Have you been waiting to complete that painting project for the kitchen or a kid’s bedroom? Finally zeroed in on the right colour for the rooms. Congratulations – you’re almost there. But have you thought about the sheen? Wait! Why is sheen important? What sheen should you pick for the bathroom or the kitchen? And does it matter? These are some questions that you may need answers for as they will make a world of difference to your project. This article should be your go-to guide any time you need to select a paint sheen for your interior painting project.

The Different Sheens of interior paint and where to use them

While all sheens can be used in all areas of the house, there are some that are better suited to higher traffic areas than others. There is a right sheen for each surface – yet arriving at an ultimate selection is a matter of individual choice and functionality. To simplify further, a sheen is what will determine how shiny the painted surface appears to the naked eye. Each sheen has its own set of qualities that it is useful for. They range from high-gloss, semi-gloss, satin, eggshell, to flat. Some paint manufacturers may label their paints differently and identify certain paints as pearl, matte, silk or low lustre. A paint sheen will not only indicate how shiny the paint finish is but also affect the durability of the paint job.

Before we dig deeper into a detailed description of finishes, it is important to consider a few prerequisites that should be addressed prior to selecting a finish.

Gloss Range Definition and Measurement of Sheen

Paint manufacturers give names to the gloss level of their paints for many reasons. When comparing sheen levels from manufacturers, paint specifiers don’t want to rely on subjective definitions and would rather use industry wide standards. The Master Painters Institute is a resource of accepted paint standards that architects, contractors and designers use. The MPI according to their website, is an organization that examines “the practical and technical aspects of today’s paints and coatings and their professional applications”.

Gloss level measurement

The Gloss level or Sheen indicates how well a surface reflects light and can influence how we see colour when looking at it from different angles. To measure gloss reflectance:

  1. A single beam of light is deflected off the surface at a specific angle.
  2. The deflection goes into a receptor that uses standardized measuring equipment
  3. The receptor measures the intensity of the light in gloss units.
  4. The more gloss units a surface produces the glossier it is.

The most common angle used by the coatings industry to break up the basic divisions of gloss is 60° from the perpendicular or 30° above the plane (source)

Factors to Consider Before Selecting Paint Sheen

You can’t blame homeowners for skipping all the scientific jargon and having their own reasons for choosing a certain gloss level of paint. To most, how the paint looks, how easy it is to maintain, durability and cost are the important factors. Before painting your home consider some of the following suggestions and general guidelines about sheen and how to use it.

The right sheen in the laundry room
  • Durability: Paint manufacturers now make paint finishes that can be easily cleaned or washed and shinier finishes are the most durable.
  • Use gloss sparingly: Instead of picking glossy paint for the whole room, use it for a few specific locations such as the trim or the doors. A shiny, glossy surface can look rather stark, especially when using bright colours.
  • Paint for the Ceiling: Most people like to paint their ceiling white. You can buy usable and inexpensive, flat white at any home improvement store. Considering the cost of painting a home that’s totally understandable. However, it isn’t necessary to paint your ceiling white. If you are in the mood for some experimentation, you can add a bit of colour to it. Not only will colourful ceilings enhance the visual element of a room, they may even make it look bigger. Why not treat your ceiling like the ‘fifth wall’?
  • More thoughts about the ceiling: Most ceilings are painted in a flat, but you don’t have to. If you have a ceiling that is in perfect condition, an eggshell would look great. Why not be brave and paint the ceiling glossy with a strong colour. It will take some serious thinking but the results will be very dramatic.
  • Bathrooms and kitchens: Bathrooms and kitchens alike are exposed to water, steam or splashes. Semi-gloss paint will protect the walls well but many people find the glare of the semigloss offensive. The new generation of Kitchen and Bath enamels come in satin, eggshell, even in matte. In powder rooms and guest baths that see limited use, opting for an eggshell or matte finish is fine.  
  • Kids bedrooms: For painting children’s rooms, painters recommend using an eggshell or satin paint but you may find this boring. Here is another twist: Paint an entire wall with chalkboard paint and watch your little artists create masterpieces! You can even designate a focal wall and decorate it with colourful stripes or wallpaper.
  • Traditional/old world look: If you need to give a room somewhat of a worn out or lived in appearance, use flat finishes on walls and furniture. If cleaning is a concern, choose a lower sheen eggshell finish for the walls and woodwork.
Flat sheen for rough brick surfaces

The Most Popular Paint Sheens

High-Gloss Paint: This is the most durable and shiny paint sheen out there. It is suitable for the areas that fingers touch most frequently – think trim, doors and even cabinets. The surface needs to be well prepared and all imperfections fixed. In the last few years, with advancement in coating technology, semi-gloss is becoming as resilient as high gloss paint and a good alternative.

Some typical features of high gloss finishes are:

  • Mirror like reflection that instantly brightens a room
  • Non porous surface is almost indestructible – Easy to maintain and keep clean
  • Plastic, enamel look and feel
  • Drama inducing effects when tinted in strong colours

There is a recent trend that has gloss being used on accent walls and even on ceilings. Can you even imagine a high gloss ceiling? Now imagine it in burgundy or Turquoise. 

Satin & Semi-gloss Paint: Semi-gloss is the safe choice for rooms and surfaces that are used frequently and require a lot of washing. Perfect for busy kitchens and bathrooms, doors, casings and baseboards. Considering the cost of decorating, you want your new paint job to last a long time. Just like with high gloss paint, be prepared to create an almost perfect substrate for semi-gloss as well. Any shortcuts here and all the imperfections will be highlighted. Tip: after prepping the walls, prime them with a high quality acrylic primer. Look for any blemishes or missed areas, patch them again, sand them and prime again. If you like what you see after priming, you will love your semi gloss look.

Some designers and painting contractors prefer to use Satin finish (called Pearl by Benjamin Moore in Canada). Top of the line Satin/Pearl sheen paint is extremely durable, and masks surface flaws better than a semi-gloss or gloss finish. Pearl is great for young kids’ bedrooms and play areas, even very busy hallways. Satin has a smooth, velvety look with a hint of gloss. It can be used for windows, doors and trim and is an acceptable alternative paint for bathrooms and kitchens. In fact some manufacturers produce a “Kitchen & Bath” paint in Pearl.

Some typical features of semi-gloss/satin finishes are:

  • Scrubbable and washable
  • Perfect for high-traffic areas without reflecting too much gloss
  • Looks good on old woodwork, fireplace mantles and wainscoting
Doors and frames in semi gloss

Eggshell Paint: Eggshell paints get their name from eggs! The sheen appears similar to the shell of an egg, and has a little bit of shine. In Toronto, where Ecopainting has painted thousands of homes, eggshell has been the finish of choice. With the added benefit of durability and the newer formulations, eggshell has become the default paint for almost any surface. Manufacturers offer a subtle sheen variances without compromising on durability or quality. You can find eggshell that looks almost as shiny as a pearl  or as dull as a flat.

Some typical features of eggshell finishes are:

  • Elegant low-sheen finish
  • Best for low-traffic areas
  • Smooth surface
  • More washable than flat sheens

Flat Paint: Flat finishes are interior paints with a matte appearance. This type of finish is most suitable for interior walls and ones that have a number of flaws/cracks. Flats hide problem areas very well and it’s easy to do touch-ups as they aren’t very noticeable. I you want to freshen up a closet or two, a coat of flat is a quick fix. Since this finish doesn’t reflect light, it’s often chose for ceilings when you don’t want a blinding glare or want to hide minor defects. Flats are also good for formal living spaces, dining rooms and master beds. Colour consultants prefer this finish as it better at reflecting the true colour of the paint. The one drawback is that they aren’t very easily cleaned. You may end up damaging the finish if you scrub too hard. Some cheap flats tend to be chalky and are unable to resist dirt.

In recent years, Ecopainting has used some top line washable flat paints in the market. For example, Benjamin Moore’s Aura Bath and Spa can even be used in bathrooms.

Some typical features of flat finishes are:

  • Delivers an even, elegant, classy finish
  • Disguises deficiencies the best
  • Best for low-traffic rooms
  • Good at diffusing light
Matte and pearl sheen for elegance

There is in fact a ‘right’ sheen. Yours!

With the detailed guide above, we hope that you feel better prepared for your painting project. The final decision of a paint sheen will also depend on your personal preferences and other structural aspects of the area being painted. For instance, a well-lighted room will not need to painted glossy and vice versa. Similarly, if you have young children, you may opt for the washability of semi-gloss or satin.

Bring your painter into this discussion, maybe ask them to paint some samples for you. Ultimately, the choice of paint should make YOU happy as it is staying on your walls for a while.

This blog is updated on May 27th 2017.

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