Expert Answers: Which Paint Sheen is Best?

What's the difference between paint sheens and which one is best for different situations? HANDY has the answer.

Q: I'm confused about paint sheen. How do I decide on the best type to use in my living room? Also, what's the difference between matte and flat paints? - Robert Walters, Detroit, MI

A: The terms matte and flat denote a finish without shine. Some paint manufacturers describe their flat paints as having a matte finish; others offer different products for each type, describing their matte paint as being more washable and durable than their flat paint. In either case, flat/matte finishes are best suited for ceilings, living rooms, formal dining rooms or master bedrooms — low–traffic areas, which do not typically require paint that is washable or especially durable. Another consideration, depending on your walls' condition: Flat finishes minimize the visibility of surface flaws because they do not reflect light.

If you're painting wood trim in a living room (or kitchen cabinets, bathroom walls or a child's room), look at the other end of the sheen spectrum: satin, semigloss and gloss. These finishes are durable and can be scrubbed — ideal for areas we touch, bump into and clean most often. Keep in mind that the shiniest finishes will highlight imperfections, so prep surfaces well, and consider using a satin (lower-sheen) finish on well-worn trim.

In the middle of the paint pack are eggshell and low-luster finishes — the most versatile choices. "Paints in these sheen levels pretty much have the run of the house, working well just about anywhere you need the blend of performance attributes they offer," says Debbie Zimmer, paint and color expert at the Paint Quality Institute. So when in doubt, you can use an eggshell finish (which has the look and smoothness of an eggshell, not the color) on nearly any walls or ceilings in your house.

Although most of these sheens are offered in oil- or water-base formulas, you'll most likely use latex on interior walls. One more point: In the past, the term enamel traditionally referred to oil-base finish, typically in a durable, high-gloss sheen. But today it usually describes a trim/woodwork finish that offers hardness and shine; it can be an oil-base or acrylic product.

The bottom line is that your choice can be based simply on preference and design goals. And defying the usual guidelines can give a room unique character: For example, my friend, the owner of a traditional Tudor house, chose a high-gloss (modern-looking) paint in a dark plum color for the heavily textured walls of a formal dining room. What at first seemed to be a contradictory combination ended up making a striking impression. - HANDY