A Primer on Interior Paint Finishes

A man painting a room two shades of purple.

Have you gone to purchase paint lately? There are so many choices in finishes that it could make your head spin. In days gone by your choices were flat, semi-gloss or gloss. Now in addition to these three choices there is also matte, egg-shell and satin.

Here is a primer (pun intended) on finishes and where they work the best so that the next time you go to buy paint you will be prepared.

Flat/Matte Finish

Matte finish looks like what the name implies… matte. It works great if you need to camouflage small bumps or cracks. It works well because it does not reflect much light so in effect will hide problem areas. Flat finish paint is basically the same as a matte and is good for hallways and ceilings. Flat paints do not stand up well to very many washings.

Eggshell Finish

See how an eggshell reflects light? That is how reflective it will be on your walls. Eggshell can also be used in any room but works especially well for a nursery or bedroom. One other plus for eggshell… it holds up better to cleaning than a flat finish paint.

Satin Finish

Satin finish paint is a little shinier than eggshell. It has a soft, creamy sheen. It’s the easiest finish to work with as it can be used in any room and works very well in a living room or family room. Satin finish is good for walls where you want low reflection and a warm look. This finish will hold up well to multiple cleanings and a light scrubbing or two. If you just can’t decide what finish you like, use satin in every room, it will alleviate all your problems.


Good ole’ semi-gloss is pretty shiny and was used a lot in kitchens or other areas that needed to be cleaned often. Now they are mainly used for trimming doors and windows and reviving cabinets. They are also good for heavily used bathrooms. The shine of a semi-gloss repels dirt and moisture well so it's good in these areas. Be careful with this sheen as it will reflect a lot of light and could create some uncomfortable glare.


Gloss finish paint is very shiny and mimics the look of enamel or plastic. Gloss is the most reflective finish. It is becoming very popular to use for a dramatic look on cabinets, trim and furniture.

A lot of prep work is required with this finish. If there are any imperfections in the item you are painting the finish will enhance the problem. That said, gloss is very durable and will hold up to many cleanings.

A Note on VOCs

Paint fumes can be a problem. Never fear, there are new paints out there that have little or no fumes. The fumes in paint come mostly from the tints that are added to make the colors. If the fumes will be a problem for you, you have the option to choose paint with low or no “VOCs.” VOC stands for volatile organic compounds and are gases that are emitted from certain solids and liquids.

Have fun experimenting with all these finishes and don’t be afraid to use one sheen on the walls and one on the cabinets, it could make for a dramatic effect.