Painting 101: Oil or Latex?

Learn the advantages and disadvantages of using oil-based and latex paint.


Oil-based paint should never be poured down a drain.

Oil-based paint should never be poured down a drain.

Should you use oil or latex paint for your painting project? Here are some of the pros and cons of each product.

Oil-Based Paint

Advantages of oil:

  • It goes on smoother
  • Covers more thoroughly in one coat
  • Shrinks less
  • Takes longer to dry so you have more working time
  • Holds up well in high-traffic areas

Disadvantages of oil:

  • It's more likely to crack, fade and yellow over time.
  • The fumes can be overwhelming.
  • Cleanup solvents like mineral spirits and turpentine are necessary for washing brushes. These hazardous chemicals need to be managed carefully (look in the phone book's government pages for local facilities).

Other important considerations:

  • Oil-based paints should never be poured down a drain. Disposal is regulated by local waste management agencies (look in the government pages for more information).
  • Many cities have local hazardous waste collection centers that accept old paint and stain. No matter which formula you reach for, oil or latex, use a laundry or bath sink for minor cleanup. Paint can ruin kitchen disposals.

How to Select the Right Paint Finish

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Our pros explain how to pick the right sheen for every job.

Sheen On

Color options run the gamut, but there are typically just four to five finishes to choose from within every paint manufacturers' line. And while each brand refers to their finishes differently, the distinguishing factors are essentially the same — luster and washability.
In general, paint finishes range from completely "flat" or matte to shiny or "high-gloss." Glossier finishes contain higher levels of resin and lower levels of pigmentation, whereas less shiny ones contain more pigment than resin.
"Selecting the ideal sheen involves both aesthetic and practical considerations," says Aimee Desrosiers, Director of Marketing for Behr. "From an aesthetic standpoint, sheen creates visual interest and from a practical standpoint, the right sheen can help extend the life of the paint job," she says. Image courtesy of Behr

Photo By: Behr Paint

Prep School

Proper prep is the difference between a smooth paint job and a bumpy or streaky one. Depending on the surface you're painting, you may need to use a primer or an undercoat prior to applying the paint. Steve Revnew, vice president of product development for Sherwin-Williams, also notes that shinier paints require thinner roller covers than flat finishes. Image courtesy of Sherwin-Williams

Photo By: Sherwin-Williams


At one end of the spectrum you'll find the chalky finish known as "flat," which features a matte sheen that absorbs light and helps hide surface imperfections. Flat paint is ideal for high-traffic areas and ceilings where irregularities and lap marks may exist. It's important to note, however, that all flat paints aren't created equal. The kind made specifically for ceilings is designed to roll on with minimal spatter and resist yellowing over time. Image courtesy of Farrow & Ball


With a bit more luster than flat paint, eggshell enamel offers superior scrubability to completely flat finishes. In this room, the subtle difference between the eggshell paint on the walls, the semigloss paint on the door and the high-gloss paint on the table is evident even under soft candlelight. Image courtesy of Behr


Semigloss paints reflect light for a bright, shiny appearance most evident in rooms with a strong light source. Use it on areas that are cleaned frequently such as kitchens, bathrooms, closet doors and trim. "While there are some exceptions, it is generally the case that the shinier a finish is, the more durable and easier to clean it will be," Desrosiers says. Image courtesy of Behr


Satin paints are similar to eggshell and semigloss except for their warm, pearl-like finish. They're also excellent at resisting mildew, dirt and stains (they can better withstand cleaning and light scrubbing) making them more suitable for frequently used spaces than their eggshell counterparts. Try this finish in hallways, children's rooms and on woodwork that will need to withstand modest wear and tear. Image courtesy of Behr

Photo By: Behr Paint


One benefit that high-sheen colors possess over flat sheens is depth of color. The higher the sheen, the more vivid and rich your color will appear, making it ideal for deep, jewel-toned colors such as reds, forest greens and navy blues. Experts are partial to this finish for wood surfaces, such as trim, cabinets and doors, but only when blemishes are minimal as shinier surfaces make flaws more evident. Image courtesy of Behr

Metal, Masonry and More

Latex or oil-based paints, in any finish, work just as well on harder-to-paint surfaces such as metal and masonry. The key is applying the right primer before you start. Floors, on the other hand, require paint specifically designed to stand up to abrasion, traffic and heavy scrubbing. Image courtesy of Farrow & Ball

Big Finish

When selecting paint sheens, keep in mind that shiny surfaces, because they are reflective, help to make a small space feel larger. "Use a semigloss sheen to visually expand a small kitchen or bathroom," Desrosiers says. Softer sheens, such as satin or eggshell, give bedrooms — especially kids' rooms and living areas — a more subtle finish. Image courtesy of Behr

Latex (Water-Based) Paint

Advantages of latex:

  • Doesn't yellow over time
  • Is better for the environment
  • Dries faster
  • Much easier to clean up by using soap and water
  • Latex is far more forgiving, primarily for cleanup, making it a great choice for the weekend warrior.
  • Many painters are finding latex is more widely available than oil.

A disadvantage of latex is it swells the grain of wood, making sanding between coats a necessity.

More Painting Tips:

  • All paints contain chemicals, so wear gloves when tackling large projects to minimize direct skin exposure.
  • If you're painting a wall or doing some simple effects, reach for latex. If there's wood involved, you may want to consider oil-based paint.
  • When in doubt, tell the experts at your home center what you're doing and they'll be happy to offer advice. With all the new products out there for latex paint, you can tackle almost any decorative finish!

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