Using the wrong paint products and techniques can have an unwanted effect on the appearance of your walls. Avoid these common missteps for a spotless finish.

By Jessica Bennett
September 14, 2020
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Especially in high-traffic areas, keeping walls clean of dirt, dust, scuffs, and splatters is an everyday battle. Washing your walls frequently can help keep marks and stains at bay, but the secret to pristine walls actually lies in the paint. Certain paint colors, types of paint, and application techniques can result in walls that appear dirtier and are more difficult to clean. Avoid these common paint mistakes for walls that look spotless and stay clean for longer.

living room with sectional and sofa table two ceiling fans
Credit: James Nathan Schroder

1. Your paint color is too light.

If you're worried about dirty walls, bright white is perhaps the least forgiving paint color. Any marks or stains will stand out on light-colored walls. Instead, look for a mid-tone neutral paint color that can help hide dirt and imperfections, says Dee Schlotter, senior color marketing manager for the PPG paint brand. She suggests PPG's Gray By Me (PPG1008-4) for a "warm greige that can help keep those fingerprints hidden in high-traffic areas like a playroom or kitchen." A cooler neutral like UFO (PPG1011-4), for instance, will provide good coverage while keeping a room bright, she says.

2. You bought the cheapest paint you could find.

For the cleanest-looking finish, using high-quality paint is a must—and sometimes that comes with a higher price tag. There's a big difference between a can of paint that costs $20 and one that costs $70, says Mike Mundwiller, field development manager for Benjamin Moore. "The quality of the product used will affect the outcome and make a dramatic difference in how the product performs, hides, and lasts," he says. In areas where durability is especially important, such as the kitchen or bathroom, consider splurging on premium paint that will offer better coverage and a longer-lasting finish.

Living room with patterned rug and blue walls
Credit: Helen Norman

3. You chose a sheen that's difficult to clean.

A paint's sheen or gloss, which refers to how reflective the finish appears on the wall, can have a huge effect on how clean your walls look. In general, shinier finishes, including semi-gloss and high-gloss, are easier to clean because of their durability. A glossier surface will stand up better against frequent cleaning, so these sheens work well on trim and kitchen cabinetry. Washing walls with a flat or matte sheen, on the other hand, will require a gentle touch, as certain cleaning products and vigorous scrubbing can damage the finish. Non-reflective paint finishes work best in low-traffic areas that won't gather too many scuffs or splatters.

However, it's important to note that glossy paint is less forgiving than flatter finishes when it comes to imperfections like nail holes, dents, cracks, or patches. "Since gloss finishes reflect light and can accentuate blemishes, avoid using them on areas that are not completely smooth," Mundwiller says. If your walls have flaws you'd like to disguise, opt for a flatter finish for a cleaner look.

4. You didn't properly prep walls before painting.

Prep work is key to achieving a crisp finish, and cleaning walls is the first step. Use a trisodium phosphate (TSP) solution ($4, The Home Depot) to wipe down walls and remove dust or dirt before painting. Consider applying primer to help paint adhere properly. Primer is especially useful if you're covering up surface stains, such as water marks or stains from smoke. A base coat of primer helps create a blank slate so the paint color isn't fighting against stains underneath.

priming paneling with roller
Credit: Marty Baldwin

5. You used the wrong painting tools.

One brush does not fit all paint jobs. "The tools used often make the difference between an easy job that looks great and a hard job that doesn't look so good when it's finished," Mundwiller says. Pay close attention to the brush or roller recommended for the paint you're using. The best tool for your painting project also depends on the type of surface. Using a 3/4-inch-thick roller on smooth plaster walls, for example, can create an orange peel-like texture that will be more difficult to keep clean. In general, smooth surfaces require rollers with a thin nap, while rougher textures, such as brick walls, call for thickly woven rollers that can hold more paint and get into the crevices.


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