Types of Paint: A Guide to Paint Finishes and Surfaces

Learn the types of finishes for paint and the best type for each kind of surface so you can choose the right paint for your next home project.

If you've chosen your paint color, the hardest part of painting a room is done. But choosing the right paint finish is just as—if not more—important. Although many homeowners don't pay much attention to this step, there are essential factors you should consider before heading to the paint store.

Paint comes in several kinds of finishes, and each kind serves a different purpose. The finish (also called sheen) measures how much light reflects from the paint—in short, how shiny it is. Although the amount of pigments and additives controls the sheen, what's important to know is that some types of finishes for paint look better and are easier to clean on certain surfaces.

stony tone paint lids
Adam Albright

Buying the right type of paint for your project will prevent you from having to redo it later. So before you put that brush on the wall, be sure you have the right finish for the job. Here's a comprehensive list of everything you need to know to get it right the first time.

Kitchen with wooden floors and gray cabinets
Panichgul Studios, Inc

Types of Paint

If you thought choosing paint was as simple as deciding on a paint chip color, think again. Once you’ve landed on a color, you’ll need to determine what type of paint is best before you even start thinking about finishes. Types of paint include primer, finish coats, interior paint, and exterior paint. They’re all used for different surfaces in different ways, and choosing the right one is essential to nailing your paint project on the first try. 

Here’s what you need to know about types of paint before you head to the hardware store. 


Primer is a base coat that should be applied to any surface before you apply your main paint color. It acts as a protective foundation and helps make your finished paint job appear smooth and even. It also cuts down on the number of coats you’ll need, and because it goes on white, minimizes the chances that whatever color is underneath will show through your new color. Applying primer might seem like an unnecessary extra step, but it can make all the difference in the final result. 

Finish Coat

While the term ‘finish coat’ sounds like a fancy sealant that adds an extra step to your project, it actually just refers to the type of paint you put over the primer. Since you’ll choose the right paint finish for your job (more on that in a minute), you won’t need to add anything over the top to seal it. 

Interior Paint

This one is pretty self explanatory: Interior paint should be used for anything inside your home. Walls, cabinets, and furniture should all be painted with interior paint. 

Exterior Paint

Exterior paint is typically more expensive than interior paint, but you definitely don’t want to cheap out in the paint department when painting something outdoors. It’s specifically designed to be weather resistant, while adjusting to drastic temperature changes. Using an exterior paint for an outdoor project will make it last longer and look better. 

Water-Based Latex Paint

There are many kinds of paint (including oil paint, acrylic paint, and more), but a water-based latex paint is standard for most home paint jobs. It’s easy to apply and easy to clean, and is safe for those with latex allergies.

living room with gray couch and orange wall

Carson Downing

How to Choose the Right Paint Finish

Most paint types fall into 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. Sheen isn't standardized from brand to brand. One company's satin finish may be glossier than another's.

A paint's sheen may 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 it's the same. To make sure you have the sheen you want, take home samples of the types of finishes for paint you're considering using and apply them to test boards.

Flat Paint

Also referred to as matte, flat paint types are almost chalky in appearance. The finish doesn't reflect light, so there is 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 as other finishes. Use this type of paint in a low-traffic area (like a bedroom), on your ceiling, or walls that have gotten a little beat up over the years.

Satin Paint

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 frequently scrub the walls.

Semigloss Paint

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 paint your cabinets, wipe them down before painting—the gloss makes imperfections stand out. In addition, the reflective surface of semigloss paints helps darker rooms feel lighter and brighter.

High-Gloss Paint

High-gloss finishes are the shiniest and most reflective of all types of paint. Whatever color you apply with 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. Remember that the highly-reflective surface draws attention to scratches and dents. High gloss is our go-to paint for smooth furniture or freshly-installed trim.

The Best Paint Types for Different Surfaces

The ideal paint type and finish combinations will change with each project, but there are a few basics to consider. These are the best paint types for different rooms and common DIY projects.

laundry room with tile floor

Hector M. Sanchez

Best Paint Type for Ceilings

Ceilings don't suffer the abrasion other surfaces endure, but cooking debris, airborne grease, smoke, pollution, and dirt gradually make them 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.

midcentury bedroom black walls bed
Annie Schlechter

Best Paint Type for 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 for bathrooms and kitchens contain extra mildewcide agents and are moisture- and peel-resistant.

Ask a paint expert at your local home store for information on paint types for children's rooms. Formulated for hard use, they can be perfect in other demanding locations, such as kitchens, baths, laundry rooms, and hallways. Paint your kitchen with a semi-gloss or gloss finish on the walls to make them easier to wipe clean.

modern dark gray kitchen

John Granen

Best Paint Type for Cabinets

Semigloss paint is best for cabinets, especially in kitchens and bathrooms. Durable and easy to clean, semigloss paint works well for high-traffic areas and cabinets that are constantly in use. High gloss paint is also an option, but this finish tends to draw more attention, so it's best for bold colors or a focal point. Chalk paint can also be used for cabinets, and the matte finish can hide imperfections.

salmon pink dresser detailed drawers gold accents mirror
Carson Downing

Best Paint Type for Wood Furniture

When painting wood furniture, satin or semi-gloss works well. If you’re painting a piece that’s used frequently, such as a dresser or nightstand, semi-gloss is the more durable option. When painting dark wood, use a primer to provide a solid base coat and make sure your top coat sticks. Consider using a paint sprayer (rather than a brush or roller) for intricate pieces to ensure an even coat.

bathroom with green cabinets lantern-style lights and white subway tile for backsplash
David Tsay

Best Paint Type for Bathrooms

Whether you’re painting the walls or giving your vanity an update, there are additional factors to consider when choosing paint for a bathroom. Because bathrooms typically produce a lot of moisture, you’ll want to be confident that your paint will hold up over time. Semigloss or high-gloss paint is best because it’s easy to wipe down, and you can even ask your local paint shop to add a mildew-resistant additive to whichever finish you choose for even more protection.

white living room with natural and blue coastal accents
Joyelle West

Best Paint Type for 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does the type of paint finish change the color?

    Paint colors can change slightly based on the finish you choose. Light- and mid-tone paint colors will look richer and more saturated with a semigloss or high-gloss finish, while matte finishes tend to subdue colors a bit. Similarly, dark paint colors tend to look even deeper in semigloss or high-gloss finishes. 

  • What kind of paint is best for interior walls?

    Satin paint is the most common type of interior wall paint. You might want to opt for semigloss paint in high-traffic areas such as kitchens and kids’ rooms, as it is easier to clean.

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