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Enamel vs. Latex Paint: Comparison and Clarification for Home Improvement Projects

Are you ready to paint an area of your home, perhaps the deck, the siding, or the newly finished garage? Once you begin reviewing the available types of paint, you’ll discover a world of new terminology and different paint attributes.

It’s important to gain a clear understanding of terms like enamel, latex, and oil-based paint before you decide which one is the best choice for your projects. Check out our enamel vs. latex guide, which demystifies and compares the basic categories of paint.

Clarification of Enamel vs. Latex terms

First of all, we need to clarify some terminology. Most water-based interior/exterior paints use the word “latex” somewhere on the label. However, there isn’t any actual latex in the paint. The word indicates a level of malleability and versatility inherent in that particular paint product.

The word “enamel” is ambiguous, too. There’s no actual enamel in the paint itself; the word just illustrates the quality of the finish at the end of the paint job. Enamel paint yields a smooth, hard finish that will last a long time.

In many cases, paint companies use “enamel” on their higher-end options, simply because it’s an appealing descriptive word. It makes the paint sound more glossy, beautiful, and durable.

Latex-based vs. Oil-based paint

Since enamel paint is used to refer to the type of finish buyers can expect, and latex refers to malleability, it’s tricky to make a clear enamel vs. latex comparison.

However, as you select the paint that’s right for your project, you’ll likely encounter another type of paint: oil-based paint, which stands in clear contrast to latex-based paint.

Latex-based paint is an emulsion, a water-based product, meaning that its pigmentation particles are suspended in water. In contrast, oil-based paints carry their pigments in a mineral spirit or solvent, a substance similar to paint thinner.

Can Latex paint also be Enamel paint?

For a long time, the term “enamel” was only used with reference to the harder finish of oil-based paints. Enamel paint and oil paint were practically synonymous terms.

However, recent developments in latex paint design have led to smoother, stronger finishes. As a result, some paint companies have started using the word “enamel” for their water-based latex paints as well.

For the purposes of this comparison, we’ll consider oil-based paint the same as enamel paint, because of the high-end, hard finish that oil-based paint produces. Latex water-based paint is the clear rival in the market, so let’s compare water-based latex paint vs. enamel or oil-based paint.

Odor and risk difference

Oil-based enamel paint is known for its annoyingly strong odor. It’s also significantly more toxic than water-based latex paint. If you don’t take precautions while painting with oil-based paint, you might find yourself suffering from eye irritation, breathing issues, or dizziness.

Latex paint also has an odor, although it’s a different, milder one than that of oil-based paint. Like oil-based paints, latex paints contain VOCs or volatile organic compounds, and those compounds travel into the air once you begin painting. The compounds take the form of gases like formaldehyde, toluene, acetone, and benzene.

Whether you decide to use acrylic latex or enamel oil paint, choose a zero-VOC or low-VOC product to minimize risk. Make sure you open windows and have fans running while applying either type of paint, and wear a mouth filter or mask.

Paint fumes can affect children and the elderly more strongly, so take special care to keep those individuals out of the room until the paint is completely dry. Typically, latex paint is considered a safer choice when it comes to avoiding skin and eye irritation.

Quality and finish difference

Oil-based enamel paint takes a long time to dry completely, but once it’s done, the finish is usually top-notch and long-lasting. You can’t clean up oil-based paint with water; it takes paint thinner to remove it from surfaces.

In contrast, latex paint dries much more quickly, and you can easily clean up any splatters or messes with water.

Which paint for which surface?

In terms of enamel vs. latex paint, if you’re looking for ease of use, latex is the obvious choice. However, for certain projects, you need the premium, timeless quality of good oil-based paint.

Contractors often use latex paint for walls, and then switch to oil-based paint for doors, trim, and window frames. Those areas suffer frequent rough usage in a home, so their surfaces need to be extra durable. Plus, oil-based enamel paint provides a sleek, smooth, rock-hard finish that acrylic latex paints simply can’t surpass.

Keep in mind that a water-based latex paint never pairs well with metal surfaces. Applying a water-based product to metal is a recipe for rust. Definitely choose the oil-based enamel for any metal projects.

However, latex paint is perfect for painting stucco, porch or deck flooring, siding, drywall, and plaster.

In the past, oil-based enamel paint was the product of choice for home improvement projects that required a durable finish. However, modern improvements to latex paint quality have made it a feasible option for a broad range of projects. With the tips provided here and your own research, you’ll be able to determine which type of paint you need for specific areas in your home.

Mike Bailey

Mit Miller

Friday 23rd of September 2022

Thank you for a very clear explanation.