Enamel vs. Latex Paint: What Are the Differences?

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With little or no prior knowledge of all of the different types of paint and what materials or climates that they are best suited for, taking on any paint project can seem like an overwhelming task. Some surfaces require a specific type of the two main types of paint: enamel and latex. Knowing a few important facts regarding the differences between the two types of paint can help you make a more informed decision on the best paint to use for your project. We have researched this topic thoroughly to bring you a concise report of the most important differences between enamel and latex paint and which one to use to make your painting project a success. 
 
The main difference between enamel paint and latex paint is the paint base. Enamel paint is oil-based, while latex paint is water-based. Enamel or oil-based paints, sometimes referred to as hard-surface paints are dry slow, but hard, making them perfect for hard surfaces. Latex or water-based paints are fast-drying paints that are more malleable, making them the appropriate paint for projects where the surface may expand or in locations where movement and flexibility are required.
 
While the base of the paint may not seem important, many other factors may be affected by the base contents of your paint, such as:
  • Finish
  • Interior vs. exterior use
  • Durability
  • Brushes
  • Fumes
  • Additives
  • Drying times
  • Clean-up
Even after you have decided what type of paint is best for your project, other questions will most likely arise throughout your project. What are the advantages of enamel paint? Does enamel paint need primer? How can you tell if a paint is oil-based? Is latex paint washable? Does latex paint peel? We will answer all of these questions and discuss other closely related topics, just keep reading. 
Colorful paint cans with brush, Enamel vs. Latex Paint: What Are the Differences?

Finish

Deciding on the finish that you want for your project will help to narrow down your choice of paint.

Eggshell and matte or flat finishes are only available with latex paints. This latex finish is considered to be the more modern and sophisticated of the two. Latex paint’s finish is easy to clean and is durable enough to withstand all high traffic areas in your home. Satin finish is available as latex paint but also comes as enamel paint. 

Enamel dries with a hard glass-like finish that is easy to clean and hard to stain. Available in satin, semi-gloss, or high-gloss, oil-based or enamel paints are commonly used for trim, cabinets, and other possible high impact areas due to the high durability of enamel paint’s finish.

Interior vs. exterior use

The flat or eggshell look of latex paint is a modern look that has become popular for use on interior walls and ceilings in homes. Flexible yet durable, latex paint is also easy to clean and water-resistant, making it ideal for most interior projects. While durable and waterproof, latex paint remains slightly flexible even when completely dry, making it ill-suited for the exterior climate.

Conversely, the hard glossy finish of enamel paint can look harsh and dated over large areas indoors but is well suited for the outdoor sunshine and elements. Although oil-based or enamel paint tends to fade and yellow over time, exterior oil-based paints in neutral or earth tone colors such as beige, tan, or taupe will be less likely to break down and fade than other oil-based paint colors. 

Durability

While both types of paint can be quite durable under appropriate conditions, enamel paint is overall the more durable of the two. Designed to dry harder than latex paints, which can still be somewhat flexible when dry, enamel paint is more suitable for withstanding the fluctuating climates and temperatures outdoors. 

Brushes

If you choose to apply paint to your surface with a brush, there are many brushes available, and specific brushes are sometimes recommended for certain paints. Natural bristle brushes, such as the pork hair brushes shown below, are the ideal brushes to use with enamel paints, but these natural, animal hair bristles can soak up the water from latex paints. Synthetic brushes, such as those shown in the bottom example, can be used with either latex or enamel paint. 

Click here to find these natural bristle paintbrushes on Amazon.

Click here to find these synthetic bristle paintbrushes on Amazon.

Fumes

Fumes from any paint in significant amounts can cause lightheadedness, headaches, irritation to the eyes, or trouble breathing. Latex paint has a milder odor than enamel paint, making it a better choice for walls and bigger projects. Being higher in fumes, oil-based enamel should be reserved for smaller or projects or used outdoors when possible. With either type of paint, if you must be indoors, work in a well-ventilated room or area and open doors or windows to circulate airflow if possible.

Additives

Paint additives, extenders,  or conditioners can improve your painted project’s overall final look by slightly thinning the paint, elongating the drying time, and allowing the paint to level itself and lay flat for a smooth finish.  Floetrol, shown below, while not the only brand available, is the most popular paint additive for latex paints. Penetrol, also shown below but not the only brand available, is the most popular paint additive for oil-based paints. 

Click here to find Floetrol latex paint additive on Amazon.

Click here to find Penetrol oil-based paint additive on Amazon.

Drying times

Thick even coats of paint can create a smooth brush mark-free finish when the paint is left to level and dry properly. Latex paint dries faster, so paint must be laid quickly and left to level. Enamel paint takes longer to dry but has a better finish due to the oil-based paint actually absorbing the surface being painted. A longer drying time allows for enamel paint to be manipulated for longer to ensure the perfect thick even coat. 

Clean-up

Clean-up of latex paints typically requires only water and a rag. As latex paints are water-based, clean-up is fairly easy. Enamel paints require paint thinner, such as the one pictured below, for cleaning brushes and surfaces that paint has spilled on. 

Click here to find this paint thinner on Amazon.

What are the advantages of enamel paint?

Oil-based enamel paint’s longer drying time may seem like a disadvantage, but the longer drying time gives you more time to work with the paint for a perfectly smooth coat. Enamel paint also goes onto surfaces smoother and with better coverage coat for coat compared to latex paint. The smooth thick coats of enamel paint left to level and dry will result in the desired flawless durable finish.

Ease of cleaning is another advantage of enamel paint. A good rule of thumb is the shinier the paint finish, the easier it will be to clean. Enamel paint is also waterproof, making it perfectly suitable for any outdoor condition.

Does enamel paint need primer?

Paint primer serves a few different purposes and should typically be used before painting with enamel paint. Paint primer can help patch up rough spots on the surface you are painting, creating an even surface to apply your paint. One of the contents of paint primer is polyvinyl acetate, which is an ingredient that is also found in carpenter’s glue. Polyvinyl acetate helps primer grab and hold onto the paint. Primer also acts as a neutral foundation under your paint, helping the paint to look more uniform over your surface. 

How can you tell if a paint is oil-based?

Oil-based paint can be identified using a simple test. Using an alcohol-soaked cotton swab or cotton ball, rub the alcohol on a small piece of paint. If any paint comes off onto your cotton ball or cotton swab, the paint is latex. If the paint remains intact, the paint is oil-based without transferring any color to the cotton ball or swab.

Is latex paint washable?

After drying, latex paint is washable with a sponge and soapy water. As some chemicals, such as alcohol, can remove latex paint, cleaners other than soap and water should not be used to wash latex painted walls. 

Does latex paint peel?

Peeling latex paint usually indicates a failure of your paint’s adhesion due to a multitude of different reasons. In bathrooms and areas of high moisture, peeling is usually an indication that water or moisture is located behind your paint. If latex paint is painted over oil-based or enamel paint without primer, the paint layers are incompatible and will eventually fail and peel. Peeling can also occur if dirt or debris is left on your surface before painting. It is important to thoroughly clean all dust and debris from your surface and allow the surface to dry completely prior to painting for this reason.

To help prevent paint from peeling, there are a few preventative measures that can be taken. Make sure your surface is completely clean of dust, debris, or moisture. Wood should be completely dried, and primer should be used to prevent failure of adhesion to the wood. Using a good quality paint, freshly strained and not stored for long periods of time, can prevent paint peeling. 

Final words

With the various options now available in paint, having some background knowledge can help navigate your decision making. Whether your project is indoors or outdoors, there is a perfect paint for your job. Using some of the additional products that we discussed can streamline your project and help you achieve the best possible outcome. 

Before you go, be sure to check out these other home decor guides that may be of interest to you:

How To Paint Crown Molding Without Brush Marks

What Is The Best Paint For Baseboards? [4 Actionable Suggestions]

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