Sheen is a measurement of the amount of shine or gloss a paint finish has or the lack of it. The higher the sheen the more reflection the paint has. Picking a sheen can be as overwhelming as choosing a paint colour. What makes it more confusing is that each paint manufacturer has their own definition of sheen levels. You can’t assume that an eggshell finish paint from two different companies will be the same, one might have more sheen than the other. Companies don’t use the same terms across the board, you may hear words like pearl, satin and low luster. Ask the salesperson at a paint store about the sheen level of their particular product or ask your painter who will be familiar with the sheen level of the products they use.
Are you confused enough yet? Don’t worry, we’ll walk you through it.
Types Of Paint Sheen
Most types of paint sheen are available for interior or exterior use. The typical types of finishes offered by most paint manufacturers are:
- satin or pearl
- low gloss
- high gloss
Matte And Flat Paint
Paints with a flat or matte finish have little or no sheen and therefore little to no reflection. This means they can conceal imperfections better than higher sheen paints, making them a good option for older walls or walls with a lot of drywall issues. The lack of reflection also makes for a rich and luxurious looking finish that offers the truest representation of a colour.
Flat or matte paint can be more forgiving when trying to touch up an area of a wall. There is a difference between a true flat, known as a “dead flat” paint. It has no visible sheen at all. Some companies call their a line of their paint flat, when it is actually a matte paint. It is still very flat, but does have a ever so slight sheen to it.
Flat or matte paint does have its drawbacks. Due to it’s more porous nature it can be difficult to remove stains and it does not hold up as well to abrasion. Paint technology has greatly improved the quality of flat paints in recent years, but they are generally not good for areas with high traffic and abuse. Paint manufacturers are claiming they have “washable” flats, but we have found they still have their limitations.
Eggshell has a slight sheen that is higher than flat, but lower than satin or pearl. It’s the most commonly used sheen for interior walls.
New paint technology has greatly improved in the last decade. A high quality eggshell paint can be extremely durable. It can be used in spaces where traditionally a higher sheen was more suitable. A high quality eggshell paints is perfectly suitable to be used in kitchens and bathrooms. It can hold up to moisture and humidity and can be washed.
The eggshell finish between different paint manufacturers can have a wide variance. One company might have an eggshell paint with as much sheen as the pearl finish of another company or vice versa.
Satin, Pearl And Low Gloss Paint
Satin or pearl finishes are frequently used for interior doors and trim work. It’s a nice alternative to semi-gloss and is becoming more popular in current home decorating trends. It gives a bit of distinction from walls that have an eggshell finish, but without having too much sheen.
Satin finishes are also used on exterior house trim and sometimes on siding. It can shed water and resist the effects of the sun compared to a flatter finish. It is also used for exterior doors.
Some companies offer what they call a low gloss paint. It has a bit more sheen than a satin or pearl, but not as much as a semi-gloss paint. It’s another good option for trim work and doors.
Semi-gloss paint has a higher sheen than eggshell or satin finishes and quite a bit more reflection. Semi-gloss paints are more resistant to dirt and scuff marks and are easy to clean. Semi-gloss is another sheen than can vary between paint companies. We’ve seen some really high sheen semi-gloss paints and some that are more like a low gloss or satin.
Highlighting the architectural details of trim work and mouldings with a semi-gloss sheen is the look that some homeowners like. Eggshell on the walls and semi-gloss on the trim work has been a common look for many years. It creates a strong contrast in sheen between the two surfaces. It used to be quite common to paint kitchens and bathrooms in a semi-gloss because it was the best finish for washing off food stains and for holding up to the humidity in bathrooms. It’s no longer necessary, there are plenty of high quality eggshell and satin paints that are suitable for kitchen and bathroom use. .
This is the highest sheen of all the paints. High-gloss paints are very shiny and reflect a lot of light. They can have a somewhat “plastic” look. These highly reflective finishes are tough and stain resistant. They do need to be applied with care and proper surface preparation is a must. The highly reflective surfaces will cause imperfections to be more noticeable. Think of a red fire engine, it is representative of a high-gloss finish.
Summary Of Paint Sheen
Flatter sheens hide more surface imperfections and are easier to touch up, but are less washable and durable. The flatter the paint the less reflective it will be. A flat finish will represent the truest look of a particular colour because there is less reflection.
Higher sheen paint is more washable and stain resistant but higher sheen can show more surface imperfections. The higher the paint sheen the more reflective it is. Higher sheen paints are more durable in the way of scuffing and burnishing and stand up better to washing, but the durability of many lower sheen paints has and continues to improve greatly.
Everything above is not a hard and fast rule. The quality of the paint can greatly affect its durability regardless of the sheen level.
Examples Of Paint Sheen Used In Interior Spaces
The sheen level of the paint you choose can have quite an impact on the look of a room. It’s a matter of personal preference, some people find shiny surfaces more attractive and others prefer more of a matte look. When choosing a sheen level the intended use of the space should be taken into consideration as well as aesthetics. What has been the most common practice for years in house interiors is eggshell on the walls and semi-gloss on the doors and trim work. This has been changing and now more than ever matte or flat finishes are being used on walls and instead of semi-gloss, pearl or satin is being used on the trim work and doors.
The photo below has an eggshell sheen paint on the walls. In the photo it looks quite flat but there is some reflection at certain viewing angles. You can see the semi-gloss trim has a higher sheen level and therefore a lot more reflection. It makes the trim work stand out from the walls which can be a preferred look, it’s all personal taste.
Quite often trim work is painted in white against a coloured wall. In the house below the decorator wanted a continuous flow of colour between the walls and the baseboards and trim around the windows. It’s not very noticeable in the photo but to give some distinction the walls were painted in an eggshell sheen and the trim in semi-gloss. Painting both the walls and baseboards in the same colour is sometimes done in rooms with low ceilings (8 feet or lower). The idea is that a more continuous look creates a sense of height instead of breaking up the wall with a white baseboard at the bottom. Keeping the walls and all the trim work in one colour is also considered a more modern monochromatic look.
What Sheen Is Most Commonly Used?
Typically an eggshell sheen has been most commonly used on walls in most areas of the home and often a semi-gloss on trim work and doors. Some people still prefer this look. They like the stark contrast the semi-gloss trim has against the walls. Using semi-gloss on the trim, baseboards and doors will still provide the best durability on these types of surfaces and will be more washable than using finishes with less sheen.
Matte or flat paints have become increasingly popular over the last few years as paint technology has improved. They are not perfect, but their durability has greatly improved from what it used to be.
You’ll find that the walls of more homes are being painted in flat or matte paint. Interior decorators like to use flat paints. They give a luxurious soft look to the walls and the truest representation of a colour because there is little to no reflection.
The use of semi-gloss on doors and trim work in shifting more towards using a satin or pearl finish. Or eggshell is being used throughout the house for both the walls and the trim work.
The home below was originally painted with eggshell walls and semi-gloss trim. A softer look was desired so the walls were painted in a matte sheen and the trim work and doors were done in pearl. It suits the modern style and look of the home.
This is another example of a home done in a lower sheen. This rancher has a lot of detailed trim work and crown mouldings. The home owner didn’t want a lot of reflection that would occur if using a semi-gloss paint on them. Instead a pearl sheen was used on the trim work and doors. It offers just enough sheen for some interest and durability and along with the eggshell walls the overall look is very soft.
Choosing Sheen For Exterior Surfaces
When choosing the sheen for exterior painting it becomes even more important to think about the practical considerations of the paint and not just how it looks aesthetically. A flatter paint will hide imperfections better but it will attract more dirt and won’t hold up to abrasions and scuffs as well. A higher sheen paint will be easier to wash and you’ll find that dirt won’t hang on to the surface as easily. Rain will wash off dirt with greater ease or cleaning the dirt off with a garden hose will be an easier task. The drawbacks to a higher sheen are more reflection on the surface, it will not conceal imperfections as well. The siding of most homes is painted with either flat or satin sheen paint or stain. Stucco is most often painted in flat.
Examples Of Sheen Used On Exterior Surfaces
The owner of the home below wanted a flat sheen product used on the siding and the trim work. Using a flatter sheen will allow the truest color of the dark blue to be appreciated because there is no refection. Such a dark colour would not look very attractive in a high sheen product. The flat paint is an elegant look, but the drawback will be that it will tend to hold on to dirt more than a higher sheen paint and won’t wash off as easily. It will also scuff and mark easier.
This hardie board of this house was painted in a satin, the trim work was painted in flat. You can see depending on the angle the hardie board has some reflection to it. It was just freshly painted when these photos were taken so the sheen level will subside somewhat as the product cures. The siding should not attract as much dirt as a low sheen stain and it will be easier to clean.
The hardie board and wood shingles of this modular home were painted with a satin paint and the trim was done in a flat stain.
The hardie siding and trim work of the two homes below were painted with flat paint.