Choosing the Right Interior Paint Finish for Your Home

From Flat to High-Gloss

Painted modern living room
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Even after you've chosen the perfect color for a room, there's another very important decision to make: the finish. With five or six different paint finishes to choose from, there are a lot of options, even within a single color, and with them comes a number of questions you'll need to answer. The best advice is to learn the uses and benefits of each finish and determine the right one for your job.

The Chemistry of Paint Finish

Paint glossiness is determined by the chemistry of the paint. Paints that are "high-gloss" have a larger ratio of resins and less pigment volume concentration (PVC). Flat paints, on the other hand, have a much larger ratio of pigments and a lower ratio of resins. This explains why painting with glossier paints often requires a second, or even third coat, while flatter paints may cover adequately with a single coat.

Although homeowners are usually content to know that flat paint doesn't reflect much light and that high-gloss paint reflects a lot, the industrial paint industry actually has fairly precise standards for how to categorize different paint finishes, based on how much light they reflect.

While in the broader residential paint industry there are six different levels of paint finish, be aware that not all paint manufacturers offer all six. And they may have slightly different terminology for the same finish.

For example, one manufacturer's "glossy" paint may be the same as another's "hi-gloss enamel." 

All paint finishes are available in both latex and oil-based (alkyd) paints. For most people, latex paints are the better choice since they offer easy cleanup and lower levels of unpleasant (and unhealthy) fumes than oil-based paints.

Paint TypeReflectionWhere to Use
Flat (matte)0% to 4%Low traffic areas:
  • Formal living room
  • Dining room
  • Adult bedroom
  • Ceiling
  • Family room
  • Halls
Low-sheen (eggshell)5% to 19%

Low traffic areas:

  • Living room
  • Dining room
  • Bedroom
  • Entryway
  • Family room
  • Halls
  • Kitchen
  • Woodwork, trim
SatinMedium
(not standardized)

Active areas:

  • Family room
  • Kitchen
  • Dining room
  • Playroom
  • Children's bedroom
  • Laundry room
  • Woodwork, trim
  • Doors
Semi-gloss20% to 59% 

High traffic or high moisture areas:

  • Kitchen
  • Bathroom
  • Utility room
  • Cabinets
  • Doors
  • Trim, moldings
  • Windows
  • Halls
Gloss60% to 84%Surfaces you clean:​
  • Trim, moldings
  • Doors
  • Cabinets
  • Kitchen
  • Bathroom
High-gloss85% to 100%

Dramatic accents:

  • Cabinets
  • Trim
  • Furniture

The Different Types of Paint Finishes

Each paint finish has advantages for different applications:

  • Flat finish: Whether called flat finish or simply "wall paint," this type of interior paint has a completely matte surface with no shine at all. The surface may have a slightly chalky feel to it. This paint finish is usually used on interior walls and ceilings. It's especially good if you have to camouflage small wall bumps, cracks, or other imperfections that might be highlighted with a finish that has any degree is shininess. While some flat paints are now advertised as washable, it's often more effective to touch up scratches or marks by covering with a bit more paint, so be sure you keep some on hand after you've finished painting.
  • Flat enamel (matte): Flat enamel is a paint with a durable flat, matte finish, but its chemistry is such that it forms a slight film as it dries. It's an acceptable choice for powder rooms or guest bedrooms, as it holds up to occasional cleaning. Some manufacturers market this as "matte" paint to distinguish it from their flat finish paints.
  • Eggshell: If you can picture the very low sheen of the shell of an egg, you have an idea of how an eggshell paint finish will appear. With only a slight hint of shine or gloss, it's good for most walls and holds up better to cleaning than a flat finish or flat enamel paint. Eggshell finishes are an extremely popular choice for walls in family homes, as they combine good washability with the ability to hide flaws. 
  • Satin: Satin finish paint has a smooth, velvety look with a bit more gloss. It is most often used for windows, doors, trim, or ceilings, but it can also be used as wall paint. This is particularly suitable for kids' room walls, kitchens, or bathrooms, or in areas which get a lot of traffic. Paint with a satin finish is formulated to hold up to cleaning and light scrubbing.
  • Semi-gloss: Semi-gloss paint is most often used on doors, trim, and cabinets in kitchens and bathrooms. It is easily cleaned and lays down a nice, subtle shine, without being too glitzy. Take care with pre-paint preparation work, as poorly prepared surfaces can be a bit distracting when highlighted by a semi-gloss surface that reflects light.
  • Glossy (High-gloss): High-gloss paints have an almost reflective quality, as their shiny finish mimics the look of enamel or plastic. Though not widely used in home interiors, it is becoming more popular for a dramatic look on cabinets, trim, and furniture in very formal and very contemporary settings. This finish will magnify any surface imperfections, so careful preparation and sanding are essential before painting with high gloss paints.

Factors to Consider

You can start with the qualities you need in a paint and choose the best interior paint finish for that purpose:

  • Cleanability and durability: While most manufacturers have developed all paint finishes with good cleaning qualities, a general rule is that the shinier the paint finish, the better it will stand up to washing and cleaning.
  • Kid-friendly finishes: When painting children's rooms, many painters recommend using an eggshell or satin paint on the walls and semi-gloss for doors and moldings. These finishes are formulated to better withstand repeated cleanings.
  • Rustic looks: In order to give a worn or old look, use flat finish paints for walls or furniture. If cleanability is an issue, you might select a flat enamel for trim or an eggshell finish for walls.
  • High-gloss looks: Rather than choosing a high-gloss paint for a whole room, use it sparingly in select locations, such as doors and trim. The brilliant surface can appear a bit cold and uninviting. Remember to spend extra time preparing the surfaces to be painted glossy, as this finish tends to really point out any surface imperfections.
  • Ceiling color: If you're looking for a basic white ceiling, you can buy pre-mixed, matte finish paints off the shelf at almost any paint or home improvement store. Of course, if you're looking for something a bit more colorful, it's always fun to think outside the box and do something unexpected with your ceiling. Colorful ceilings not only add a unique visual element to the space, they can even increase the apparent size of a room by making their ceilings feel higher. 
  • Ceiling finishes: Ceilings in most rooms are painted with a flat finish paint. You could also select an eggshell finish if the surface of the ceiling is flawless. Choose a glossier finish for good light reflection, but only if the ceiling is newly resurfaced and has no blemishes at all. Lastly, because cleaning and repainting your ceilings are probably not very easy to do, look for a high premium paint that will wear well and not crack. 
  • Kitchens and baths: Any room that will be exposed to water, splashing, or steam is best painted with a semi-gloss paint. A guest bath or powder room, which have​ a less frequent use, could be painted with lower-gloss paint, such as satin or eggshell finish.