Guide to Common Paint Finishes for Walls

Updated: Jun. 06, 2023

This user-friendly guide includes room recommendations, cleaning tips and how to get the most accurate wall color.

Walt Disney is often quoted as saying, “There isn’t magic in magic. It’s all in the details.” The same can be said for a quality paint job.

As a home repair professional, I know choosing the right paint finish is a seemingly small detail that’s hugely important. The wrong finish can be the difference between a beautiful, long-lasting result and a waste of time, money and paint.

If you’d like to make magic with your next paint project, don’t miss the details in this guide to paint finishes for walls.

What Makes One Paint Finish Different From Another?

Here’s how Doug Curving, a sales and service representative for Sherwin-Williams in Massachusetts, explains it:

“Pigments added to paint during the mixing process create a particular finish,” he says. “The more pigments added, the flatter the finish.

“If you look at flat paint under a microscope, it looks like a bunch of hills and valleys. Pigments are the hills. The fewer hills, the smoother the paint surface. The smoother the surface, the more light it reflects and that’s how we get different paint finishes.”

Flat Finish Paint

This is a no-sheen product that absorbs light, rather than reflecting it. Typically used on ceilings, or on furniture in the case of milk and chalk paint, flat finish is also good for walls.

Because it’s nearly impossible to wipe fingerprints or scuffs from flat finish paint, it should only be used in extremely low-use areas of the home. However, it can be a great solution to hide more serious wall imperfections.

Best uses of flat finish paint

  • Ceiling;
  • Plaster wall;
  • Imperfect wall.

Cleaning a flat finish

Due to its porous nature, scuffs and stains on flat finish paint are difficult to clean and usually need repainting. Touch-ups can cover small areas of dirt. But for best results, the entire surface should be repainted.

Matte Finish Paint

Another low-sheen product, but with a subtle and warm appearance. Its more subdued, muted look can create a cozy aesthetic as it absorbs light.

Matte finish paint hides wall imperfections and flaws better than glossy paint finishes. To the touch, it feels rough and almost chalky. It scuffs easily, absorbs dirt and can be challenging to clean, so limit this to low-traffic areas as well.

Best uses for matte finish paint

  • Adult bedroom;
  • Spare bedroom;
  • Dining room;
  • Ceiling;
  • Accent wall;
  • Imperfect walls.

Cleaning a matte finish

Matte finish paint is not only more prone to scuff marks and stains than other finishes, it’s also difficult to clean without damaging the paint or leaving shiny spots.

“When matte paint gets dirty, the dirt gets on the hills and into the valleys of the finish,” Curving says. “When you wash it, the dirt only comes off the hills and stays in the valleys, leaving a stain. Excessive scrubbing will clean it, but rubs the pigment off too, so you’re left with a clean, but shiny section of paint.”

Softly wash the matte finish walls with a gentle cleaner like hand soap and water, and avoid rubbing.

Eggshell Finish Paint

Slightly shinier than matte finish, eggshell finish paint is a great all-around choice. Its finish resembles the smooth, somewhat pebbled surface of an eggshell, the inspiration for its name.

An eggshell finish is versatile, with a low sheen and a velvety texture that adds depth and dimension to a room. It strikes a nice balance of aesthetics, durability and washability, making it a popular choice.

Of all finishes, eggshell remains the truest to color. Flatter finishes make paint colors appear lighter, while glossy finishes darken the color. Choose paint with this in mind.

Best uses for eggshell finish paint

  • Child bedroom;
  • Hallway;
  • Kitchen;
  • Living room.

Cleaning an eggshell finish

Eggshell finish paint can withstand more rubbing than a matte finish, but remains somewhat delicate. Mr. Clean Magic Eraser cleaning pads are a great option to gently wipe walls clean.

Satin Finish Paint

This offers a smooth, lustrous appearance that almost looks like actual satin when dry. Because it’s softly reflective, a satin finish hides wall imperfections better than a gloss finish, but not as well as eggshell or matte.

A satin finish handles high-moisture environments like bathrooms and kitchens because its smoother, less porous surface repels water.

Best uses for satin finish paint

  • Bathroom;
  • Kitchen;
  • New construction walls.

Cleaning a satin finish

Satin finish paint is easy to clean and maintain because it repels stains and dirt better than flatter finishes. For best results, mix dish soap with warm water and gently wipe clean with a sponge.

Semi-Gloss Finish Paint

Moderately-reflective, semi-gloss finish paint catches and reflects light for a polished appearance. When dry, the surface is free of brush strokes for a uniform, flawless look.

Though hard and durable, its light-reflective properties highlight small imperfections. It’s great in high-moisture areas. Just make sure wall surfaces are well-prepared and really smooth before applying.

Best uses for semi-gloss finish paint

  • Bathroom;
  • Kitchen;
  • Laundry room.

Cleaning a semi-gloss finish

Semi-gloss creates a durable surface that can handle stronger cleaning agents and scrubbing. Mix dish soap or a multipurpose cleaner like Simple Green with warm water to remove most household dirt.