As a paint professional, clients often ask, “What are the various paint sheens?” The answer is as follows:
I’ll examine each sheen in more detail and list the pros and cons, so you can choose the best sheen for your next painting project.
I’ll be focusing on interior paint projects, although the basics of each finish apply to exterior work, too.
What Is Paint Sheen, And Why Does It Matter?
Paint sheen is the amount of reflected light from a paint finish. In other words, the sheen is how we describe a painted surface’s shininess.
Years ago, paint contractors and homeowners selected sheens based on durability.
The general principle was the glossier the sheen, the more durable the finish. You’ll see glossy finishes in older bathrooms, school hallways, and gymnasiums.
While this principle is still valid today, paint manufacturers have come a long way since those days. Today, contractors and homeowners have more options.
For superb water resistance in bathrooms but in a matte finish, consider Aura Bath & Spa.
Scuff-resistant paints by Benjamin Moore and Home Depot offer superior wall protections and come in flat, matte, and eggshell.
Not All Paint Sheens Are Created Equal
Unfortunately, there isn’t an industry standard for determining sheens. So, sheens will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
The most significant discrepancies are the mid-sheens like matte, eggshell, and satin. Examine the paint store’s sheen card for reference or ask the manager for which finish is best for your project.
Let’s look at each sheen in more detail…
A flat finish reflects little to no light and appears dull. Flat paint is one of the most popular paints because of these properties. Since it isn’t shiny, it hides drywall imperfections and can be touched up easier than the other sheens.
It’s next to impossible for drywall installers to make ceilings perfectly smooth. For these reasons, flat paint is ideal for ceilings.
Home builders use flat paint for walls to hide imperfections, seams, bowed walls, etc. Contractors also use flats typically in lighter colors for the same reasons.
I’m not implying builders are shady characters, but they’re in the business of constructing homes as quickly as possible. Using a flat finish speeds up their work.
While we’re on the topic of new homes, most contractors offer new home buyers the option of upgrading to a matte or eggshell finish. However, I’ve found that their markup is extravagant.
I always advise new homeowners never to go this route. Let your builder paint the home flat because the home will settle after a year, and usually the contractor will fix nail pops and settling issues.
Once that phase is done, you can repaint with a better quality paints. And it’ll be cheaper than what the builder quoted!
Another reason flats are contractors’ favorites is that they’re less expensive. You can purchase good-quality flat paint from any major retailer for around $20 a gallon.
- Least expensive
- Hides defects and wall imperfections
- Easy touch-up
- Ideal for ceilings
- Not cleanable (shows hand prints and scuffs)
A matte finish has a subtle sheen but isn’t as shiny as an eggshell finish. This finish is very versatile, and if you splurge on top-end paint, it is cleanable and gives rooms a lush look.
I recommend matte finishes when clients paint rooms in a deep base color in dining rooms or offices.
My go-to favorite is Benjamin Moore’s Regal in a matte finish. The color blends evenly, the paint is a dream to work with, and the finish looks velvety.
Mattes are also suitable for tall walls because the lower sheen hides drywall seams and other imperfections.
The cost for matte paint jumps considerably from flat paints. Expect to pay $30-40 a gallon for quality matte paint, while those like Regal jump to $50-60 a gallon.
- Good for taller rooms
- Excellent for lush, regal colors
- More expensive
- Not ideal for high-traffic areas
When I started as a painter, I made a common rookie mistake.
I went to the paint store and ordered a gallon of eggshell. The clerk asked me what color. I rolled my eyes and replied, “Umm, eggshell.” He politely informed me that it was the sheen, not a color.
Maybe you’ve made this same mistake! Most professionals associate eggshell with the finish, although they can recommend eggshell colors because of this misunderstanding.
Eggshell sheen is very popular with paint contractors and homeowners because it is cleanable and durable.
Designers and homeowners prefer it for walls because it offers an excellent contrast to the flat ceiling and shiny trim.
Eggshell is the most versatile sheen, so it can be used in any room in the house, although I’d avoid using it for ceilings.
The quality of paint you choose will also affect your cost. Like matte finishes, eggshell paints are pricier than flats. And be sure to check the sheen chart at the store.
I’ve seen some eggshells look more like a satin finish, which shows wall imperfections.
- Popular sheen for walls
- Versatile; suitable for any room
- Can’t touch up; sheens will flash
Next on our list is a satin finish. As the name implies, satin provides an elegant finish and looks like, you guessed it, satin. While some people have used satin for walls, most contractors and homeowners use it on trim.
Years ago, satin would have been used on bathroom walls or high-traffic areas because it resists moisture and is more durable than eggshell.
The drawback is a satin wall will accent every blemish, roller nap, brushstroke, and nail pop.
Let’s talk specifically about satin for trim. Because today’s paints are superior to those years ago, a satin finish will be as durable as a semi-gloss or gloss finish.
It comes down to what sheen you prefer; there isn’t a right or wrong answer.
While you may be tempted to use a cheaper paint for your trim, I always recommend using the best possible. Sherwin Williams Pro Classic and Benjamin Moore’s Advance are the best on the market.
The settling agent in both means that when brushed, the finish will “settle” and look almost like you sprayed it.
These products aren’t cheap and range in the $60-70 a gallon range. However, paint for trim goes a long way, so you won’t need many gallons.
- Stunning finish on trim
- More durable than eggshell, matte, and flat
- Not suited for walls
- Expensive when considering top-tier paint for trim
Semi-gloss is the “go-to” finish on the trim in most homes. I’m sure some have used this finish on walls but hopefully only for effect or perhaps a themed room.
Remember, the shinier a paint, the more it accents wall imperfections.
When applied to crown molding, the wood pops in the light and contrasts between a flat ceiling and a matte or eggshell wall. On doors and thresholds, the sheen is durable and easy to clean.
Regarding semi-gloss for trim, this comes down to personal taste. It may also be what is currently in your home, so it’s best to stay with semi-gloss unless you’re prepared to repaint all of your trim.
The only time I’ve used semi-gloss on a wall was for a faux project. I was to paint a boy’s room with Captain America colors. The owner wanted the red stripes to be shiny, so I used semi-gloss.
But before ordering paint, I explained that the sheen would highlight nicks, dips, and seams. They insisted, and I complied. While that’s a small example, I never use semi-gloss on walls.
Expect to pay the same amount for a tremendous semi-gloss paint as you would for satin.
- Popular sheen for trim
- Durable and cleanable
- Not suited for walls
- Expensive when considering top-tier paint for trim
Last on our list is gloss. You’ll also find ultra-shiny finishes like high-gloss and those called “wet look” for a highly glossy finish.
I’ll be focusing on the characteristics of gloss, but these attributes apply to these shinier finishes.
As the name implies, gloss finish is the shiniest sheen on our list. It reflects the most light and offers a stunning look in certain situations. Predominantly, gloss sheen is reserved only for trim.
As you can imagine, if you painted a wall with a gloss finish, the dings, patches, seams, and other oddities would appear to jump off the wall.
Like satin and semi-gloss, there isn’t a right or wrong when selecting a sheen for your trim. However, be aware of the trends in your area, especially if you plan on selling your home.
Using a gloss finish may deter future homebuyers.
The exception may be when a front door is painted a shiny finish. Gloss black on a front door can give your home a European look. But keep in mind that dark colors and high gloss show everything, even brush strokes.
And if you want to get that door to be as smooth and shiny black as a Steinway piano, check out Fine Paints of Europe.
While I’ve never used these products, I will advise that this is for experienced painters only and will cost a lot of money and time!