DIY · Home & Garden

Different Paint Finishes | How to Choose a Paint Finish

Learn the secret to selecting the right paint sheen each and every time. This easy guide will show you all the different paint finishes with scenarios in which you’d use each one of them.

Different paint finishes are shown in a straight view of a sage green living room in a midwest cottage.

Here’s a little secret. That advice “never paint your home in a flat finish” is outdated and untrue. Houses are complex. Different paint finishes are more suitable in certain areas of your home than others. While certain paint finishes are better for certain projects, you cannot say across the board to only use one type of paint finish. (Or to never use another one.)

Personal preferences vary and lighting, traffic, and type of material all play a role in the correct sheen to use. The type of finish most appropriate is going to change depending on the project and room of your home. 

After painting room after room in our home I’ve learned a thing or two. Much of it firsthand and some after researching the topic thoroughly. 

I have painted various types of trim, beadboard, hardwood floors, ceilings, doors, walls of all sorts of textures, and I have learned that the paint sheen in which you should use comes down to mainly three things:

  • How you want the overall effect of the color and texture to appear 
  • How often you’ll be using the area you’re painting
  • How much moisture/humidity is present in this area on a daily basis

Now, back to the first thing I hear some homeowners argue: “Don’t ever paint with a flat paint. It comes right off and if your kids color on the wall you’ll have to repaint it all over again.”

Well, here are some facts.

Paint takes minutes to apply and less than an hour to dry. If I have kids and if they decide to draw on the wall, I am okay with applying fresh paint. Touching up one area on a wall isn’t the end of the world. That’s just life.

It’s 2023. Paint has come a long way. Flat paint is not the same as it was 50 or even 20 years ago. Flat paint, nowadays, is made to withstand a little scrubbing. A high-quality flat paint should be durable.

Although there are certain rooms/pieces that could benefit from using a glossy paint, there are just as many that will benefit from using a flat paint. It depends on many factors: lighting, wall texture and imperfections, moisture, and traffic.

As you can see, you shouldn’t completely write off any paint sheen. They all have strengths and weaknesses. It’s better to approach each room/material knowing it has its own individual needs that may require a different finish than another area of the home.

Now, before I ramble on too much about flat paint (I’ll save that for the section “Flat | different paint finishes”), let’s get into discussing all the other ones first. Just so you understand where I’m coming from. 

Let’s get into the details of choosing from different paint finishes…

A mirror gets a slight change with new door handles.
Vintage tea rose walls in a master bedroom benefit from the shine in the semi-gloss sheen used. Added sheen brightens and lightens the room and adds a slight elegance with its reflective qualities.

Different Paint Finishes and Which One to Choose

What is a paint finish (sheen)?

A paint finish is how much reflective light comes off of a paint. Each different paint finish has its own unique purposes, whether decorative or practical. 

How many paint finishes are there?

There are six different paint finishes, although some stores don’t carry them all. These sheens, whose appearances can vary slightly from brand to brand, are:

  • Hi-Gloss
  • Semi-Gloss
  • Satin Enamel
  • Eggshell Enamel
  • Matte
  • Flat

The Six Different Paint Finishes

Hi-Gloss | different paint finishes

When to use: If an area of the home gets high traffic and lots of wear and tear. Also, areas that have a lot of moisture or have low lighting. The reflective nature of this sheen makes a room feel lighter and brighter. It is also resistant to moisture which makes it a perfect contender for painting bathrooms. One downfall to a hi-gloss finish is that it is so reflective that it acts as almost a mirror–which in some rooms can look regal, but in other rooms can appear strange and even cheap.

Common projects for this finish: Doors, cabinets, trim, bathrooms, and kitchens

Semi-Gloss | different paint finishes

When to use: This sheen is good for high traffic areas also. It’s one of the most popular finishes and the one I’ve used most in our home to date. There is some glossiness to it which adds a bit of drama from its reflective nature. It’s also great for rooms with lots of moisture or lower lighting.

Common projects for this finish: Doors, cabinets, trim, dining rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens

A semi-gloss paint appears on white door trim in a doorway to a kitchen.
A bit of shine is apparent in the doorway trim leading to the kitchen. The semi-gloss sheen allows light to reflect off of it to create an eye-catching effect.

Satin | different paint finishes

When to use: A solid, middle-of-the-road choice, the satin finish adds a hint of reflection without being too over the top. It is good for medium-high traffic areas and is still okay to use in areas where some moisture is present. Although, it is recommended more for guest bathrooms or half bathrooms that have lower moisture levels.

Common projects for this finish: Living rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, hallways, kitchens, and trim

Eggshell | different paint finishes

When to use: Eggshell is another very popular paint choice. It has an even finish without appearing too shiny. It works in moderately trafficked areas. This would be great for walls with texture that you want to disguise (like my living room and hallway). Another good middle-of-the-road choice.

An eggshell sheen on this different paint finish from the rest of the house allows a sage green living room to appear less textured in the walls.
An eggshell finish allows a light sage green living room to appear less textured in the walls.

Common projects for this finish: Living rooms, family rooms, hallways, dining rooms, and bedrooms

Matte | different paint finishes

When to use: Matte has a chalkier appearance like a flat sheen. However, it is good for use in rooms that are less commonly used. Matte paint is great for ceilings, where you don’t necessarily need to draw attention, and is also good for disguising imperfections like flat sheens. 

Common projects for this finish: Master bedroom, office, formal dining & living rooms, and ceilings

Flat | different paint finishes

When to use: Use this in low-traffic areas. It is generally good on most interior walls and ceilings, but is not recommended in high-moisture areas. It is not water resistant and also not as easy to clean as glossier sheens. However, it is great for rooms where you want to disguise imperfections in drywall (and textures of walls you may want to downplay). In an old house with uneven surfaces, this paint can become your best friend. I actually prefer flat, matte, or eggshell paint in several rooms in our home because of the drywall texture. It makes a huge difference in appearance, trust me. Another advantage: Flat paint is more affordable than glossier paint sheens.

Common projects for this finish: Office, master bedroom, formal dining & living rooms, and ceilings

A textured hallway has high shine drawing the eye toward its many imperfections. A better choice would be a flat, matte, or eggshell sheen to disguise the rough texture in the drywall.
A textured hallway has high shine, drawing the eye toward its many imperfections. A better choice would have been a flat, matte, or eggshell sheen to disguise the rough texture in the drywall.

Tips for Success | Choosing Different Paint Finishes

When in doubt, test paint before committing to painting an entire room. Ask yourself how much traffic this room/area gets throughout the day, if the room gets much moisture, and if you need to disguise any imperfections. Next, decide which end of the spectrum to stick to based off the answers to those questions. Finally, grab samples in one or two sheens and test these on the surface you’ll be painting. Watch how the light reflects on it throughout the day and go from there.

Don’t get too hung up on the 4-6 different sheens you have to choose from (some stores only offer 4 to choose from anyway). When in doubt, stick with the middle of the road choice. These middle finishes are usually the most pleasing because they have a little bit of the best of both worlds. 

Keep in mind that the sheen can alter the appearance of a color. In general, glossy sheens will darken colors while flatter paint sheens make them appear lighter. So don’t get angry with a store clerk when the paint looks different on your walls (they almost always will look different due to the finish, along with so many other factors). You may have just unknowingly chosen the incorrect sheen for your room.

Beadboard has been painted with a semi-gloss sheen that highlights the drama or adding wainscoting to a room.
Beadboard has been painted with a semi-gloss sheen that highlights the drama of a dining area with wainscoting.

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3 thoughts on “Different Paint Finishes | How to Choose a Paint Finish

  1. Very informative! Now I understand much better a subject that’s always been confusing to me.

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