Semi-gloss, satin, and flat are all paint finishes that have different sheens.
Flat paint is the least reflective; semi-gloss is the most reflective.
Some paint sheens are better for certain spaces than others: think flat paint for your home office, satin for the playroom, and semi-gloss for the bathroom.
Before you lay down tarps and pull out your brush, you have to decide on a paint. And painting a room isn’t as simple as choosing your favorite paint color—there’s the sheen to consider as well.
Paint sheen is essentially the paint’s finish, and it can range from flat matte to shiny and glossy. The sheen has a huge impact on how the paint (and your room) looks; two paints with the same hue will look totally different if one is matte and one is semi-gloss.
So, how do semi-gloss, satin, and flat paint stack up against each other? Here’s what you need to know to determine which is right for your project.
What Is Flat Paint?
Resin-light matte (low-sheen) or flat (no-sheen) paint types give your walls a non-reflective, light-absorbing appearance. They’re the go-to concealer for hiding lumps or cracks on your walls or ceiling, but they aren’t as tough as other paint finishes. Although manufacturers now make more durable formulas, flat paint is not the preferred pick for high-traffic rooms like your kitchen or the main hallway.
For an option between matte and satin, eggshell paint has a low-sheen finish with a bit of gloss. Matte paints typically have between 5% and 10% gloss content, while eggshell paints have 10% to 15%.
Pros of Flat Paint
Hides surface-level imperfections
Works well in rooms with lots of light
Easy to apply
Cons of Flat Paint
Not as durable as other paints
Susceptible to marks and stains
Difficult to clean flat paint walls (as they don’t stand up well to scrubbing)
Not suitable for rooms lacking light
Not the best paint for bathrooms or other high-humidity spaces
Look and Feel of Flat Paint
Matte or flat paints produce a smooth, velvety surface that’s almost powdery or chalky in appearance. The subtle texture gives you more depth of color than a satin or semi-gloss sheen, creating a cozier atmosphere.
What Is Satin Paint?
In the middle of the sheen spectrum is satin paint, which is a good go-to for almost any space. It reflects more light than flat paint but isn’t as shiny as semi-gloss. Its subtle reflection helps to create an illusion of space in small spaces by bouncing light around the room. Satin typically has between 25% and 40% gloss content.
Pros of Satin Paint
Hides small surface imperfections, like bumpy walls
Easier to care for than flat paint
Better at resisting stains
Works well for most rooms
Cons of Satin Paint
Highlights cracks or poorly patched areas of your surface
Not as easy to clean as semi-gloss
Look and Feel of Satin Paint
A satin sheen looks silky and feels smooth to the touch. This finish creates a more velvety appearance than a stark gloss, but it isn’t as chalky or textured as a flat finish. It’s ideal if you want an understated but lustrous look for your walls.
What Is Semi-Gloss Paint?
Semi-gloss paint is brighter and shinier than its flat and satin counterparts and often pairs well with them as a durable accent on trims. It’s also a cinch to clean with soap and water or even just a damp cloth. Semi-gloss paints typically have between 40% and 70% gloss content.
Pros of Semi-Gloss Paint
Works well on trim and wooden surfaces
Durable and easy to clean
Adds luster to a space
Great for high-moisture areas, such as kitchens and bathrooms
Cons of Semi-Gloss Paint
Highlights surface imperfections even more than satin paint
Typically too shiny for walls
Not easy to apply—brushstrokes can be visible
Not as economical as satin or flat paints
Look and Feel of Semi-Gloss Paint
The high volume of resin in semi-gloss paint creates a sleek sheen but can give the paint a tacky texture that makes application more challenging. The colors appear darker than with satin or flat paint because of the reflective nature of the gloss, making it ideal for showcasing architectural details.
Semi-Gloss vs. High-Gloss
High-gloss paint is the most light-reflective and robust, but it’s rare to use it for anything other than high-traffic trims. It can make your kitchen look clinical, accentuate imperfections, and is less forgiving than semi-gloss for rookie painters. Covering your walls in high-gloss paint might even put a strain on your eyes. But, if you use it with intention, there’s no doubt it makes a dramatic statement.
Flat Paint vs. Satin Paint
If this is your first paint project or your walls aren’t super smooth, you might want to choose a more forgiving flat or eggshell paint over a satin finish. But if you’ve got kids with greasy fingers or dogs that shake off mud in your hallway daily, an easy-to-clean and more durable satin finish is the way to go.
Flat Paint vs. Gloss Paint
These paint sheens are worlds apart, so you shouldn’t have trouble working out which is the more sensible selection. Stick with semi-gloss in high humidity, heavy traffic areas where ease of cleaning and durability are top of the list (think bathrooms). Go with a flat finish when it's all about creating a soft, inviting ambiance on walls that might not be so smooth (think living rooms).
Satin Paint vs. Gloss Paint
You might opt for a powerhouse semi-gloss over satin paint in a humid bathroom, grease-splattered kitchen, or on high-traffic trims because of its extra durability, ease of cleaning, and moisture resistance. But satin paints are versatile enough to allow you to use them on pretty much any surface in any room in your home as long as you’re not trying to hide cracks or a below-average patch job.
How to Choose the Best Paint for Your Project
Choosing between flat, satin, and semi-gloss paints all comes down to your specific needs. Are you painting a humid bathroom? Or a small home office? The lighting, moisture, and traffic of the space will help you make the right decision, whether you’re DIYing your paint job or hiring a local painting pro.
Best Paint for a Hallway: Satin
Painting a hallway should never be an afterthought. You’ll want a paint sheen that's in the middle of the road—not too dull, but not too shiny. A smooth satin paint should do the trick in most hallways (just make sure the space is well-lit!)
Best Paint for a Kitchen or Bathroom: Semi-Gloss
Bathrooms and kitchens are highly trafficked, humid, and (often) messy. Because of this, you’ll need a paint that can stand up to heat and moisture, and that’s easy to clean if any ingredients go awry (like splattered marinara).
Best Paint for a Living Room or Bedroom: Tie!
Anything goes when it comes to painting your living room or bedroom. If your space has huge windows and lots of natural light, a flat paint finish can work well. If you want something more shiny and reflective, choose satin or semi-gloss. If you don’t want your walls totally lustrous, you can paint trim or crown molding with a semi-gloss sheen.
Best Paint for a Basement: Satin and Semi-Gloss
Basements tend to lack natural light, so flat paint is a no-go (unless you have a sweet lighting setup). But other than that, you should be good with either a satin or semi-gloss sheen.
Best Paint for Trim: Semi-Gloss
Painting trim is often an afterthought in a makeover project, but getting the finish right on things like baseboards, window frames, and crown molding can transform a room from plain to polished. A durable, easy-to-clean finish suits these high-traffic surfaces best, and the reflective nature of semi-gloss highlights these decorative details nicely.
Best Paint for Ceilings: Flat
You don’t want a highly reflective ceiling distracting from your carefully curated furnishings. Sticking with a flat finish ensures the eye won’t be drawn upwards—whether that’s because of glaring reflections or obvious imperfections. And your ceiling isn’t exactly a high-traffic area, so there’s no need to worry about trying to clean off smudges or stains.
However, in bathrooms or other steamy spaces, a more moisture-resistant satin or semi-gloss finish can help to keep mildew from gathering in ceiling corners.
Flat vs. Satin vs. Semi-Gloss Paint
Still weighing up what finish you favor for your paint project? Take a look at some other key considerations below to help you decide.
The cost of flat paint might be the least expensive per gallon, but if you use it on a high-traffic surface, you’ll have to refresh the paint more often than you would with a more durable finish. Overall, you’ll only spend around $2 per gallon more per gloss level, with semi-gloss being the most expensive. So when you’re working out how much paint you’ll need, it’s usually worth stretching your budget for those trims, steamy bathrooms, and well-traveled hallways.
Semi-gloss paint makes clean-up a breeze. It’s moisture and stain resistant, and you can wipe dirt off effortlessly. Satin holds up well in clean-up criterion too. But, if your heart is set on a flat finish, look for paints formulated to cope with high humidity and scrubbing—especially in a house with mucky pups.
To make the most of the light in a gloomy room, opt for a medium-sheen finish. A reflective satin paint makes a small living room look bigger and brighter, but semi-gloss might be too reflective—you may need sunglasses to cope with the harsh glare from full wall or ceiling coverage.
A flatter finish is the way to go if you don’t want to be dazzled by the early morning light in your bedroom. The matte paint absorbs light for a natural, cozy softness and better hides bumps or cracks when the sun is streaming in. Steer clear of glossier finishes on walls unless you’re a fan of glamorous drama.
Claudia Guthrie contributed to this piece.