When staring at the bare walls of a room in need of a paint job, it’d be fair to assume that all you have to do is decide on a fresh shade to get the project underway.

But, the truth is, picking a color is actually secondary to a lesser known but equally important task: Choosing the right type of paint for your needs.

“It’s important to understand the differences between paint types in order to pick which one is best for your home and the specific project you’re tackling,” Joey Corona, senior merchant at The Home Depot, says.

The various components that make up a paint—like whether it’s oil-based or water-based, for instance—can impact how its overall color adheres to a surface and looks over time. So it’s important to weigh these pre-painting details in order to update a room with lasting results. Don’t worry, though, you’re not about to handle this on your own. Joey broke down what to keep in mind when choosing the right paint for your project, and what will make the entire process a heck of a lot easier to tackle.

What to Know Before You Go to the Store

Pinpoint the current type of paint that’s on the walls. “Sometimes just knowing a surface’s existing paint formula will help you select the right paint for a new coat or color,” Joey says. “If you don’t know if the existing paint is oil-based or water-based on looks alone, then wipe the surface with denatured alcohol. If the rag picks up the paint, it’s water-based. If no paint rubs off on the rag, it’s likely oil-based.”

Cropped Hand Cleaning Wall

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Determine the level of durability you need. “Walls and trim are not created equal,” he continues. “Typically, painters will use a mix of paint types for maximum durability, depending on what they are painting. So, for instance, if you’re focusing on the trim, that aspect of the wall needs more durability to protect it from heavy contact.”

Decide how often you plan on painting. “In addition to durability, consider how regularly you’re likely to change the color of the surface,” he adds. “Areas like indoor doors, trims, and moldings most commonly receive a neutral or white paint variation, while walls usually get more color. These colors and finishes change the type of paint you’ll likely need.”

Weigh your sheen options. “Sheens indicate how glossy a paint is in its dry state,” Joey says. “Glossy paints are shinier and reflect more light, but matte paints diffuse the light to make the surface less shiny. Reflective sheens, like satin and semi-gloss, clean easily but show more imperfections on the wall. Non-reflective sheens show fewer imperfections but are not typically as easy to clean. Overall, matte finishes are good for low-traffic areas like bedrooms, while other sheens are better for high-traffic areas like kitchens or bathrooms.”

When to Use Water-Based Paints

Water-based paints, which are also called latex paints, consist of a pigment and binder with water used as a carrier,” Joey continues. “They are the most common and environmentally responsible paint option. They provide great color retention over time, dry faster than alternatives, and produce fewer odors. And lastly, water-based paints can typically be used over existing oil-based paints—the reverse isn’t true.”

Since water-based paints hold their color longer than alternatives, Joey recommends them for exterior walls that are exposed to the elements and interior walls that experience a lot of moisture, such as kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and mudrooms. Water-based paints come in a range of finishes, too, and can be cleaned with soap and water.

Painting the playroom with Baby.

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“You should use water-based formulas for most DIY painting projects, like walls, ceilings, and doors,” he adds.

When to Use Oil-Based Paints

“Oil-based paints contain either natural oils, like linseed oil, or a synthetic alkyd,” Joey says. “They consist of a pigment and a resin in a solvent thinner. When the thinner evaporates, the resin forms a hard coating. Painters should use an oil-based paint for any surface where they want the finish to last for a long time, and they are not planning to change the color often.”

Oil-based paints are extremely durable and can withstand routine contact, making them ideal for moldings and trims. And because the resin of an oil-based paint creates a hard coating that isn’t breathable, this option resists stains and rust over time. Keep in mind, though, that oil-based paints have a stronger odor than water-based paints, and will take more time to dry. They’re also harder to clean, too.

Close up of man hand carefully painting the edge of an house window

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“I recommend having paint thinner, mineral spirits, and turpentine on-hand for any oil-based project,” Joey adds. “These items can quickly correct any missteps or spills during application, and help with post-project cleanup of brushes.”

What to Note in the Details

After you’ve selected the paint you think is best, Joey recommends that you read the label to understand its binders, pigments, and liquids. This final step will give you a comprehensive understanding of the can you’re about to buy, so that you know exactly what’s going to cover your walls.

Binders: “These are plastic-like polymers that bind the pigment together to form a tough, continuous film,” he notes. “In oil paints, look for drying oils, like linseed or modified oil. In latex paints, look for 100 percent acrylic binders.”

Pigments: “These are finely ground particles or powders that provide color and coverage,” he notes. “The most common prime pigment is titanium dioxide.”

Liquids: “These are what carries the pigment and the binders, which evaporate as paint dries,” Joey adds. “Mineral spirits are used in oil-based paints, while water is used in latex paint. When liquids in oil-paint evaporate, a hard, tough film is left behind. Latex paint that contains water as the primary liquid stays flexible and durable through weather and temperature changes. Water also helps latex paint maintain its color, especially in direct sunlight.”

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