Pick the best option for your paint project
When you walk through the paint aisle at a hardware store, you may be overwhelmed not only with the number of color options but the various types of paint available. There are three main categories of paint—oil-based, water-based (latex), and acrylic paint—and each is composed of a binder (or base), pigment, solvent, and additives.
The pigment gives the paint its color, and the binder holds the pigment together. The solvent disperses the paint while the additive can give a paint certain qualities such as fast-drying or heat-resistant capabilities. Because latex, acrylic, and oil-based paints are made up of different ingredients, some may work better than others in certain situations. Discover which option is the best for your painting project.
Latex paint is a water-based paint, meaning that the pigments are bound together with water. This type of paint is widely available and accounts for the majority of paint sold today. Choose between a variety of finishes, ranging from flat to high-gloss to best fit the painting project you’re working on. In most cases, latex paint is the most affordable option, making this a good choice when painting over a large surface area.
Because latex paint uses a water base, it emits low levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are toxic gases released from certain types of paint and building materials. Of all the paint types, latex releases the least amount of VOCs, making it an environmentally-friendly option and suitable to use indoors around pets and children.
Most affordable option
Dries quickly between coats
Minimal odor and low levels of VOCs
Less likely to yellow over time
Clean with soap and water
Covers surfaces in a few coats
Available in various finishes (i.e. high-gloss, satin, eggshell)
Doesn’t trap moisture
Mold and mildew resistant
Can cause the grain to swell when painting on wood
Can show brush strokes
Doesn’t adhere well to surfaces like metal or steel
Best Uses for Latex Paint:
Painting large areas
Acrylic paint has a chemical base composed of a pigment suspended in an acrylic polymer solution and acrylic resin. Because it’s made of a chemical base, acrylic paint emits a moderate amount of VOCs. When applied, it expands and contracts, allowing this type of paint to hold up better in fluctuating temperatures. It also keeps its vibrancy when exposed to the sun, making it a great choice for exterior painting projects.
Acrylic paint is also water-resistant once it is fully dry, so it’s a practical option when choosing bathroom paint. It’s also mold and mildew-resistant, so use it in other high-moisture areas throughout your home. Acrylic paint is often higher quality than latex but can be more expensive.
Water-resistant when dry
Expands and contracts when temperatures fluctuate, preventing cracks and peeling
Strong adhesive properties
You need to work quickly because of how fast it dries
Produces moderate levels of VOCs
Often requires multiple coats
Can show scuffs and cracks in high-traffic areas
Not available in as many options as latex
Best Uses for Acrylic Paint:
Small pieces of furniture
Painting over metal
Oil-based paint (also referred to as solvent-based or enamel paint) is composed of pigments suspended in either natural oil, such as linseed oil, or a synthetic alkyd. Once fully dried, a hard finish is formed, making this type of paint more durable and longer-lasting than latex or acrylic. Because oil is the base of this paint, it takes longer to fully dry between coats, sometimes requiring a full day to cure before applying a second coat.
Oil-based paints emit high levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which means that when applied, the fumes are stronger and more toxins are released into the environment. This is why oil-based paints aren't as widely available in the U.S. While not as commonly used as they once were, there are certain niche painting projects, such as molding and trim work, that may benefit from using this type of paint.
Good for trim and moldings because it’s easy to clean
Fingerprint and scratch-resistant
More likely to chip
Takes longer to dry between coats
Requires paint thinner or mineral spirits to clean up, which can take more time
Contains high levels of VOCs
More likely to yellow over time
Best Uses for Oil-Based Paint:
Painting over existing oil-based paint
Primer is an undercoat that is applied to a surface before applying a topcoat. It's recommended for most DIY projects because it creates a seal or a layer between the paint and the surface, extending the life of your paint job. Primer can be oil, water, or shellac-based.
Primer allows the topcoat to better adhere to a variety of surfaces. While it may not be necessary for every scenario, it’s recommended for most painting projects. Here are a few instances when it is important to use a primer:
Changing the shade from dark to light or light to dark
Painting a new surface
Painting over metal or plastic
To cover stains
Painting latex paint over an oil-based paint
Oil-based primer, also called alkyd primer, can be used in a variety of applications whether you plan to apply oil-based, acrylic, or latex for your topcoat. This primer is highly adhesive and has stain-blocking properties, making it a versatile option. It’s also a good option for unfinished wood because, unlike latex primer, it can handle temperature fluctuations and doesn’t cause the wood to swell. Because it has an oil base, this primer can take longer to fully dry between coats.
Best uses for oil-based primer:
Finished or unfinished wood
Metal or steel surfaces
When applying an oil-based topcoat
Latex primer is a water-based paint and shares similar properties to latex paint. Because it is water-based, latex primer dries quicker than oil-based and is easier to clean. This primer is a good option for painting walls and larger surface areas. It also releases low levels of VOCs, making it a good choice for indoor painting projects.
Best uses for latex primer:
Surfaces with minor stains
Large surface areas
Shellac is a type of base that was traditionally used as a sealant but can also be used as a primer. Of the three main types of primers, shellac is the most durable and adhesive. However, when applied, it releases high levels of VOCs and has the strongest odor. It’s also less flexible and requires more effort when cleaning.
Best uses for shellac-based primer:
Priming wood, plastic, plaster, metal
Tough to adhere to surfaces
Highly stained areas
Latex vs. Acrylic vs. Oil Paints Compared
Most affordable: Latex
Best for interior walls: Latex
Best for exterior projects: Acrylic
Best for ceiling paint: Latex
Best for the environment: Latex
Best for unfinished wood: Oil-based
Most durable: Oil-based
Best for trim and molding: Oil-based