Paint Finishes: How and When to Use Them

The types of paint finishes and how and when to use them is what I’d call basic interior design knowledge and it is fairly simple to understand and master. Here’s a quick summary for you to refer to as needed. Be sure to pin the Pinterest image at the end so you know where to find the info.

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paint cans and color samples of various colors

You do not have to be an interior designer or serious DIYer to need to know the basics about paint. In my opinion, every home owner should have a basic working knowledge of the types of paint finishes on the market and how and when to use them in your house.

I’m going to break down the options available for different paint sheens or finishes and when they’re typically used. Before I do, though, keep in mind that I’m describing mainstream options and choices.

If you want to get creative with the paint finishes you use or where you use them, go for it! Some design rules should always be followed–this does not have to be one of them in my opinion.

First, let’s describe the kinds of paint finishes in mainstream interior design.

What are Paint Finishes?

Paint finishes or sheens indicate the amount of light that reflects off of the paint. Sheens or glosses range on a scale from no shine to high shine. Keep in mind that different levels of sheen or shine can affect how a color appears in your space, can emphasize or minimize imperfections on your surface, and can add dimension to your room.

home design plans with paint and flooring samples

Is there a Basic Rule of Thumb for Paint Sheens?

Yes! The basic rule of thumb to follow when choosing paint sheens is as follows: 

The higher the sheen, the higher the shine and the higher the shine, the more durable and easier to clean it should be and the more imperfections from your surface will show. 

Frame mockup in modern dark home interior background, 3d render

What are the Main Kinds of Paint Finishes?

On one end of the spectrum is flat or matte paint, which has no shine. On the other end, high-gloss is the highest amount of shine or sheen available in most interior latex paints. In between are eggshell, satin, and semi-gloss, each with its own level of shine and durability.

Modern living room design and wallpaper decoration of tropical f
Beautiful Example of the 60:30:10 Rule in Interior Design

Why & When Should You Use Flat or Matte Paint?

Flat paint is the least reflective or shiny paint typically on the market. Amongst the pros of using flat paint are the fact that it is more easily touched up and tends to hide more imperfections on the surface. On the other hand, it is also much harder, if not impossible to clean and tends to show every bit of oil/liquid or dirt from anything that touches it.

Flat paint is typically great for ceilings or low-traffic areas, where you do not have to worry about people or things touching or bumping into the painted surface.

Flat paint is NOT ideal for most high-traffic areas. Sure, you could more easily paint over spots of dirt or liquid that made it onto the painted surface, but do you really want to have to repaint or paint over the blemishes every few weeks? Yeah, me neither. Plus, over time, paint fades and walls get dusty. Eventually, and possibly quickly, you’ll be able to see the newer paint stand out amongst the older paint.

While flat paint better hides much of the imperfections in the painted surface, you would likely see marks from every person or thing that touched it.

My sister’s new house was painted all in matte paint (not by her choice) and you could see every splash of water, every time the kids touched the wall or the dog rubbed up against it…it looked terrible. And while she could repaint back over it, she would’ve had to paint every week to keep it from looking like a mess. When I think of the things my kids touch in any given day…what’s on their hands at any given time…then think of them touching flat/matte painted walls, I cringe real hard.

So, while flat and matte paint can look luxe and there are some other benefits I mentioned above, I do not recommend it for bathrooms, kitchens, or in homes with kids and pets. That’s just me….

Why & When Should You Use Eggshell or Satin Paint?

Eggshell Finish

Eggshell (or Matte or low luster in some products) is a sheen that has very little shine, like an actual eggshell, so it is much better at hiding imperfections and is more durable than flat sheens. If you want that luxe look with some added durability, eggshell may be perfect for you. Eggshell is not, however, as easy to clean as glossier finishes. 

It is great for low-traffic areas in the interior of your home like your dining room, low traffic hallways, and adult bedrooms. 

Eggshell is a great choice for walls and ceilings with heavy texture or with flaws and imperfections. Because it is low luster, it will camouflage inconsistencies and help make walls appear more smooth. It can be an ideal choice for family homes and could be great in living areas such as family rooms, hallways, and bedrooms.

Eggshell finish isn’t a good option for trim and doors, however, because they require higher sheen for better cleanability.

Widely available in a variety of interior paints, eggshell (and its comparable—but not exact—sheen sibling, low luster) provides an easier-to-clean, nearly shine-free finish, suited for most areas of a home, including family rooms and hallways.

Satin Finish

A Satin finish has more shine than eggshell, is highly versatile, highly durable, and still very cleanable. Satin paint has just the right amount of luster or sheen for most people and so it is often the most popular sheen.

Satin paint is easy to keep clean because of its durable finish, so it’s a good choice for high-traffic areas, especially those that will need to be cleaned often. Satin finish is perfect for the rooms where you are most active, like your family room, kid bedrooms, bathrooms, playrooms, window frames, and laundry rooms.

It can be used on trim, doors, and cabinets, but it is also low luster enough to be used on walls and even ceilings.

Since it has only a touch of sheen, it can also be carried onto ceilings when needed. This makes it a convenient choice, especially in spaces where you’ll be using the same color on the walls and ceiling – the monochromatic look that is SO popular right now – no cutting in required!

One thing to watch out for with satin sheens, however, is that they can start to show brush and roller marks if you’re not careful during painting.

I used satin finish on the wainscoting wall and use semi-gloss on my baseboards.

Why & When Should You Use Semi or High Gloss Paint?

High Gloss Finish

A high gloss finish provides the most durable finish that is perfect for higher traffic areas such as kitchen cabinets, front doors, trim, and molding. It also works both on the interior and exterior of your home and is easily cleaned. One important thing to consider, however, is that the higher the gloss the more imperfections will be visible. Because the light reflects more off of it, every ridge or edge is more visible with high gloss paint.

Semi-gloss (or Semi Gloss or Semigloss) Finish

A semi gloss finish is a step down in shine but is incredibly useful in a different variety of spaces. Semi gloss finishes are perfect for spaces that take a lot of abuse, encounter moisture, or high traffic spaces. Semi-gloss paint is most typically used for trim, doors, and cabinets. I have also recommended using a semi gloss finish in some bathrooms, kitchens, garage doors, and metal gutters, depending on the texture of the surfaces and how much the room is used. Similar to a high gloss finish, you will find that semi gloss paint is easy to clean but will show more imperfections in the paint and wall than lower luster finishes.

It has a strong, durable finish that is easy to clean. The touch of shine can really make trim work stand out, especially when up against walls in a lower sheen. It has just the right amount of shine to make it appear bright without being over the top.

Watch my Web Story for a quick summary of these tips!

Tips for Choosing the Right Paint Sheen

The amount of gloss in your paint really comes down to what you’re trying to accomplish with your paint.

As a general rule, the higher the sheen, the more durable and easy to clean it will be. However, high sheens also show more imperfections. On the flip side, lower sheens are harder to clean (and can even wear off with light scrubbing), but they hide flaws well. Keep this in mind as you choose the right finish for your specific space.

Also, remember that you are not locked into the same paint sheens all over your home. You can choose different sheens to suit the design and function of each space. For example, you may choose satin finish for your kids’ bedrooms but eggshell for your own. Do what works for you!

Fun Paint Sheen Variations

Monochromatic

Have you seen the growing trend to paint an entire space – walls, trim, door, and ceiling – the same color? It’s a chic look in my opinion in the right spaces!

If you want to try it and use just one paint sheen on everything, consider using a satin finish. It’s not too dull for trim or too shiny for a ceiling. You can also use different sheens by pairing gloss or semi-gloss trim against flat or eggshell walls. It can make the room more visually interesting as the light changes throughout the day.

Patterns

Instead of using contrasting colors, which can look too busy for some spaces, you can use different sheens to create a fun pattern or design on your walls. You can use any kind of pattern, like large or small stripes, diamonds, damask, chevron, freehand designs, etc. all painted in one color but with two or more different sheens. For example, you can use flat and satin or eggshell and semi-gloss sheens. The effect can be subtle and chic and chan even change in the room throughout the day as the sun falls in different ways in the room.

How gorgeous is this patterned wall from Kayla Simone Home?

There you go! I made a Web Story you can watch for a quick summary!

paint sample with blue paint in 5 different sheens or shines
MAKE SURE YOU PIN FOR LATER!

I have used this basic interior design information over and over again to create a cohesive, visually interesting space that makes me and my family and friends feel the way I intend. If you have any other tips or questions, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below! We’re all here to help each other. Also, please be sure to follow me on social media (Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Pinterest) to see how I use these tips in my interior design projects!

XOXO Alicia

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7 Comments

  1. Chris Bentsen says:

    What about furniture like all wood dining chairs.I have a breakfast nook that I want to paint the chairs. What would be your choice .My thoughts go to semi gloss or high gloss.

    1. Yes I would probably pick a semi-gloss for that right now. Although you could also stain them since they’re solid wood and put a semi-gloss protective coat on them. Either way!

  2. My cabinets were painted in 21’. She used a satin gloss finish. However, it is already showing some wearing on the tops where touched and opened a lot. Would a high gloss or high sheen lacquer be less apt to do this?
    I do not want to keep repainting, but I do not this happening so soon.

    1. Do you know if the painter used a protective top coat? The wear and tear is going to happen, but that does seem fast. The higher the sheen, the harder the paint finish, but I would go with a satin with a protective top coat before I’d do high gloss because it will show every bump or imperfection.

  3. Cheri Mello says:

    Great Information 👍🏼♥️Thank You FOR SHARING 👏🏼👍🏼😊 I Know I’ve ALWAYS had GOOD luck W / semi Gloss For My Baths WHEN I’ve painted. I did GLOSS one Time AND it Was TOO GLOSSY👎🏼 G-d♥️Bless

    1. That’s really good to know. You definitely have to test out the sheen in the space and see it throughout the day so you can see what the changes in sunlight does.