Porcelain vs. Ceramic: How to Decide Which Tile Type Is Best for You
Both ceramic and porcelain tiles are an ideal choice for kitchens, baths, basements, laundry rooms, and other moisture-prone areas. These clay-based, kiln-fired tiles are extremely durable, easy to clean, and resistant to water, stains, and daily wear. They work well on both walls and floors and are available in an array of colors, patterns, shapes, and sizes. Typically more affordable than other types of natural stone or decorative tile, ceramic and porcelain tiles are a practical choice that will hold up well for years to come. If you're trying to decide between the two types of tile, it's important to know the difference between ceramic and porcelain. Our guide will walk you through the key considerations when choosing the best type of tile for your space.
What is the Difference Between Ceramic Tile and Porcelain Tile?
Often difficult to tell apart, ceramic and porcelain tiles are made with very similar materials and processes, but there are slight differences between the two types. In general, porcelain tile is harder than ceramic and offers greater design flexibility. Although both are made from clay and other naturally occurring materials fired in a kiln, the clay used to make porcelain tile is more refined and purified. It's fired at a higher temperature and greater pressure, resulting in an extremely dense and hard material.
"Porcelain is proving to be a long-wearing material that is really making its mark on the industry," says Tanya Woods, a Michigan-based kitchen and bath designer (AKBD). Porcelain tile is an ideal product for cold-weather climates where freeze/thaw conditions are a concern. Due to its low moisture absorption rate (0.5% or less), porcelain is less likely to crack and is more impervious to stains. "The term porcelain has become branded to some degree—it is to tile as Kleenex is to tissue," Woods says. "But this does not mean all porcelain tiles are created equal."
Types of Ceramic and Porcelain Tile
Ceramic and porcelain tiles come in a variety of forms that are best suited for different uses. All tile feels hard, but some types of tile are actually harder than others. The body of a tile, sometimes called the bisque or biscuit, is produced to meet a specific need, such as lining a kitchen backsplash or covering a bathroom floor. Although thickness is one gauge of strength, the composition of the tile and the temperature and duration of firing also determine its strength. To help you determine whether the porcelain or ceramic tile you are considering is appropriate for a particular location, check the tile's rating, as determined by the Porcelain Enamel Institute. Hardness ratings are as follows:
- Class 0: no traffic. This type of tile is suitable for use on walls only and should not be installed on floors.
- Class 1: light traffic. These ceramic or porcelain tiles work best in areas that receive very light wear, such as a guest bath where bare or stocking feet are the norm.
- Class 2: medium traffic. These tiles are designed for use in interiors where little abrasion occurs. They are not recommended for kitchens, entries, or stairwells.
- Class 3: medium-heavy traffic. This variety of ceramic and porcelain can typically be used anywhere inside a home, including kitchens and baths.
- Class 4: heavy traffic. These tiles are very hard and can be used in homes or in light to medium commercial areas.
- Class 5: extra-heavy traffic. These tiles can be used anywhere but are typically found in stores and other commercial spaces that receive heavy foot traffic.
Proper underlayment is a must when installing ceramic or porcelain tiles on floors. To prevent chipping and cracking, tile must be installed over a firmly supported subflooring. If tiles break over time, they should always be replaced instead of repaired. It's also important to note that tile grout can be difficult to clean if left unsealed.
How to Choose Ceramic or Porcelain Tile
For safety in wet areas or in flooring applications where accessibility is a concern, look for a tile, whether porcelain or ceramic, with a high coefficient of friction. This property is measured on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most slip-resistant. In general, honed finishes offer more traction than glossy surfaces, which also have a tendency to show finger- and footprints.
If you've decided on using porcelain tile, it's best to choose one that has "through body color" for the highest quality. Some tiles have only a ceramic glaze fired over the body, and if chipped, the white-, tan-, or red-clay base is exposed.
"Porcelain also offers strong advantages when it comes to design," Woods says. "Due to its strong nature, many sizes are available from a small mosaic 1×1 to large slabs of 24x48 and many unusual sizes in between." Porcelain can also be rectified, or cut to a precise size so all tiles are identical, allowing the tile contractor to set extremely tight grout joints.
However, certain factors make installing porcelain tile a more difficult DIY project. Its density and hardness require a wet saw with a porcelain diamond blade. For proper surface adhesion, you should use a latex modified thin-set mortar ($16, The Home Depot). For large-format porcelain tiles, a level substrate is needed to reduce lippage, or variations in height. And if you're worried about the tile feeling cold underfoot, consider installing radiant or hydronic heating coils underneath for extra warmth.
Porcelain tile's payoff of lasting beauty is well worth the extra installation requirements. "Notably, surface finishes, textures, patterns, and variation of color are very stylized and lend to porcelain's appeal," Woods says. "The tile industry has grown as a result of the introduction of porcelain tile, and it looks as though it's only going to continue to increase in popularity."