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Should You Use Water Based Paint Or Oil Based Paint?

Redecorating your home can help you to give it a new lease of life, especially when a fresh coat of paint is involved. Applying some high-quality paint can totally transform any surface, but it does have to be the right paint to get those beautiful, flawless results you’re looking for.

In this article, we can help you understand the types of paint that there are, how to choose between them and how to apply them with ease. By the end, you’ll feel confident enough to make an informed choice that you know will get you the fantastic decoration results you’re looking for.

Let’s take a closer look at oil and water-based paints and how they differ:

What Is The Difference Between Oil & Water Based Paint?

There are two main different kinds of paint available to buy and they are:

Water-Based Paint (also known as vinyl, acrylic or latex) – The paint pigment and binder is mixed with water

Solvent/ Oil- Based Paint (also known as alkyd, polyurethane or varnish) – The paint pigment and binder is mixed with oil or other chemicals

Of both kinds of paint – oil and water – three elements are present;

  • Paint pigment – which helps the paint cover the surface and gives it colour
  • Binder – which turns the paint into a film and dictates whether it is gloss, matt etc
  • Thinner – which is water or solvent carrying the other elements of the paint so that it can be spread over the chosen surface

Oil-based paint also contains something called a dispersant, which helps to keep the pigmented part of the product wet, stopping it from clumping together. It also contains something called an emulsifier, which is used to enable ingredients that wouldn’t normally mix, to mix together.

A good way to understand this ingredient function is to think of oil and water which of course naturally separate. When an emulsifier is added, they are able to mix together and stay mixed together, which is what an emulsifier does in oil-based paint by binding certain paint ingredients together.

Is Oil Based Paint More Durable Than Water Based?

It is important to understand which type of paint is more durable for two reasons. One reason is simply to understand how long the paint might last between re-coats. Landlords, or certain businesses, for example, might want to decorate less often than homeowners and so a durable paint is helpful.

Another reason is so that you choose the right paint for the job. You might be OK with a less durable paint used on a ceiling or in a room that is not used regularly. However, if the paint is for a hallway or a child’s room, for example, it needs to be durable and able to withstand more contact.

Interestingly, when looking at whether oil-based or water-based paints are more durable, the answer isn’t exactly straightforward.

Oil-based paints are known to be more durable because they tend to cure much harder than water-based paints. This means that general wear and tear will not impact the finish as quickly as with water-based paints.

However, this comes with a downside that can impact another aspect of durability aside from wear and tear. Whilst oil-based paint might dry very hard and deal with knocks, bangs and touch well, it is also less flexible because of its hardness.

That lack of ability to expand and contract can mean that over time and exposure to different temperatures (such as using gloss on radiators), as well as movement in the house and in the walls, the painted surface can crack and degrade over time.

Oil-based paints are also known to yellow over time, which might not relate to durability, but certainly does impact their long-term aesthetic appeal.

Water-based paints, however, despite being less hard-drying are more flexible, which means they can expand and contract in different temperatures. This makes them less likely to crack.

True water-based paints also contain a minimal amount of solvent, if any, so they don’t have the same yellowing issue as oil-based paints. Importantly, though, water-based paints do often contain small amounts of solvent and can still yellow after a while, just not to the degree and not at the speed of oil-based paints. These water-based – oil-based paints are often called hybrids.

Water-based paints are also generally excellent when it comes to durability with exterior use. This is because they are flexible and they tend to be more UV resistant, which means they hold their colour and finish for much longer than oil-based paints when used outside.

Do You Get A Better Sheen With Oil-Based Or Water Based Paint?

Many people favour oil-based paint because it does tend to have a better sheen and finish than water-based paint initially.

Water-based paint dries quickly too, making it more challenging to apply and get excellent finish results.

Interestingly, though, oil-based paint will dull over time when it comes to sheen, whereas the less impressive sheen of the water-based paint is more likely to remain for a long time.

high gloss door
A front door painted with oil-based gloss.

What Are the Advantages of Oil-Based Paints?

Oil based paints are still a favourite amongst many painters and decorators because they have a lot of favourable benefits compared to water based paints and they include:

Better Opacity

Oil based paint can often achieve excellent coverage in fewer coats than water based paints because it is less translucent.

Better Flow When Laying Off

The texture of oil based paint makes it much easier to lay off and create a fantastic finish compared to water based paint, which can require some extra work to create the best possible, smooth finish that doesn’t leave any brush marks.

Dries To A Harder Finish

Oil based paint does cure much harder than water based paint, making it exceptionally durable and able to withstand general wear and tear well.

Works Well As Part Of Most Paint Systems

Oil based undercoats can be applied to a wide range of surfaces with ease to give body, colour and durability to a complete paint system. These undercoats help ensure the topcoat is clean, even and able to adhere well to the surface for a stronger, more aesthetically pleasing end result.

Great Sheen

Oil based paints are known for creating a stunning, glossy sheen that creates a high-quality, professional finish when applied correctly.

What Are the Advantages of Water Based Paints?

Water based paints are increasing in popularity and some decorators even believe that they will totally replace oil-based products eventually. For that reason, it makes sense to understand their benefits, as well as also giving you all the information you need to make the right choice when choosing your paint:

Water Based Matt Emulsion Is Easier To Apply

Compared to oil-based matt emulsion paint, water based matt emulsion is generally easier to apply.

It Doesn’t Yellow

Unlike oil-based paints, water-based paints don’t yellow. This means that they’re likely to keep their white colour for much longer which ultimately means repainting occurs less often.

Water based gloss stays white whereas oil-based typically yellows.

Easy Cleanup

Water based paint can be cleaned off trays, brushes and other painting accessories really easily. No need for paint thinner, stripper or other products to get it off as with oil based paint, simply rinse off with water

Less Ventilation Needed

If you are painting in a stairwell, basement, bathroom without a window, or other areas with minimal ventilation, it is much easier to paint with a water based paint.

You can use a mask and paint with an oil based paint but you may find the vapour from the solvents in the paint are still an issue. Moving forward it may be a struggle to actively clear those gases from the area because of the lack of ventilation.

Easy Eggshell Application

Despite the general translucence of water based paint, water based eggshell paint does not require an undercoat. Even better, because it dries so quickly you can put a second coat on really quickly and simply top that up again in the future when needed.

Easy Disposal

There are rules and regulations around the disposal of all paints. With oil based paints, it is important to understand that they are flammable and contain heavy metals, making them very hazardous and dangerous if they are not disposed of in the right way.

Water based paints are also considered a potential pollutant, especially as they can contain mercury, however it tends to be much easier to dispose of because it contains fewer hazardous chemicals.

You can read more about the laws around disposing of hazardous materials here.

Better Health & Environmental Kudos

Whilst the science behind VOCs is complex and not all water based paints are free of VOCs, overall, it is thought water based is a healthier and more environmentally friendly option.

Is Water Based Paint Easier to Apply?

Water based paint is known to be less easy to apply than oil-based paint for numerous reasons.

One reason is that it is so easily affected by the conditions it is painted in. High humidity affects it because the water that needs to evaporate from the paint in order for it to cure leaves the paint as quickly as water from the atmosphere goes back into it.

High heat without humidity may also cause the paint to dry too quickly. Extreme cold can also be an issue because it freezes the water particles in the paint making it impossible or much slower for the paint to properly dry.

In comparison, oil-based paints are really tolerant of all weather conditions. You can apply these kinds of paint in a much wider variation of temperature and humidity without as many issues when it comes to drying. So despite the slow application of oil-based paint (because it is thicker) and the smell, it can be a decorators’ favourite because it isn’t so weather-affected.

Another reason water-based paint has a bad reputation when it comes to application is because it dries so quickly compared to oil-based paint. Oil-based paint can be touch-dried in 6-8 hours and yet water-based paint is touch-dry in around half an hour to an hour.

For that reason, in order to apply water-based paint well you have to wet your brush before painting, re-wet your brush regularly and sometimes even dampen the wall before application. Despite these issues, though, many people don’t mind the extra effort they have to put in with water-based paint application because it is in exchange for the various benefits the paint does come with.

What Makes Water Based Paint Eco-friendly?

One of the main benefits of water-based paints is that they are low VOC and thus is a more eco-friendly type of paint. VOC’s or ‘Volatile Organic Compounds’ are something a lot of people want to avoid these days. This is for two main reasons – health and the environment.

Health

VOCs are released into the air as oil-based paint (which is often high in VOC’s) dries which is why oil-based paint can be so stinky.

These gases are flammable and high exposure to these vapours can make us headachy, nauseous and may even cause a skin rash. Whilst you can eradicate this issue by wearing a mask during application and opening windows, some people want to avoid the gases completely by opting for water-based paints which contain little to no VOC’s.

Environment

When it comes to VOCs and the environment, the issue is complex. It is thought to be a significant component of smog, which pollutes our outdoor and indoor air. There are also connections drawn in studies that suggest VOCs contribute negatively towards climate change.

The issue is highly complex, but the general consensus is that VOCs are pretty bad for us, our indoor and outdoor air quality and the planet, so the fewer of them we can use, the better.

Water Or Oil Based Paint – Which Will Be The Best Option For Your Next Project?

As all of the above tips highlights, it isn’t a black and white answer as to which paint type you should use. The fact is that every project and person is different and by understanding all the facts and information you can make the best decision for your needs.

With the right paint choice – whether that is oil or water based paint – you can go on to enjoy an easier application process and hopefully, a fantastic paint finish for a stunning new look for your home, office or business premises.