4 Best Bathroom Wall Surfaces

Interior of a modern bathroom and bathtub.
Thomas Northcut/Iconica/Getty Images

Bathroom remodeling: after doing the shower/tub, counter, cabinetry, and floors, now you have to think about wall covering, too?  Why not just good old paint?

Paint is fine, but moisture should be your main concern when choosing a covering. Unchecked moisture, both from tub/shower overspray as well as moisture-laden air, is devastating for bathrooms. Even well-vented bathrooms have moisture issues.

Here are five options for bathroom walls.

Peelable Vinyl Wallpaper

It Is100% waterproof wallpaper
ProEasy to install because it can be unpeeled and reapplied more than once
ConSome types are not good for direct moisture


Vinyl-coated wallpaper is best for bathrooms. All-paper coverings will degrade in the moist environment.

But if vinyl wallpaper makes you think of a downmarket Days Inn, think again. Vinyl wallpaper has grown up and become sophisticated. Purveyors like Tempaper and Timothy Sue offer gorgeous wallpapers that have graced style and shelter magazines.

Just be sure that your present wall surface can accept peelable wallpaper. It will not stick to matte, flat, or rough surfaces. Also, it works best for indirect, ambient moisture. So use in conjunction with a lower wall cover listed below, such as beadboard or tile.

Unlike paint, you can actually try out wallpaper before applying it. Buy a roll or cadge a sample, stick it up in the room.

Large patterns will visually reduce the size of your bathroom. Verticals draw your eye upward and make the room feel taller. Horizontals seem to widen it.

"Bathroom Paint" vs. Regular Interior Paint

It IsPaint that has properties that make it better-suited for bathrooms
ProMold- and mildew-inhibiting additives
ConCosts up to twice as much as regular interior paint

How can you go wrong with bathroom paint?  After all, the paint is designed just for that room.

There is no true "bathroom paint." As Steve Revnew, VP of Product Innovation at Sherwin-Williams told us, paint sold under the "bathroom paint" imprimatur is paint that can be used anywhere in the house. It simply has anti-microbal properties that allow you to choose flatter sheens than you normally would in a bathroom.

With regular interior paint, the main thing to avoid is getting a flat or matte surface paint because their pores trap water. A classic way to avoid this is to use semi-glossy or glossy sheen; water beads up on these surfaces. But these premium paints with mold-killing additives let you have those desirable flatter sheens in the bathroom.

Ceramic or Glass Tile

It IsTile applied to lower wall surfaces like wainscot or backsplash
Pro100% waterproof as long as it is well installed
ConTile needs to be applied judiciously to avoid overwhelming the room

Ceramic tile is a classic choice for bathroom walls. With tile, as long as it is properly applied, moisture will never be a problem. Since the days of the ancient Romans, tile has been used even for standing-water surfaces such as the insides of baths.

Design is your main consideration. All tile has grout, and grout means lines: lines create patterns which can either enhance or detract from the bathroom's appearance.

Too much tile can make a room feel busy, ponderous, or worse--like a public restroom. Ceramic tile used as wainscot usually stops at a certain point on the wall, around 36" to 38".

Beadboard

It IsBoard that covers the lower portion of the wall
ProHelps to protect against direct moisture from shower or bathtub
ConUnique look that may not work for all bathrooms

Beadboard provides only partial covering for the wall--the lower half--but this is the most critical half.  

Beadboard can be painted with semi-gloss or glossy paint, which thoroughly protects the lower parts of the walls against moisture.

For easier installation, purchase panels of beadboard that are 8' by 4'.

Installed lengthwise, these long boards lay down quickly with construction glue and finish nails. For a more refined look, choose individual beadboard planks.

Beadboard gives your bathroom a traditional, classic look.

Tileboard

It IsMedium density fiberboard (MDF) with a hard melamine layer on top
ProIt can be a quick fixer for bad drywall in a kitchen or bathroom
ConPoor quality substitute for tile

At first glance, tileboard looks like ceramic tile. It comes in four-foot by eight-foot panels so you can install 32 square feet of "tile" in mere minutes.

Better tileboard looks closer to real and the "wear surface" is coated, so it repels moisture.

Cheap and easy to install--best used for a guest bathroom or basement bathroom--tileboard is bargain material that adds little value to your home.