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Paint Base Types: Oil or Water

Paint Base Types: Oil or Water

How to choose what’s best for you and your home.

A crucial decision to make when starting a new painting project is whether to go with an oil-based paint or a water-based counterpart. We say “crucial” because your final selection (or selections) will 100% affect the outcome of your project and, more importantly, will shape and inform several key aspects of your living space for years to come. 

In this post, we’ll introduce you to oil- and water-based paints and show you some criteria for how to select the optimal paint formula(s) for you, your home, and your family.

How is oil-based paint different from water-based paint?

Oil- and water-based paints are two of the most popular types of color available on the home service market. But to make an informed decision about them (read: choose which paint should actually live on your walls, your cabinets, siding, doors, etc.), it’s necessary to understand the differences between oil- and water-based formulas and to learn a bit more about when and where these paints perform at their best. 

What are oil- & water-based paints?

When referring to paint colors, the terms “oil-based” and “water-based” indicate the solvent that’s been added during the manufacture of the paint itself. In this context, the “solvent” is the fluid component that keeps the paint in its liquid form. Once the paint is applied to a surface, the solvent evaporates, leaving the color to harden and dry. And, as you’ve probably already guessed:

Oil-based paints use oil as their solvent, while water-based paints use water instead. 

Oil-based paints are usually developed using an organic solvent, typically a mineral or linseed oil. Conversely, water-based paints are sometimes referred to as “acrylic,” “latex,” or “acrylic latex” paints, a nod to the other agents that can make up their total paint mixture.

Basic features of oil-based paint vs. water-based paint

Durability

Oil-based paints dry “harder” than water-based colors and can provide excellent protection against everyday exposure to the elements (or scuffing, scratches from kids and pets, etc.). But because the resulting oil-based finish is so brittle, it can sometimes crack or become chalky as time passes. Plus, oil-based paints can patina or yellow as they age, which can tarnish the look and feel of your home as the years go by.

Luckily, modern technology seems to have solved this “high durability/limited longevity” problem. New scientific developments have enabled water-based colors to dry harder than before, making them quite effective at fending off longer-term damage.

Sheen

A critical difference between oil- and water-based paints is sheen (or shininess). Once applied, oil-based paints can achieve higher sheen levels thanks to their unique chemical properties. However, this sparkling oil-based sheen can flatten and dull over time. On the other hand: While water-based paints typically achieve a lower sheen level overall, they can usually sustain their shiny finish for longer periods of time.

Exterior/Outdoor Usage

When it comes to the great outdoors, water-based paints tend to perform best. Turns out water-based paints are UV resistant and can therefore retain superior levels of sheen and color as time goes by. In addition, the flexibility of the water-based formula means the paint can move with the materials underneath the paint (such as metal or wood) as they expand or contract due to weather.

Sadly, we can’t really say the same for oil-based paint. In fact, oil-based paint is emphatically not recommended for home exteriors as it disintegrates and gives off a chalky film when exposed to UV light. And, as mentioned above, oil-based colors are more prone to cracking and flaking in general. (All this is why you probably won’t see too many oil-based exterior paints at your local hardware store.)

Pros & cons of oil-based paint vs. water-based paint

Looking for a consumer’s cheat sheet on oil- and water-based paints? We’ve got you. Here’s an overview of the major benefits and drawbacks for each formula:

 Oil-based

Advantages:

  • Oil-based paints are very durable and can withstand wear and tear better than water-based paints. They’re also less likely to chip or peel.
     
  • Oil-based colors have a longer open time; they stay wet longer and give you more time to work with them. They’re therefore easier to apply and can leave behind a smoother finish.
     
  • Oil-based paint is resistant to moisture and humidity, making it a great choice for kitchen and bathroom surfaces (or for other high-moisture areas inside your home).
     

Disadvantages:

  • Oil-based paint has a strong odor that can linger for several days. (It’s important to make sure your rooms are well ventilated during the painting and drying process if you use oil based.)
     
  • Oil-based paint takes longer to dry than water-based paint, which can be a disadvantage if you’re pressed for time on your painting projects.
     
  • Oil-based colors use harsh solvents and often have higher levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), all of which can be harmful to the environment––and to your health––if not used or applied properly.*

*If, after reading this, you’re wondering why we even use oil-based paint anymore, please see the video below or read more about oil- vs. water-based paints here for added explanation. 

 Water-based

Advantages:

  • Water-based paint has a mild odor, meaning it can be easier to work with in confined spaces.
     
  • Water-based paint dries faster than oil-based paint, making it a strong choice for quick, DIY-type projects. 
     
  • Water-based colors can be cleaned up easily with soap and water––a convenient alternative to oil-based paints, which might require added cleaning agents such as thinners.
     
  • Water-based paint uses fewer harsh solvents, making it more environmentally friendly and, generally, a safer option for your family’s health.

Disadvantages:

  • Water-based paint is unfortunately not as durable as oil-based paint; it’s more susceptible to chipping, peeling, and overall wear and tear.
     
  • Water-based paint is less resistant to moisture and humidity, so it’s less suitable for high-moisture areas in your home.
     
  • Water-based color achieves a lower sheen level than its oil-based counterpart, so it may be less desirable for certain home applications. 

What it all comes down to…

Still not sure which formula works best for you? Don’t worry. That’s completely normal.

We’ll let you in on a trade secret: When choosing between oil- and water-based paints, there’s really no one-size-fits-all answer. Both types have their pluses and minuses, and the truth is your decision should ultimately come down to the specific needs of the people you live with as well as the basic logistics behind your painting project. 

As you review your options, you’ll want to consider factors like durability, sheen, drying time, physical health effects, and environmental impact–– but how much weight you give each factor is entirely up to you. (Though your health should obviously hold the most sway at the end of the day.) 

Before finalizing your decision, remember: Paint formula and application technique will determine how long your project lasts, how well it fits in with your aesthetic, and how healthy and sustainable your space will be for you and the ones you love in the future.

Curious to learn more about the properties of different paint types? Check out our informative Paint Talk episode below: