What Are The Differences Between Latex, Acrylic, and Oil-Based Paint

Caroline Gilbert
Written by Caroline Gilbert
Updated October 9, 2021
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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

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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.

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • 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:

  • Indoor projects

  • Walls

  • Concrete

  • Wood

  • Aluminum siding

  • Stucco

  • Ceilings

  • Painting large areas

Acrylic Paint

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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. 

Pros:

  • Dries quickly

  • Water-resistant when dry

  • Expands and contracts when temperatures fluctuate, preventing cracks and peeling

  • UV-resistant 

  • Strong adhesive properties

Cons:

  • You need to work quickly because of how fast it dries

  • Produces moderate levels of VOCs

  • More expensive

  • 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:

  • Exterior projects

  • Bathrooms

  • Painting cabinets

  • Small pieces of furniture 

  • Painting over metal

  • Rusted surfaces

Oil-Based Paint

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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.

Pros:

  • Durable

  • Good for trim and moldings because it’s easy to clean

  • Fingerprint and scratch-resistant

  • Stain blocking

Cons:

  • 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:

  • Molding

  • Trim

  • Doors

  • Painting over existing oil-based paint

Primers

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 (Alkyd)

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

  • Exterior projects

  • Metal or steel surfaces

  • Stained surfaces

  • When applying an oil-based topcoat

Latex

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:

  • Drywall

  • Interior projects

  • Surfaces with minor stains

  • Large surface areas

Shellac

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:

  • Covering odors

  • 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

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