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Satin vs. sheen: What is the best bathroom paint finish?

One of the easiest ways to refresh a space is with a new paint job. It’s just like putting on a brand new set of clothes that fit perfectly. It makes everything look fresh and fabulous. Painting the bathroom is a chore, though. There are lots of areas that need to be taped off and lots of nooks and crannies. Then you have to invent a whole new yoga position trying to paint that area behind the toilet and not slop on the floor, drip on the toilet, or make the wall look like it was painted with a mop.

Stumped on a color? Many of the paint companies have visualizers on their websites and some even let you download a photo of your room and visually paint it. While you are painting the walls and ceiling, maybe consider painting the vanity to really give the room maximum uplift.

If you’ve decided on a color, picking the finish comes next — and some finishes are not suited for the bathroom.

painted bathroom with tub

The best paint finishes for bathrooms

A paint finish or sheen is the amount of light the paint reflects. Some finishes absorb light, like matte and eggshell, and some reflect light like satin, sheen, and semi-gloss. The higher the reflective value, the higher the price because there are more resins and binders in reflective finishes. Higher gloss means more cost. The upside is, they are easier to clean and less likely to trap mold than flatter finish paints.

When choosing a paint finish for the bathroom, humidity is obviously a factor. Moisture can get between the wall and your paint, creating bubbling or peeling. High-gloss finishes are moisture-resistant, causing water to drip down the wall instead of getting absorbed. Consumer Reports rates satin and semi-gloss as better bets for the bathroom.

A flat finish is, well, flat and not suited for areas that need to be washed like kitchens and bathrooms. Eggshell finish has slight reflectivity, but not much more, and still is not considered suitable for bathrooms or kitchens. Both are more likely to retain moisture. However, if your heart is set on a matte, flat, or eggshell finish for your bathroom, look for one that’s labeled mildew-resistant.

white bathroom with gray trim
Satin and sheen

Both are reflective (sheen more so than satin). Both are durable, shiny, and easy to clean. 

Both will draw attention to imperfections in the walls and trim. Both are available in latex and oil-based and both are available in no or low VOC (volatile organic compounds).

Because they show imperfections, both require doing prep work like sanding of rough areas. Both may require two coats to get a richer, even color. The same color in sheen over satin may appear slightly darker.

What to use where

Satin bathroom paint finish

Using satin in the bathroom on the walls will give you a smooth, sophisticated finish. It has reflectivity but is not too shiny. If it’s on an area you regularly need to wipe off, it won’t get damaged. You want durability in the bathroom because it’s a room that is a chore to paint.

The walls and the ceiling are big surfaces and satin is more forgiving of little flaws and dips in the surface. It will protect the surfaces from mold and mildew. 

Sheen bathroom paint finish

Now, sheen really looks its best on trim and moldings. If you use the same color in satin on the walls and ceiling, and sheen on the moldings, there is a subtle, sophisticated difference. Don’t neglect the ceiling, especially if you have a small bathroom with no windows. You want as much reflective surface as possible and moisture hangs out on the ceiling, too, so you want it protected from mold and mildew.

Sheen will highlight the architectural details of the molding and trim areas. Sheen finish is also washable. That’s important if you think about what you touch in the bathroom — it’s usually the trim around the door. Extra makeup, hand lotion, and little children’s sticky finger residue will all wash off nicely if you use sheen.

A bit about color and paint

  • White: You can’t go wrong with crisp, clean white. That will give you a cool color palette. If you want to go a bit warmer because shiny white can be antiseptic looking, go for an off white.
  • Cool, dark colors: Accent white walls with navy blue or hunter green trim.
  • Pastels: Pretty pastels are on trend and you can highlight with different paint on the trim. Softer colors, such as pastels or softer tones of white and green are calming, but satin and sheen are still reflective so it’s calm, not dull.
  • Yellow: Yellow is vibrant and cheerful. Soft gold is a bit dated, but yellow is lovely in a bathroom.
  • Mint Green: Mint green is cool and tranquil.
  • Gray: A blue gray, is nice in the bathroom, but you can embrace the space with darker, moody colors such as cobalt blue, which add depth to the walls. 

Satin and sheen are both acceptable for a bathroom, but there are subtle differences in reflectivity and washability. They can both be used in different areas of the same room for a sophisticated look. Sometimes cost might be what pushes you to one over the other or depth of color. But remember — no matter what you choose, be sure to use a moisture-resistant primer.

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