Understanding Paint Sheen: Flat, Eggshell, Satin, Semi-Gloss and Gloss

A can of paint is perhaps the single most important and inexpensive item you can use to transform your home’s appearance. The right paint sheen can revive a dull room, cover blemishes and bring attention to architectural details. Paint is also versatile, so you can use it on everything in your home, from ceilings and walls to furniture and floors.

However, the success of your painting project depends on knowing which type of paint to use for different surfaces and purposes. Using the wrong paint to cover imperfections, for instance, may actually highlight the issues you’re trying to fix.

To help you decide, we asked two painting experts for their tips on when to use each type of paint sheen.

Understanding paint sheen

Each paint sheen has its own personality. Image: ShutterWorx/Getty Images

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“Paint sheens come in different categories and each have their own characteristics,” says Brian Osterried, Project Manager of Interior Coatings at PPG. “When looking for a new paint for your project, give sheen some careful consideration.”

Osterried says there are five basic paint sheens: flat, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss and gloss. These sheens reference the aesthetics and performance of the paint. Flat is on the no-shine end of the spectrum, while gloss is shiniest. Eggshell, satin and semi-gloss fall somewhere in the middle.

To learn more about specific uses for each type of paint sheen, read on.


A flat finish works well in a low-traffic area like a dining room. Image: Hero Image/Getty Images

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According to Mike Mundwiller, Field Integration Manager at Benjamin Moore, flat finishes have the least reflective sheen and create a smooth appearance in areas with surface imperfections. Mundwiller tells Freshome that these types of finishes can be used to create dimension and charm within a room.

Osterried says that in addition to hiding imperfections, flat finishes are easy to touch up. This makes them an excellent choice for ceilings and dining room walls. However, flat or matte sheens are best for low traffic areas, since these paint types may not hold up as well to repeated washing or scrubbing.

Eggshell and satin

Eggshell and satin finishes work well in high-traffic areas. Image: David Papazian/Getty Images

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Both Osterried and Mundwiller recommend eggshell and satin for high-traffic areas of the home. “These higher-sheen products offer more durability,” Mundwiller explains.

Admittedly, both names are rather deceptive; the phrase “walking on eggshells” doesn’t imply durability, and satin fabrics are among the hardest to clean. However, Osterried says that “PPG recommends an eggshell or satin finish for kitchens and bathrooms that are exposed to a lot of activity, as higher sheen finishes can typically withstand repeated cleaning and touching.”

They’re also good choices for bedrooms, living rooms and family rooms. So, what’s the difference between eggshell and satin? The latter is a little more durable.

Semi-gloss and gloss

Durable semi-gloss and gloss finishes are great for areas likely to get dirty. Image: cr8tivguy/Getty Images

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Semi-gloss sheens are some of the most resilient. “These finishes create a smooth, slightly reflective finish that is durable,” Mundwiller explains. It’s a good choice for bathrooms, kids’ rooms and other areas where children and pets are likely to frequent.

“High gloss finishes have the highest reflective sheen,” Mundwiller adds. “This sheen can be used almost anywhere you want to create a unique, special atmosphere.” However, surface prep is important: This type of paint will show every lump and bump underneath. High gloss paint is a popular choice for trim, cabinets, doors and places likely to get dirty.

What about base coats?

Changing a deep color may require more paint. Image: Tawan Boonnak/EyeEm/Getty Images

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Not every project needs a primer or base coat, but it is important that the substrate prior to painting is not only clean but also uniform in porosity, especially if the finish coat will have a sheen,” Mundwiller says. “Primers are designed to seal the surface and create uniformity, resulting in consistent sheen in the finish coat.”

Additionally, if the paint doesn’t adhere easily to the surface you’re working with, he recommends using a primer formulated to gain adhesion.

Osterried agrees that a base coat isn’t always needed, especially if you’re using a paint that contains primer. He reiterates that it depends on the surface — and the previous coating underneath it. “If you’re changing a deep navy wall to a bright white, two coats are required.” Newly-installed drywall without previous coating also requires two coats.

Final tips

Always start with a clean surface. Tawaan Boonnak/EyeEm/Getty Images

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Our two experts also encourage experimentation. While there are general guidelines regarding sheens, Mundwiller says that many paint companies are formulating all of their finishes to be more durable. His advice? The key is knowing how to apply it; even sheens considered user-friendly can be sensitive to application and technique.

Before applying the paint, he recommends practicing your technique. It’s also important to clean the surface. “Since gloss finishes reflect light and can accentuate blemishes, avoid using them on areas that are not completely smooth,” he says.

The sheen you select will have a huge impact on your project. “Light, color and sheen all combine to create your room’s overall feeling, so don’t skip trying and testing different sheens in the same room,” Osterried advises. “You might be surprised with the sheen you like most.”

Which paint sheens have you used in your home? Which one is your favorite? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.