What’s the difference between a decal and a sticker?”  Some of the confusion comes from the fact that many “industry professionals” aren’t clear on the matter.  But it’s actually quite simple.

Before explaining, it’s important to point out that many people cause confusion by using the two terms arbitrarily and interchangeably.  And they are not “wrong” because there is no single, definitive, universally-accepted source.  But just like all Labradors are dogs, all decals are stickers.  Not all stickers are decals, though.

It seems to be the case that sign shops and manufacturers call their high-quality adhesive adornments “decals” and the lower-priced products “stickers.”  Here’s why: Both decals and stickers use adhesives.  Yet decals commonly utilize exceptionally strong (and more expensive) adhesives.  People don’t typically mind if a $2 bumper sticker begins to peel; they would, however, mind if their car or boat graphics began to lift from the surface.  Decals need stronger adhesives.

The “foundation layer” also bears a major difference: the cheaper “stickers” use a paper base, while “decals” utilize a vinyl (plastic) base.  This is the primary reason that decals last much longer when exposed to harsh conditions.  And while medium-grade “calendered” vinyl begins its life as a solid, high quality “cast” vinyl begins its life as a liquid plastic, making it ideal for conforming to complex curves over a long period of time.  This explains why car and boat decals made by professionals use cast-vinyl for their decal material.

The next difference is a chemical “treatment” used by decals to increase the degree to which inks bind to the vinyl surfaces on which they are printed.  Some stickers also use a treatment layer, but this is not optional for decals.

And while there is little difference between the types of ink used— in fact, inks are often identical between decals and stickers— decals for industrial applications (or for boats or cars) will almost always be finished with the application of a protective UV laminate to further guarantee a vibrant, long-lasting image.

So while shopping for car or boat graphics, we hope you will be aware that “stickers” commonly refers to a whole range of products that can be stuck to a range of surfaces.  Decals, however, are understood to be desired to last for years of outdoor exposure.  Feel free to email us any feedback, comments or questions if you found this post while shopping for boat decals, car wraps, or window graphics.