How to Choose the Right Paint Sheen

Eggshell must be an actual colour in a fan deck somewhere because I have had many clients ask for it and they were not talking about low lustre sheen (which is what eggshell is). The other day I received a request from a reader to write a post explaining paint sheens and I thought, “How can I have a blog about colour and paint and not include a post about which sheen is right?” So here they are:
Flat for ceilings is the usual rule

Flat or Matte; no shine is what you get here. Joanne Day with the Daystudio said “If you paint a dining room a dark colour and you leave it flat, at night it will look black”, better to give it a sheen and then (if you have recessed lighting) the wall will reflect the light back into the room”.

The problem with using flat paint in the past, was that it wasn’t washable, (until paint companies came out with washable flats). And the plus side is that you can touch up flat paint where you cannot with any other sheen. If you do, you get flashing, which is a phenomenon where the additional coat or sheen builds upon the first–which is why you have to re-paint the space when your tenant moves out.

Great for dark colours which are sometimes hard to get perfect with a sheen

Flat paint is also good for walls where you want to cover a lot of imperfections as it doesn’t reflect light.

Bottom line, use flat for ceilings–unless you are designing something very dramatic, like this high gloss ceiling [image] below–because if you are, your ceiling must be absolutely perfect, so that all you notice is your reflection!

Eggshell; the low sheen of the shell of an egg is what this looks like on the walls. It’s the sheen I specify the most. Good for any room in the house (including the powder room) except really high traffic areas where a shinier finish would be even better.

This room below, both the ceiling and the walls are painted in an eggshell finish.


Pearl; These days where latex paint is much preferred to the toxicity of oil, at least use a minimum of a pearl finish if you are painting trim, as latex does not take the beating oil will take which is why furniture and trim are usually painted in oil.

This sheen is usually the one I specify for bathrooms and kitchens because it’s more durable and scrubbable.

Image source

Satin; It’s the one I specify the most for trim (in oil, with Benjamin Moore you can’t get latex in a satin finish anyway) because it’s self-leveling and has a smooth, velvety look to it. However, with latex paint becoming more and more durable, you can now paint trim in much lower sheens with Benjamin Moore’s new Aura which is great on trim (and you can even do a flat in a bathroom).

Semi-gloss; This finish has a slightly glossy appearance but is not wet looking. Good for high-traffic and high-moisture areas like laundry rooms. Keep in mind that the imperfections in the walls will reflect in the light with this finish.

High-Gloss; The trim in this hallway [below] is definitely high-gloss. The more formal your decor is, the shinier everything gets (and it’s the most durable).


If you pick the same colour for the trim as the walls and you change the sheen, many times it can look like a completely different colour, or at the very least, look like you tried to match it and failed, so make sure you test it before you start painting it all. This happens many times in a contemporary space where the woodwork is painted the same colour as the walls (but in a different finish)!
One more very important point; what one paint company calls eggshell, another may call semi-gloss, so if you don’t have a lot of experience specifying a certain brand of paint, make sure you pick up some sheen samples which every paint store will supply.

Suggested Guidelines:
INTERIOR
Living Room ~ Matte or Eggshell
Family Room ~ Matte or Eggshell
Kitchen ~ Pearl
Bathroom ~ Pearl
Powder Room ~ Matte or Eggshell
Bedroom ~ Eggshell or Matte
Kid’s Bedroom ~ Eggshell or Pearl
Foyer ~ Eggshell or Washable Flat
Staircase Walls ~ Eggshell or Washable Flat
Hallways ~ Eggshell or Washable Flat
Trim and Doors ~ Satin or Semi-Gloss

EXTERIOR
Stucco – Matte or Eggshell
Siding – Eggshell (to repel dirt)
Trim & Doors – Semi-gloss (for durability)

Related posts:

The best trim Colours – NOT Cloud White
White Floors for Instant Happiness
3 Ways to beat the high cost of buying the wrong paint colour

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  1. hi Maria….a great post, as always! I'm curius, what finish would you suggest for painting a piece of furniture, i.e. a coffee table, hall table, dresser? Love your blog!!

  2. Hi Jan,
    I would recommend a satin or pearl finish in oil or at least a pearl finish in Latex for durability. Check with the brand that you buy though because they are not all the same in terms of gradation of sheens.
    Maria

  3. Jessica in Maryland

    HI Maria!
    Just found your page today. I have a dilema. Our new decorator came by today and we mapped out a color plan for 3/4 of our house. She said she much prefers Washable Flat finishes bc of the low sheen. I told her I prefer Eggshell, bc it's much easier to keep clean with kids and 2 dogs. She disagreed, saying Washable Flat is great, yada yada. We do have some Washable Flat in a few rooms from previous years, and it's not so great to clean for a busy household. Should I just ignore her and do eggshell?? I could possibly do the top of the foyer in Washable Flat … it's so high up, I don't need to worry about it getting marred up. The foyer will be split in colors (one on top, one on bottom, under chair rail.) The bottom would def. need to be eggshell bc it's high traffic. Our last decorator (since retired), said to do washable flat and every time I had to wash it down it was horrible. I have to wash it down frequently bc of the dogs, at least once a month, on the lower part of the wall. You can always see splashes and start and stop points from where you washed. Please help me!!

  4. Hi Jessica,
    I always spec Eggshell because I like walls to have a little sheen. OMG especially if you have kids and dogs in the hallways you might want even a higher sheen (Pearl).
    Go for eggshell and be firm!
    Maria

    • Good advice, Maria. Be firm with your decorator, Jessica, YOU will be the one washing the walls.

      I have grandkids, dogs and cats and although I have washable flat paint in my bedroom and living room, all the other areas have eggshell or pearl, and am I so glad they do. A quick wipe and they look great again. I don’t understand the push for flat walls everywhere, it’s just not practical for the most part.

  5. I live in a 1860’s farmhouse. The kitchen ceiling is not too high and the kitchen is rather dark but I want to paint the ceiling a bright, shiny white. Would Benjamin Moore brilliant white work?
    Thank you so much Maria!

    • If it doesn’t clash with the other colours in your kitchen. And if the ceiling is perfectly smooth without any imperfections.

  6. Question: what about stairs themselves? I have been told I should go at least semi-gloss on the handrail and balusters. But what about the steps? I imagine semi-gloss, too, since it’s high traffic.

    Thanks for any help, and appreciate your post!

    NC

  7. Maria, What do you think of painting a rooms walls, trim, and door all the same color in eggshell finish? A design no, no?

  8. Great post! Can you please help with how to decide on oil vs. latex based trim? The trim and doors in my 1960’s ranch house are all painted with SW Extra white oil based semi gloss. Its almost time to repaint the interior. Should I repaint with oil? – I know its durable and looks great when new, but smells awful and does yellow as it ages. Or should I go to the work of having them sanded, primed and prepped to convert to latex paint? Thank you!

  9. Also, one other thing that I make sure I get is mold resistant paint for bathrooms. Usually a kitchen and bath line. A lot of people don’t think of that and use regular. It just resists moisture, and I’m all in for that!

  10. I will be using BM Advance Waterborne satin for my kitchen walls, baseboards, trim (high-end rental unit) there’s a picture rail (victorian house/11 ft high) will be taos taupe; wals are revere pewter and the ceiling will be white dove to match baseboards & doors, all in satin; but what sheen do you put on ceiling? I’m thinking of satin so we can easily clean any oils from cooking in the future for ease of move-in/out of tenants. Any thoughts? All other rooms in house will be BM ceiling paint (flat) white dove.
    Thinking of eggshell walls everywhere; LR is smokey taupe and DR is one step up, stone hearth all rooms accents are taos taupe. Any thoughts? Enjoyed this blog 🙂

  11. I have a cathedral wood ceiling in the living room. Should wooden ceilings be painted with a bit of sheen? Eggshell?
    Just had it painted in a flat and it seems to absorb light. It seems to need a sheen. Don’t know what to do. Painter is coming tomorrow and he could finish it with eggshell.
    Any suggestions???