How to Decide Between Flat, Satin, and Semi-Gloss Paint

Claudia Guthrie
Written by Claudia Guthrie
Updated January 11, 2022
interior living room with glossy orange painted wall and tan furniture
Photo: asbe / E+ / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Flat, satin, and semi-gloss 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.

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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 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. This has a huge impact on how the paint (and your room!) looks; two paints that are the same hue will look totally different if one is matte and one is semi-gloss.

So, how can you tell which paint sheen is right for your project? Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Flat Paint? 

Flat paint gives your walls a non-reflective, matte look. It’s a go-to for hiding any imperfections in your walls or ceiling, but it is less durable than other types of paint.

Pros of Flat Paint

Cons of Flat Paint

  • Not as durable as other paints

  • Difficult to clean flat paint walls (as they don’t stand up well to scrubbing)

  • Not suitable for rooms lacking light 

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. 

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

What Is Semi-Gloss Paint?

Semi-gloss paint is brighter and shinier than its flat and satin counterparts. It’s also a cinch to clean with soap and water, or even just a damp cloth. 

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

How to Choose the Best Paint for Your Project 

When choosing between flat, satin, and semi-gloss paints, it 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

Painting a hallway should never be an afterthought. You’ll want a paint sheen that’s 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 Sheen: Satin

Best Paint for a Kitchen or Bathroom

Bathrooms and kitchens are highly trafficked, moist, 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 Sheen: Semi-Gloss 

Best Paint for a Living Room or Bedroom 

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 Sheen: It’s a three-way tie!

Best Paint for a Basement 

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 Sheen: Satin and Semi-Gloss

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