For environments where the flooring is likely to be subject to moisture or staining agents, the right kind of floor is needed. Solid wood, carpeting, and even laminate often aren't suited for these spaces.
So, homeowners face two excellent choices: vinyl tile and ceramic tile. Both flooring types are good at shedding moisture and resisting stains. This choice most often comes into play for high-traffic or highly wet rooms like kitchens and full bathrooms.
Vinyl tile is often designed to replicate the look of wood, stone, or even ceramic tile. Vinyl and ceramic tile are entirely different substances, which means that they have different characteristics when it comes to installation, maintenance, and real estate resale value. Learning about the differences between ceramic tiles and vinyl flooring will help you make the right choice.
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Vinyl Tile vs. Ceramic Tile: Major Differences
Vinyl tile is essentially the same material as is used for sheet vinyl flooring—a very thin, manmade product made from PVC plastic with a felt or fiberglass backing layer and covered with a printed design layer and clear wear layer. For the tile form of flooring, the vinyl is simply cut into squares that range from 9 to 18 inches across. Some forms of vinyl tile, called composite tiles, include some amount of pulverized stone dust in their manufacturing process. This gives them somewhat more realism than plastic-only vinyl tiles.
Yet another form of vinyl tile is luxury vinyl, a much thicker form of vinyl flooring that joins together with click-lock edges rather than being applied with a troweled-on mastic. Luxury vinyl is available both in plank form and tile form; the tiles are generally known as LVT, or luxury vinyl tiles. These have a bit more prestige than standard vinyl tiles and are also more expensive.
Ceramic tile is made from natural earth clays mixed with other materials, covered with a surface glaze, and fired in ovens to harden them. Porcelain is a particular category of ceramic tile; porcelain tiles are made from finer clays and are fired at higher temperatures to make them harder and more durable.
Ceramic tile can be used other on floors, or for countertops, walls, or showers.
While vinyl floor tile is often designed to look like ceramic tile, the illusion is rarely very convincing; almost everyone can tell the difference between a vinyl floor and a ceramic or stone tile floor. However, vinyl floor tile does come in a huge array of colors and styles. From a pure design view, you will have every choice you could possibly want.
Ceramic tile is also available in a wide array of colors and styles, though you will pay quite a bit for the more designer forms of tile. Porcelain tiles, in particular, come in many very attractive choices as a designer flooring material.
Best for Appearance: Ceramic Tile
Few people would dispute that ceramic tile has the edge when it comes to appearance. Vinyl tile, after all, generally aims at duplicating ceramic tile. Vinyl is usually easily identified as vinyl tile rather than wood, stone, or ceramic.
Water and Heat Resistance
Both vinyl and ceramic tiles are comparable in terms of resistance to water since both are entirely waterproof materials. However, both have joints between tiles that create the possibility of moisture seeping down to the underlayment and subfloor.
As a wholly synthetic, manmade material, vinyl tile is entirely immune to water damage, but the many seams between tiles can allow water to seep down between tiles. Thus, vinyl tile is not quite as impervious to moisture as sheet vinyl. Vinyl can be damaged by intense heat, which will melt and scorch it. Further, vinyl can release toxic gases if it ignites in a home fire.
Luxury vinyl planks or tiles can be a little more problematic in terms of moisture penetration since the joints do not fit as tightly as they do with standard vinyl tiles. However, the vinyl itself is perfectly waterproof, and problems are not likely provided that spill and puddles are wiped up.
Ceramic tile is also impervious to water damage. The flooring surface has good resistance to penetration by water if the grout seams are well maintained and are kept sealed. Ceramic tile is also impervious to heat damage.
Best for Water and Heat Resistance: Ceramic Tile
Both materials have a good inherent resistance to water damage, but they also have seams that can allow moisture to seep down to the subfloor. However, ceramic tile is virtually impervious to heat, while vinyl tile is damaged by heat.
Care and Cleaning
Both vinyl tiles and ceramic tiles are very easy to clean materials. Regular sweeping with periodic damp mopping using a mild soap solution is really sufficient to care for both flooring materials.
Vinyl tile is one of the easiest of all flooring materials to keep clean. Embossing (texture) in vinyl tile is usually minimal, and there are few, if any, seams between the tiles to capture the dirt. Not only that but vinyl tiles are smooth, making it easier to sweep up debris. Vinyl tile lends itself well to wet-mopping, if need be. But usually it can be cleaned with a damp or dry mop.
With ceramic tile, grout lines can get dingy if the seal coat is allowed to degrade. When this happens, a good scrubbing with a grout cleaner containing bleach is necessary.
Best for Care and Cleaning: Vinyl Tile
Because it has no grout lines or embossing to collect debris, stains, or mildew, vinyl tile is an easier flooring material to keep clean.
Durability and Maintenance
Vinyl tile has an expected lifespan of about 10 years under normal use, though that can extend up to 20 years in some cases. Vinyl is a resilient material that is somewhat soft and susceptible to gouges and scratches, but replacing a damaged tile is not difficult. It's a fairly easy process to heat the tile to loosen the adhesive, pull it out, then scrape the floor clean and glue down a new tile.
Ceramic tile is a much more durable material, and lifespans of 40 years or more are common. Damaged tiles can be removed and replaced. Grout lines on ceramic tile must be resealed every few years, and cleaned if they become dirty or stained with mildew.
Best for Durability and Maintenance: Ceramic Tile
Ceramic tile is a very hard material with excellent durability. Except for cracking, ceramic tile is quite resistant to most of the damage that may come its way.
Traditionally, vinyl tile is applied by a glue-down bond in which flooring mastic is troweled onto the floor before the tiles are pressed down into place individually. But self-adhesive tiles now dominate the market. With these, the adhesive is factory-applied and covered with a protective paper that is peeled away when it's time to lay the tiles. Vinyl tile is one of the favorite flooring materials for DIYers, thanks to its ease of installation.
Various forms of luxury vinyl planks and tiles are installed as floating floors, in which individual pieces are joined together with a snap-lock system that holds the planks or tiles together along the edges. The installation method resembles that used for laminate flooring, and it is extremely easy for DIYers.
A floating floor is a floor that is not attached to the subfloor. A floating floor's individual pieces (tiles or planks) attach to each other, side to side. Friction and the weight of the floor hold the floor in place.
Ceramic or porcelain tile is always installed with a thin-set adhesive used to glue down the tiles over an underlayment of cement board. Partial tiles can be cut with a manual tool that scores and snaps the tiles, or with a power wet saw. Once the adhesive is dry the joints between tiles are filled with a mortar-based grout, which is sealed after it dries completely. While ceramic tile installation is labor-intensive, plenty of DIYers tackle this work successfully.
Best for Installation: Vinyl Tile
Vinyl tile is a very easy flooring material for DIYers to install since it is easy to cut and does not require troweling thinset mortar. In sharp contrast, ceramic tile installation is a process that is learned over time. Installing ceramic tile is fairly labor-intensive, though it is certainly possible for DIYers to install tile on a modest scale.
In general, vinyl tile is a much less expensive form of flooring. Self-adhesive vinyl tiles purchased at big-box home improvement centers generally average $1.50 to $3 per square foot, and professional installation usually adds about $3 per square foot. Vinyl tile, however, is quite easy to install yourself.
Ceramic tile averages around $5 per square foot for materials alone, within a range of $1 for plain white tiles to more than $20 per square foot for designer porcelain tiles. Professional installation can add between $5 and $17 per square foot, depending on labor costs in your area and the complexity of the work your job requires.
Best for Cost: Vinyl Tiles
Vinyl tile is better than ceramic tiles when it comes to cost since vinyl requires few, if any, specialty tools and requires few additional materials.
Vinyl floor tile usually is ready for replacement in about 10 years, though longer lifespans are possible in light-use situations.
Ceramic tile can last many decades, with lifespans of 40 years or more quite common.
Best for Lifespan: Ceramic Tile
No question about it: Ceramic tile is a more durable and and long-term flooring material than vinyl tile.
Vinyl flooring contains many toxic chemicals. While these are stable in vinyl's manufactured form, these chemicals do not safely break down in landfills, and there is the potential for releasing toxic gases if the materials are burned. Environmentally conscious homeowners are rightly concerned about the use of vinyl flooring.
Ceramic tile is a wholly natural product that has nothing toxic in its components. Old ceramic tile creates no contamination when it finds its way into landfills. Ceramic tile is difficult to recycle, though. In some cases, ceramic tile is ground up to use as fill for construction projects.
Best for the Environment: Ceramic Tile
Because it contains no chemical components, ceramic tile is a better material when it comes to environmental concerns.
Both vinyl and ceramic tile come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, although ceramic tile has more options.
Vinyl tiles tend to be square in shape, from 9 to 18 inches across.
Square ceramic tiles generally start at about 3 inches across, running up to 18 inches, but they also come in sheets of tiny mosaic tiles attached to mesh backing, in geometric shapes, and in rectangular shapes.
Best for Sizes: Ceramic Tile
Ceramic tile has more shape and size options than does vinyl tile.
Vinyl flooring is usually recognized as an economy flooring, though this is less true of modern luxury vinyl tiles or planks.
Ceramic or porcelain floor tiles generally have a higher return on investment than self-adhesive vinyl tiles, especially when the floor uses designer porcelain tiles.
Best for Resale Value: Ceramic Tile
A well-maintained ceramic tile floor will almost always have more prestige and greater real estate value than vinyl tile flooring.
Comfort and Sound
Vinyl tile floors, since the material is resilient, are slightly more comfortable and quiet underfoot than rock-hard ceramic tile. In a kitchen, a china dish dropped on vinyl may survive, while shattering is a given if it drops onto ceramic tile.
But vinyl flooring is still a relatively hard flooring material, especially when installed over a concrete subfloor.
In addition to being very hard, ceramic tile is also a notoriously cold flooring material—unless it is installed over a radiant floor heating system, which will transform it into a delightfully cozy surface.
Best for Comfort and Sound: Vinyl Tile
Both flooring materials are fairly hard underfoot, but vinyl tile edges out ceramic tile since it is slightly softer.
The main advantages to vinyl tile lie in its low cost and its easy DIY installation. On most other categories of comparison, ceramic tile is a superior flooring surface, with better appearance, longer durability, and a potentially higher resale value.
Hirschler, MM. Poly(vinyl chloride) and its fire properties. Fire Materials. 2017; 41: 993– 1006. doi:10.1002/fam.2431