What Is Emulsion Paint and What Is It Used For?

If you’re thinking of using emulsion paint for a domestic or business decorating job this article is a really good place to start your research.

The UK spends over £4 billion pounds on home improvements with many of us opting to do the work ourselves. One of the most popular home improvements is painting because it transforms any space for very little money or time.

If you’re not spending the average £20-£25 per hour a professional decorator charges to paint your house and instead are doing it yourself, it is important to know about the products you are using. This guide is designed to help you understand more about one of the most popular painting products – emulsion paint.

Emulsion paint is one of the most popular painting products, but how much do you really know about what it is, and what it does? By understanding this popular decoration product more, you can get better results for your home improvement project.

Here’s everything you need to know about emulsion paint including what it is, and what it is used for:

What Is Emulsion Paint?

Emulsion paint is usually the first paint you reach for when you want to paint the walls or ceilings in your home. It tends to be water-based and mixed with acrylic or vinyl which are suspended in the mixture. This combination ensures that the product is really easy to apply in order to create a smooth and professional finish.

Taking a closer look at its composition, emulsion paint contains little particles of polymer which contain pigments within them. The particles of polymer are held in a water mix which evaporates as the emulsion dries. Whilst this happens, the polymer particles containing pigment merge and fuse creating a film on the wall that cures. The composition of emulsion is usually:

  • 25% pigment (yellow, brown or red = iron oxide, greens = chromium oxide, blacks = carbon, white = titanium dioxide)
  • 45% solvent
  • 25% binders (epoxy or acrylic)
  • 5% additives such as antifungals

This mixture makes up half of an overall mixture which contains around 50% water.

Many people believe that emulsion and paint are the same thing when there are key differences between the two.

Emulsion is known for:

  • Usually requiring a primer before application
  • Being durable and long-lasting (more so than paint)
  • Being unlikely to crack
  • A better odour than oil-based paints
  • Having a superior finish to paint
  • Costing more than paint
  • Being easy to clean
  • Not being easily removed after application

Paint is known for:

  • Being a cheaper alternative to emulsion
  • Peeling and fading with time
  • Leaving a nasty odour (when oil-based)
  • Requiring fresh coats more often
  • Being easy to apply without the need for a primer (depending on the surface underneath)

The key difference is that emulsion is globules suspended in liquid and paint is totally liquid with an oil or water base.

The reason that emulsion tends to be a favourite amongst home decorators and painters is because it has a lot of benefits that are strongly favourable against cheaper options, like paint. Key benefits that make emulsion more favourable to other products include:

Less Toxicity

Oil-based paints and even water-based paints contain VOCs which are ‘Volatile Organic Compounds’. Those compounds are thought to be bad for our health and the environment and many people like to avoid using them in any products, but especially products used in the home. Emulsion types will vary and it does depend on the product as to whether it has some or zero VOCs, but the chances are because of the composition, it is better in this respect when it comes to toxic ingredients.


Emulsion paints are highly washable because of their composition. This is highly beneficial when you have children, pets, or you are using the paint in somewhere like a school or retail setting where scuffs and marks are likely.

The level of washability depends on the product finish as some sheen emulsion is just wipeable, whereas some are entirely washable. If this is an important factor in the end result it is important to check before buying emulsion for your project.


Emulsion can be used to create a wide range of finishes including; eggshell, semi-gloss, gloss, smooth, matt and sheen. This makes it an incredibly versatile product for painting the home, giving you various finish choices to create exactly the look you want. You can also use brushes, sprayers, rollers and more to apply emulsion, so the application process is versatile too.


Because emulsion cures so hard it can be easily washed, as mentioned above. This hardness also results in fantastic durability, which means scuffs, washing and wiping do not affect the finish and colour of the emulsion.

Less Flammable

Oil-based paints containing solvents are flammable until they are dry. At this point, the solvents have evaporated and what is left is no longer flammable. However, emulsion is not flammable at any point because it does not contain any solvents. Instead, the water acts as the solvent and the paint molecules are suspended within it.

Humidity Resistant

Emulsions are great for bathrooms and kitchens because they are resistant to humidity. They also tend to contain fungicides and other biocides which makes them mould resistant.

Sunlight Resistant

Emulsion is unlikely to fade, dry or crack in the sunshine so it works well in applications where direct sunlight is an issue for other products.

Less Paint Smell

As there are no solvents evaporating from emulsion there is no strong paint smell that affects your indoor air quality. This smell is not just a health issue, but it can be problematic in painting jobs where the area needs to be clear of fumes quickly, such as in retail or inbetween house rentals after a tenancy has ended. Emulsion is perfect for this kind of situation because it doesn’t leave a nasty paint smell, but rather a faint aroma that some people actually like.

Of course there are benefits to using paint and not emulsion, but understanding the difference between emulsion and paint is essential for making an informed decision before your home improvement project begins.

Types of Emulsion

Acrylic matt

Matt emulsion is a pain primarily suited to painting walls and sealings and can be painted over plaster, plasterboard, wallpaper and even rougher surfaces such as brickwork and cement.

Because it’s thinned using water, it’s easier to apply when compared to oil-based or solvent-borne paints and can be brushed, rolled or sprayed onto a surface. Being water-based also means that equipment can be cleaned very easily by simply washing with water.

A great feature of some acrylic matt paints is that they provide a washable or even a scrubbable finish. The ratings between manufacturers will vary and you should look for a ‘scrub rating’ on the paint you’re buying if that’s important for you.

For example, a scrub rating of ‘class 1’ indicates that after approximately 200 scrubs, less than 5 microns of paint will be removed from the coating (for context, a human hair is around 70 microns!). This means you can clean the wall with warm, soapy water and even surface cleaner to remove stubborn stains and return the painted surface to its original condition.

Vinyl Silk

Similar to acrylic matt emulsion, vinyl silk is generally considered to be less opaque (so may require additional coats) but has a sheen finish when it dries.

Again, similar to above, vinyl silk can also be brushed, rolled or sprayed onto a surface and the water-based nature of the paint means equipment can be cleaned with water.

A nice feature of vinyl silk means that it is naturally a very hard-wearing surface meaning it’s suitable for areas that need to withstand a lot more wear and tear, such as bathrooms, kitchens or even places such as schools and hospitals.

One coat

One coat emulsions are designed to get the project finished as quickly as possible, without the need for multiple applications. Most types of one coat emulsion dry in around 2-4 hours and they are also usually wipeable and washable.

Many people choose to use one coat as a quick touch-up to areas where the family or pets may regularly scuff and mark the wall. Once applied, it is extremely tough, durable and it looks smooth and professional in finish.

Vinyl Matt (water with vinyl polymers)

Vinyl matt emulsion contains a specific type of resin that changes the finish it creates. It is available in a wide variety of different colours, just like non-vinyl paints. The difference is that it is much more durable and damage-resistant compared to non-vinyl products.

For this reason, the product is commonly used in areas where damage could be done regularly, such as entryways where shoes and boots may be taken off, children’s rooms, pet areas and the like.

Some people may not prefer the look of matt emulsion because it is not as glossy and attractive as products containing more sheen. However, because it is more textured it actually works very well for imperfect surfaces where the plaster finish isn’t pristine. Unlike gloss, it won’t show up those dents and surface changes, which is ideal if you have imperfect walls or ceilings you want to look more uniform.

Soft Sheen

Soft sheen is a softer, more gentle alternative to silk emulsion as it does create a sheen, but not a shine, which can highlight imperfections in the wall surface. It’s also known for being more durable than a matt emulsion, and so, is great for high-traffic areas of the house. It’s often wipeable and even washable, depending on the brand which makes it a good choice for areas prone to condensation and humidity, such as the kitchen or bathroom.

Acrylic Eggshell

Eggshell paints are great for using indoors where there is poor ventilation as it is a very low-odour and non-toxic paint. It dries quickly and means you can apply a second coat very soon after the first, if required. It can be applied easily using brushes, rollers and sprays and because it’s water-borne all equipment can be easily cleaned in water.

The eggshell finish is a decorative finish and dries to a soft, semi-gloss coating.

What Is Emulsion Paint Used For?

Emulsion paint has a wide selection of different uses in both domestic and business painting projects. It’s highly versatile and knowing what it can be used for is useful when it comes to deciding which products to use in your next project.

Here are some of the most common uses for emulsion:

Application On Walls And Ceilings

Emulsion paint is a great choice for walls and ceilings in the home because it is easy to apply, it comes in multiple finishes, it doesn’t smell and it is highly durable and to some degree, washable.

Priming Coat Bare Plaster

Emulsion can be used to mist coat bare plaster. You thin it out with water enough to form a mist coat which is usually 20% clean water added, but it depends on the paint manufacturer. It works by soaking into a porous, newly plastered surface acting as a key for the paint to go onto. For best results mix in a bucket and apply with a brush to minimise mess and enable full penetration of the surface.

MDF Application

You can paint MDF with emulsion but it can be problematic. It soaks up the emulsion because it is so fibrous. You can add a mist coat (as mentioned above) first and then add emulsion twice or more until the finish is as you need it to be.

As a general rule, though, there are better products out there for painting on MDF that will save you time, and create a much better finish.

Humid Rooms

Emulsion is commonly used in bathrooms and kitchens because it is humidity resistant. It also usually contains biocides which make it mould and mildew resistant.

Paint Effects

You can dilute emulsion with 10% clean water to create various paint effects like stencilling or graining.

Does Emulsion Paint Go Off?

Emulsion paint, like many paint products which use water, can go off after a certain amount of time. The emulsion should have a use-by-date on the product which tells you when you should use it by for best results.

What can happen when products like emulsion have ‘gone off’ is they demonstrate fattening, which is where the paint becomes really thick and tricky to apply. You can thin it out and try to use it but the pigment coverage may not be as you want it to be. It is worth a try with projects where the results are not extremely important. However, if you need paint that will provide great results you should dispose of the emulsion that has shown fattening and purchase a fresh product instead.

How Do You Dispose of Emulsion?

For the most up to date rules around the disposal of any paint or emulsion products check the government website regularly. As a general rule, though, you should always take proper care to dispose of emulsion properly and it should never be poured down a sink, bath or drain.

The best thing to do is avoid buying more paint than you need for the job, which avoids waste and the chance of products being stored and fattening. If you do need to get rid of emulsion there are various ways to do it, which can be seen on the website listed above. You can also buy special paint solidifies which actively suck the paint up and turn it into a solid mass which can then go into normal household waste. Any emulsion tins that are empty can be rinsed out and put into household waste.

Can You Use Emulsion Paint Outside?

You cannot use emulsion paint outside because it isn’t particularly weatherproof, is not breathable and able to deal with temperature changes and persistent wetting will remove the paint. Emulsion is also unable to allow a property to ‘breathe’ and so moisture cannot escape from the brickwork and damp may occur inside the house as a result.

Usually, it is masonry paint used to paint the exterior of a property because it is made from acrylic which is able to deal with the weather, salt mist and other outdoor conditions. Masonry paints are also breathable which means that they can allow the moisture from inside the property to escape. They can also breathe enough to deal with very cold or hot temperatures and natural movements that occur in the surface they are painted onto.

Should You Use A Special Emulsion for Kitchens and Bathrooms?

It is a good idea to use a particular type of emulsion for kitchens and bathrooms compared to any standard wall and ceiling painting.

One key issue is heat and condensation that commonly occurs in these kinds of environments. A standard vinyl matt emulsion simply won’t stand up to these environmental factors, so special emulsions should be used instead.

Here are some different options to consider…

Durable Matt Emulsion

Durable matt emulsion is vinyl matt emulsion with more paint and polymer particles within it. That means there are more particles to bind, and the surface becomes more waterproof than other types of emulsion. The finish is matt, smooth and attractive but if the room gets a lot of condensation it is possible it won’t be quite up to the job.

Soft Sheen Emulsion

Soft sheen emulsion provides more of a sheen than matt paint, and is also more durable and able to deal with the vast amounts of condensation created in a bathroom and kitchen environment. Overall it deals well with moisture and wiping and will deal well with most bathroom and kitchen environments.

Acrylic Eggshell Emulsion

Acrylic eggshell emulsion is often used in trade because it does exceptionally well in even the most humid and steamy kitchens and bathrooms. It can show any imperfections in the plasterwork in the place it is used because it is more shiny than soft sheen. However, it stands up very well to wiping and condensation so it is worth the aesthetic compromise.

Silk Emulsion

Silk emulsion isn’t very popular as a kitchen or bathroom product because it is very hard to create a smooth finish that doesn’t show brush marks. However, it can be useful for some very specific applications like decorative surfaces that are unusual in shape.

Other Considerations

Most emulsions designed for the kitchen or bathroom do contain biocides which are useful for preventing mould and mildew. Choosing an emulsion with these additives is really useful if you do have an issue with mould or mildew. Biocides are near-enough essential for rental properties where mould and mildew need to be prevented at all costs.

It is also important to note that good ventilation is essential for preventing mould and mildew because it allows the water to escape. Even with great emulsion in the bathroom and kitchen, if there is no ventilation the moisture will build up somewhere and cause a problem. It only runs off the walls and ceiling but it still has to collect somewhere in that room.

What Will Your Next Decorating Project Be?

Hopefully, the information above has you feeling more clued up on everything to do with emulsion paint. The more informed you are, the best chance you have of choosing the right product for your next decorating project resulting in a professional, functional and beautiful finish for your family home.