Interior Design Tips and Tricks

How to Choose the Perfect Paint Sheen

September 21, 2021

Choosing the right paint sheen can be tricky. This guide explains what paint sheen is, how it works in your home, and what to think about when you are choosing the perfect sheen for your space.

paint sheen guide

In our history of homeowners, we have painted LOTS of rooms. With each project, we have learned new things and one thing I finally understand is how to choose the right paint sheen for what and where is being painted.

Wondering what I mean when I say “paint sheen?” The simple explanation is that the sheen is the amount of light the paint reflects. If you want to be a little sciency about it, the amount of the binder, or resin, mixed with the pigment (color) creates the level of sheen. Paint can be purchased on a spectrum from chalky to shiny. The more resin in the paint, the more shiny the paint sheen is! The resin causes the light to bounce off the paint and appear shiny, while the matte paint absorbs much more of the light.

The spectrum for paint sheens is as follows: flat or matte, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss or glossy. You have probably heard of all of these before but may never have understood the difference. Below I will explain exactly what each of these looks like and how to use them.

Types and Uses for Paint Sheens

Flat & matte: Flat and matte paint sheens give no reflection. They are very forgiving and lots of people use this type of paint for imperfect walls–think plaster that has bumps and waves. This is also usually the paint of choice for ceilings. An important thing to think about is that while matte is forgiving of imperfections it is very hard to clean! Don't ever use a magic eraser. If gentle cleaning doesn't get a mark off, you are better off touching up with paint.

Eggshell: Eggshell is what I use on the walls in all of our rooms. Eggshell isn’t shiny at all, which I like, but I prefer over matte or flat because it has more durability against scuffs and marks. Sherwin Williams makes one that is scrubbable without affecting the finish. I also love the texture of eggshell-it has body without feeling chalky to the touch.

eggshell paint sheen in entryway

Satin: Satin paint IS slightly reflective. The downside is that it draws attention to cracks, holes, and other flaws, so it’s best to use on perfect walls. On the plus side, it’s much easier to wipe clean than matte or eggshell paint. A lot of people use satin finish in high-traffic areas, like mudrooms or hallways, kitchens, and even bathrooms. I will tell you that the trim in our current house is satin and I love it. It is an unconventional choice for trim, but I love that it’s less shiny, but still a slight contrast from the eggshell walls.

satin paint sheen on contrasting trim

Semi-gloss: Semi-gloss is definitely a reflective or shiny finish. It is the paint sheen most often used on trim and it is what he had on our trim and doors in our previous home. The upside of semi-gloss is that it is easy to clean. The downside is that it absolutely shows flaws. This paint, like satin, is often used in places that see more action and dirt, like kids' rooms, bathrooms, and laundry rooms.

Gloss: Gloss is the shiniest finish you can get without using lacquer. Many people use it on trim because it stands up really well to fingerprints, scuff marks and traffic. Gloss has the highest durability but it will show more flaws than any other paint sheen so use it very wisely!

Choosing the correct paint sheen to use in your home is a simple formula: how much traffic does the area see, how imperfect are the walls or areas you are painting, and what do YOU like the look of. Sheen can really come down to personal preference–don't be afraid to ask questions and try different samples!

If you are wondering how I choose paint colors, art and design my rooms, the answer is Designer in a Binder®. It is the simple system I have used for years and years to design spaces in my own home. A couple of years ago, I finally put it all down on paper so that others can use it as well! In it I walk you through all the important stuff like choosing items that are the correct scale, space planning, mixing patterns, choosing colors and more! I give easy-to-understand guidance on all of this in Designer in a Binder®You can order your binder now. We have over 7,900 happy customers so far! Click HERE to learn more.

Designer in a Binder interior decorating system
Designer in a Binder® interior decorating system

Designer in a Binder® interior decorating system

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