Latex vs. Enamel Paint: Which is Better?

Paint swatches and paint cansFor most homeowners who are trying to spruce up a room or two, water-based latex paints are the most widely recommended. Modern latex paints have come a long way since their original introduction.  In many applications, they are almost as good, and in some applications even better, than oil-based enamel paints.

Water-based paints are easier to use, simpler to clean up, dry faster, and have a less intrusive smell than oil paints.  Unless you are a very experienced painter, use latex paints if at all possible.  The exception to this suggestion is when the previous coats of paint are oil based.

If you aren’t sure whether latex or enamel paint was used on the surface you are repainting, there’s an easy way to tell.  Simply take a cotton ball and apply some rubbing alcohol to it.  Rub it over a small part of the painted area and see if any paint is removed.  If the paint comes off, it’s latex.  If it does not, it’s oil base enamel. 

It is typically best to coat over paint with the same type of paint, although with primers and some extra work, you can change the type of paint being used.  If you’re up for the challenge, oil-based paints do tend to perform better in areas such as greasy kitchens, exterior wood trim, high traffic areas, or over materials susceptible to water damage.

To help determine what type of paint to use, here are some advantages and disadvantages to each type of paint.

Water base, or latex paint



Easier to apply since it is thinner and spreads easier

Adheres poorly to dirty walls

Easier to clean up

Shrinks more

Quicker drying time

Softer when cured so it is more sensitive to temperature change and damage from scratching

Mildew resistant

Exposure to high humidity may cause premature failure

Non combustible

Shows brush strokes more

Retains color better

Raises the grain in raw wood

Primer may not be required

Softer when fully cured so it does not crack or peel as easily with time

Mild odor, non-toxic

Slightly breathable when fully cured.  This allows the minor evaporation of the moisture under the paint

Oil base or enamel paint



Preferred in harsher environments

Harder to achieve a smooth coat

Adheres better on dirty or chalky surfaces

Harder to clean up spills and drips

Less susceptible to abrasion damage

Become more and more brittle with age

Covers small imperfections better

Not environmentally friendly.  Against the law to use in some states

The paint is thicker hence harder to apply and less coverage per gallon

Only available in glossy finish

Primer always required

Not breathable so any moisture under the paint may cause bubbling or peeling

Whichever type of paint you choose to use for your project, make sure to properly prepare the surface for paint and follow the instructions on the paint’s label.  The difference between success and failure in painting is all about preparation and proper application.


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