Types of Paint and Paint Finishes to Know Before Your Next Project

Our guide to types of paint and paint finishes has all the information you need to choose the right paint for your next home project.

stony tone paint lids
Photo: Adam Albright

You've chosen your paint color; the hardest part is out of the way. Now all that's left is to choose the paint finish! Although many homeowners glaze over this step, there are some important factors you should consider. Sheen is a measure of how much light reflects back from the paint—in short, how shiny it is. Although sheen is controlled by the quantity of the paint's pigments and additives, what's important to your choices is that certain sheens look better and clean easier on certain surfaces. Before you put that brush on the wall, be sure you have the right finish for the job. Here's a comprehensive list of all that you need to know to get it right the first time.

Why Type of Paint Matters

Most paint types fall into one of four sheen categories—flat, satin, semigloss, and gloss. Manufacturers may choose descriptive names such as matte or eggshell, so avoid surprises by checking actual samples when comparing paints. Sheen affects not only the appearance of a painted surface but also its durability. The higher the sheen, the harder the paint.

But don't assume all glossy paints display the same reflectivity. Sheens are not standardized from brand to brand. One company's satin finish may be glossier than another's.

The sheen of paint may also alter the perception of its color. For example, the same tint of white may look brighter in glossy enamel than in flat wall paint. That's because more of the color is reflected, even though the color itself is the same. To make sure you have the type of paint sheen you want, take home samples and paint them on test boards.

The Best Paint Types for Different Surfaces

Paint Types to Use on Ceilings

Ceilings don't suffer the abrasion other surfaces endure, but cooking debris, airborne grease, smoke, pollution, and dirt gradually make a ceiling dingy and dull. A flat or semigloss sheen is a good choice for ceilings because it hides imperfections. Paints formulated specifically for ceilings are thicker so they're less likely to stain, are non-yellowing, and dry faster.

Paint Types to Use on Walls

Many home builders apply flat paint to walls to help disguise less-than-perfect drywall finishing. But most flat paint types quickly show wear. Attempts to clean away marks often result in creating a larger smudge. Satin paint is more forgiving, with substantially upgraded durability and no excessive shine. Paint types made for bathrooms and kitchens contain extra mildewcide agents and are moisture- and peel-resistant.

For information on paint types for any children's rooms, ask your dealer. Formulated for hard use, they can be perfect in other demanding locations, such as kitchens, baths, laundry rooms, and hallways. When painting your kitchen, you can even apply a semi-gloss or gloss finish on the walls to make them easier to wipe clean.

Paint Types to Use on Trim

Doors, windows, and moldings typically need a higher sheen than walls because they get more physical contact. Plus, a glossy paint finish accentuates the woodwork and adds an interesting contrast. Choose a paint type for your trim that's at least one step glossier than the walls.

Types of Paint Finishes—and Where to Use Them

Flat Paints

Laura Moss Photography Corp

Also referred to as matte, flat paint types are almost chalky in appearance. The finish doesn't reflect light, so there is very little or no shine. Because of the lack of reflection, surfaces painted with a flat finish effortlessly hide imperfections. However, flat paints are the least durable and don't stand up to washing and scrubbing as well. Use this type of paint in a low-traffic area (like a bedroom), on your ceiling, or on walls that have gotten a little beat up over the years.

Satin Paint

colorful entryway

A slight amount of light reflects off a satin finish, making the texture more noticeable. Satin paint types come in different sheens, like eggshell (which can also appear between a flat and satin). Along with its higher sheen, satin is stronger than flat paint. Consider applying it in kids' rooms or any high-traffic area where you find yourself frequently scrubbing the walls.

Semigloss Paint

Vinyl Floor

Semigloss paints have more durability and sheen than satin finishes. This paint type won't wear down from cleaning, so it works best in kitchens and bathrooms. It's also great for wall trims. If you're painting your cabinets, make sure to wipe them down before painting—the gloss makes imperfections stand out. The reflective surface of semigloss paints helps darker rooms feel lighter and brighter.

High-Gloss Finish


High-gloss finishes are the shiniest and most reflective of all types of paint. Whatever color you apply in this sheen will be a standout feature of the room. It has a hard surface that stands up to wear and tear, so don't be afraid to use it on hutches, cabinets, or vanities. Keep in mind that the highly-reflective surface draws attention to any scratches and dents. This is our go-to paint for smooth furniture or freshly-installed trim.

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