Choosing a Paint Sheen

When choosing paint, your first consideration will, of course, be color. But sheen is just as important. Simply put, sheen is a measurement of a paint’s gloss or shine. The amount of light a finish reflects can make your color look dramatically different. In addition, sheen can actually affect the performance of the paint. The categories are the same for both interior and exterior applications.

Flat Paint

Flat or “matte” finish paint has a higher percentage of pigment than other formulations, and generally requires fewer coats. In fact, most flat paints can provide complete coverage with just one or two coats; semi-gloss and gloss paints generally require three or more coats.

It very little to no sheen; high-quality paints tend to reflect a bit more light than do budget brands. Flat paint is good for hiding surface imperfections and is a good choice for ceilings and slightly damaged walls. It is generally washable, but less durable than glossier paints. It also doesn’t stand up well to humidity and splashing; keep it out of the bathroom and kitchen.

Eggshell or Satin

Although the terms are often used interchangeably to denote a moderate level of sheen, satin paints are typically a bit shinier than eggshell finishes. Both are durable and more cleanable than flat paints; they are best for high-traffic rooms, kids’ bedrooms, and bathrooms. Because the sheen keeps the eye moving, these paints are good for making small areas appear larger. Outside, satin paints shed water and offer better resistance to sun damage than flat paints do. A popular choice for trim, these moderately shiny paints can add warmth and dimension without being too shiny.

Satin paints are the most commonly used for both interior and exterior painting projects.

Semi-Gloss Paint

Has a higher sheen than eggshell or satin finishes. Semi-gloss paints are even more resistant to dirt and scuff marks, plus are easier to clean. Traditionally used in kitchens, bathrooms and on trim, windows or doors. Any area that requires regular or vigorous cleaning will benefit from using a semi-gloss paint.

Gloss Paint

Gloss paint is, predictably, the shiniest finish available. These finishes are incredibly durable, stain resistant, and cleanable; however, their highly reflective surfaces highlight flaws. Glossy finishes also require more coats than less reflective paints do. Gloss paint is a good choice for making an impact on pristine kitchen, bathroom, and utility room walls, or for adding contrast to trim. Smooth surfaces coated in gloss paint tend to look “plastic.”

Enamel and Lacquer

Solvent-based enamels and lacquers are more difficult to use than other finishes and require special preparation.

Enamels are very shiny and durable; they contain more binders and less pigment than other types of paint. Special floor enamels are available for adding decorative effects to plain concrete floors.

Lacquers are also incredibly shiny and require several coats. They are used primarily on furniture and other small accent pieces- not walls or trim.

A Word of Warning

As sheen increases, durability and cleanability also increase.

As sheen decreases, coverage increases. Coverage that can be achieved with two coats of flat paint typically takes three or more coats of semi-gloss or gloss paint to produce similar results.

There are no real standards in place for determining a finish’s sheen. It’s not uncommon for one manufacturer’s eggshell to look like another manufacturer’s satin. Painting a sample swatch will help you evaluate your paint’s sheen and color before making a final decision.

The best paint colors from Sherwin Williams – “Paint Color Cheat Sheets” – A great short-cut to finding a perfect paint color.

Find answers to your paint color questions.

One Comment

  1. Joe Cunningham
    Posted December 13, 2015 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    I want to know about the paint sheen (shine) of paints used on walls and woodwork 100 years ago.
    I am working on a house built in 1906 and want to restore it as accurately as possible to the original look. Can you give me any advise for wood trim and plaster ceilings and walls?
    Thank you!

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