Understanding the difference between acrylic and latex paint can be a confusing process. Latex paints as we know them are often referred to as “acrylic latex” while true acrylic paint is referred to as “100% acrylic.”
How do these two paint types differ? Which is better? When should one use latex paint and when should one use acrylic?
Acrylic paint, though more difficult to work with than latex paint, provides a higher grade of durability and weather resistance and hence a good option for many exterior applications. Latex is cheaper and easier to use, making it a better choice for most interior applications.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes these two types of paints different and what advantages and disadvantages each has over the other.
Anatomy of Paint
Although different paints may vary in their composition, all paints are generally made up of four ingredients: binders, pigments, solvents, and additives. Each plays an important role in the makeup of paint.
Pigments are a very important part of paint as they determine its color. Pigments are typically dry and come in powder form. For them to be converted into a liquid that allows them to be painted onto a wall or item, pigments must be combined with a binder and a solvent.
A solvent, by definition, is a chemical that dissolves something else. In the case of paint, solvents dissolve the pigment, binder, and any additives to create a substance with an even consistency that can be easily painted onto a wall or object.
Solvents are made of a variety of different chemicals. Water is the best known and most widely used solvent in paints, while oil-based paints typically use a petroleum-based chemical as a solvent. If you’re painting with oil, the solvent is the clear liquid resting on top of the paint when you open the can.
Additives perform a variety of functions in the paint. They make the paint more viscous for better coverage and help to keep the pigments in the paint evenly dispersed. They can also add additional properties to paint, such as weather-resistance.
Additives can even serve as a preservative, preventing mold from growing in the paint, extending its shelf life.
The binder’s job is two-fold: to join the pigment particles with each other and to bind the pigment to the wall once the solvent has evaporated. A binder determines a paint’s adhesion qualities as well as its fade resistance and washability.
Once the paint is applied, solvents evaporate, leaving the pigment, binder, and any additives to create a thin film over the wall or object.
Acrylic Paint vs Latex: Quick Summary
- Primary Uses: Due to its UV and water resistance properties, 100% acrylic is generally used for external application, while latex, with its low VOCs, better coverage properties, and ease-of-use make it preferable for most internal applications.
- Coverage: Latex generally achieves better coverage per coat than acrylic, requiring fewer coats of paint.
- Durability: Acrylic paint has greater elasticity, so it is better able to handle temperature fluctuations, preventing cracking and peeling. It also better resists scuffs and scratches.
- Cost: Acrylic paints are significantly more expensive than latex paints.
- Ease of use: Latex paints produce few VOCs, which means less ventilation is required for safe use, and are easier to clean as they are water-based. Acrylic paints produce far more fumes and require paint thinner for cleanup. Latex paints also dry more quickly.
Latex Paint: A Quick OverviewSince the word “latex” makes most of us think of rubber, it’s understandable why most people believe that latex paint must have rubber. In fact, latex once used rubber as its binder. It no longer does.
There’s still a good reason for latex to be called “latex” though. Instead of sap from the Brazilian Rubber Tree, latex now uses a man-made polymer to create that same compound.
Nowadays, latex paint is made with a water base, which is a large part of what makes it so popular. Water-based paint dries quickly, is easier to clean up, and producers few VOCs than other paints.
Because latex has more elasticity than oil-based paints, it is less likely to crack and peel. Latex is also gas permeable, so latex paint won’t trap moisture in, say, drywall.
Acrylic Paint: A Quick OverviewAcrylic, like latex paint, is made from acrylic resins. But unlike latex, acrylic paint uses a chemical base. It’s these chemicals that make acrylic weather-resistant and durable.
Whereas latex paint allows water to pass through it, acrylic paint becomes water-resistant once it dries. It also has more elasticity, which means it will better flex with wood that swells and shrinks with humidity and temperature changes.
Acrylic with 100% acrylic binders generally lasts longer than acrylic latex paint when used to paint house exteriors.
Despite these properties, acrylic paint is not often used for this purpose.
Why? This is because 100% acrylic paint is significantly more expensive than latex paint and does not cover nearly as well, making it cost-prohibitive for painting the exterior of an entire home.
Acrylic paint also dries more quickly (sometimes in minutes) and is often thick. This can make it difficult to paint large areas well.
Acrylic paint is also extremely popular for arts and crafts applications due to the broad amount of vibrant colors available in acrylic and its ability to be applied to different materials and in great detail.
What Is the Difference Between Acrylic and Latex Paint?
Now that we’ve established what acrylic and latex paints are let’s take a more in-depth look at how the quality of each differs. Understanding these differences is key to deciding which is best for your painting project.
Acrylic beats out latex when it comes to adhering qualities. Acrylic paints, when properly primed, adhere well to a variety of different surfaces, including wood, masonry, metal, and even some plastics. Latex paint is primarily reserved for wood products and drywall.
This is why paints such as Rustoleum, which is used for metal, and Drylok, which is used for masonry, are acrylic paints.
Latex paints, in comparison, will quickly peel or be easily scratched off of metal and masonry surfaces.
Acrylic is superior when it comes to weather resistance, which is why it is sometimes chosen as an exterior coating over latex. Both latex and acrylic are pliable, which allows them to expand and contract with temperatures changes. As a result, they are much less susceptible to cracking and peeling than oil-based paint.
Of the two, acrylic is more pliable, meaning it has superior weather resistance over latex.
This makes acrylic more water-resistant. The binders in acrylic also do a better job of resisting the sun’s UV rays than the binders in latex paint, meaning it will retain its color much longer than latex.
This means that acrylic is easier to touch up later, as the color in the can will still match the color on the wall.
While both acrylic and latex offer good durability, acrylic offers greater durability. In addition to being more weather-resistant, acrylic paint also does a better job of resisting wear and tear. Whereas latex paint can scuff and mark easily, acrylic will better resist this kind of damage.
This is why acrylic paints are used for high traffic paint jobs such as indoor or outdoor furniture, floors, exterior doors, and stairways.
Ease of use
Latex paint is relatively easy to work with. Latex generally goes on smoothly and covers well. Its dry time is long enough that you don’t have to worry about the workability of the paint. Latex is also easy to clean, requiring just water.
Acrylic paint, in comparison, dries very quickly. This can be challenging on larger projects as fresh paint will not mix well with paint that has begun to dry. This means one must work quickly if using acrylic on a large exterior project.
Acrylic also does not go on as smoothly as latex. It is often much thicker. This means that you’re more likely to see brush strokes when using acrylic paint than latex. Due to this, you must use high quality brushed and rollers when applying acrylic paint.
Acrylics used to require paint thinner for cleanup. This can be a pain as cleaning with paint thinner can be a time consuming and messy process. Paint thinner also has high VOCs, exposing the user to harmful fumes.
Luckily, most acrylics made nowadays are water-soluble and require only warm soapy water for cleaning brushes and rollers.
Cost and Availability
Quality latex paint can be found relatively inexpensively in virtually all home improvement stores that sell house paint. Latex paint is usually available from a variety of different manufacturers to suit a variety of different budgets and needs.
Acrylic paint is significantly more expensive. 100% acrylic paint typically costs twice as much as latex paint. It can also be more difficult to find, often requiring you to go to paint specialty stores that the pros frequent. Whereas latex paints come in a variety of qualities, most acrylic paints are for high-end or contractor grade use.
Acrylic Paint vs Latex: Side-by-Side Comparison Chart
|Latex Paint||Acrylic Paint|
|VOC Levels||None to low||Moderate|
|Dry Time||An hour or less||30 minutes or less|
|Cost||Low to Moderate||High|
|Clean-up||Easy (water only)||Hard (paint-thinner required)|
|Resistance to marking/scuffing||Good||Best|
|Useable Surfaces||Primed wood/walls/masonry||Wood, masonry, metal, plastic|
|UV Resistance/ Fade Resistance||Low||High|
|Ease of application||Easy||Difficult|
|Availability||Widely available||Limited availability|
Can You Mix Latex and Acrylic Paint?
Because both are water-soluble, you can mix acrylic paint with latex paint easily. Simply mix the two paints and stir thoroughly. Mixing can be used to alter the color of the paint.
Just keep in mind that mixing may affect the above properties of both paints, affecting such characteristics as durability, adhesion, and fade resistance.
It’s also possible to mix latex paint with artistic acrylic paints.
Artistic acrylic paints come in two forms: fluid acrylic and tube acrylic. You can use fluid acrylic paint to tint latex paint just as you would commercial tinting products. Just mix small amounts of fluid acrylic to your latex and mix thoroughly to alter the color.
Tube acrylics are thick artistic paint that has the consistency of a cream or lotion. This paint is thicker to show brush strokes and to allow for more varied mixing and blending.
Mixing tube acrylic paint with latex paint is possible but requires a little more work. You’ll need to mix some water with the tube acrylic paint to give it a thinner consistency, so it blends properly with the latex paint.
Understanding the difference between acrylic paint and latex paint is critical to making the right decision for the right job.
Latex paints are by far the most popular. There are quality latex paint products for many types of applications, including both interior and exterior jobs. And, latex paints are ubiquitous, available in any home improvement store from a variety of manufacturers.
That said, acrylic paints should not be overlooked. Their durability and weather-resistant properties make them exceptional paints for a variety of uses ranging from home exteriors to patio floors.
I hope this guide has helped you decide whether latex or acrylic paint is the right pick for your job.