Whether you’re repainting a wall or refinishing a piece of furniture, you’re probably going to be faced with a tough decision. After all, there are multiple finishes to choose from, and deciding which one comes out ahead in the satin vs. gloss debate isn’t easy.
The biggest difference between a satin and gloss finishes is the sheen. Gloss is more reflective, while satin leans more towards matte, though still has a bit of luster. However, there are other differences to consider, including durability and the ability to hide imperfections on a surface.
Both satin and gloss finishes are popular, and each is best in certain situations. You’ll also likely discover additional options, including the in-between semi-gloss finish. That may only make choosing that much more challenging.
Luckily, by understanding what each option has to offer, and under which circumstances each is the best choice, you can select the right finish for your project. If you’re wondering, satin vs. gloss: what’s the difference and which is best, here’s what you need to know.
What Is a Satin Finish?
A satin finish offers just the slightest sheen. It isn’t completely matte, as it does reflect light a bit, but isn’t a particularly reflective surface either. In many cases, any light bouncing off of the finish is barely noticeable, if you see it at all.
The presence of binders usually determines a paint’s sheen. With less-reflective products, the amount of binder to pigment is lower.
Types of Satin Finish Products
You can find various products that offer a satin finish, allowing you to go this route for a variety of repainting, refinishing, or finishing projects. Each one has its primary function or works best in specific scenarios.
For example, paint is most commonly used to apply color along with a finish. In contrast, sealants and clear coatings usually don’t change the underlying color of the wood, wall, or painted or stained surface, but can alter the sheen.
Generally, you can find the following items:
- Satin finish paint
- Satin finish clear coat
- Satin finish spray paint
- Satin finish stains
- Satin finish varnishes
- Satin finish sealants
- Satin finish furniture wax
The Benefits of a Satin Finish
With a satin finish, you typically get a smooth feeling surface. It doesn’t tend to have a sticky quality. Instead, you can easily glide your hand across it.
Additionally, satin paints and finishing products are generally durable. Typically, it stands up to wear and tear better than most matter finishes. Plus, you can usually clean the surface (using mild cleansers) without causing damage.
One of the other benefits of satin finishes is the ability to hide imperfections. Since it doesn’t reflect light as strongly, small dings and dents become less noticeable. However, it won’t completely cover them up; it just does it better than glossier options.
Finally, satin finishes may offer a more accurate color than glossier finishes. They don’t reflect as much light, decreasing the likelihood that the color of the lighting alters the look of the paint significantly.
The Drawbacks of a Satin Finish
A satin finish won’t completely hide imperfections, particularly significant dents. Satin paint can also be difficult to touchup. If you add more paint to just a spot or two, those spots usually stand out visually instead of seamlessly blending.
Additionally, while many satin finish products are durable, they aren’t as stain- or moisture-resistant as alternative options. Now, that doesn’t mean they offer no protection, just that it isn’t as strong as what you get with some others.
You can also run into trouble if you apply coats of satin paint unevenly. The difference can stand out, so it may not be the ideal finish for inexperienced painters.
Best Places to Use Satin PaintGenerally, satin paint (and other satin finishes) are best for high traffic areas, high-touch surfaces, and large spaces. It’s a popular choice for living rooms and master bedrooms, as reflective paint may be too overwhelming in those areas.
Satin paint and finishes are also great for children’s rooms. The surface is durable and can stand up to regular cleanings, which may be essential in a kid’s space.
Hallways and kitchens are great spaces for satin paint, too. Those rooms are naturally high-traffic. There’s a greater chance of the surfaces becoming dirty (and needing a cleaning) or being touched frequently, making a durable finish the best choice.
What Is a Semi-Gloss Finish?
A semi-gloss finish has a bit more sheen than a satin finish. It isn’t highly reflective, though light does bounce off the surface to the degree that it’s visually noticeable. However, it typically isn’t overwhelming or distracting, even when used to cover a large surface area.
Types of Semi-Gloss Finish Products
Many kinds of products offer semi-gloss finishes. Typically, you can find the following items:
- Semi-gloss finish paint
- Semi-gloss finish clear coat
- Semi-gloss finish spray paint
- Semi-gloss finish stains
- Semi-gloss finish varnishes
- Semi-gloss finish sealants
- Semi-gloss finish furniture wax
The Benefits of a Semi-Gloss Finish
A semi-gloss finish tends to be very durable and can stand up to some serious scrubbing. It’s also moisture-resistance, which can be ideal for humid spots in the home.
With semi-gloss wall paint, you can often visually brighten up space. It reflects light, causing it to bounce around the room. While this can be overwhelming in a well-lit, large area, it may be an excellent choice for small spaces without much light.
The Drawbacks of a Semi-Gloss Finish
Semi-gloss paint can highlight imperfections instead of disguising them. For example, if you have a dent in your wall, the reflective finish allows light to bounce off the ding edges, making it more noticeable in many cases.
If you apply a semi-gloss finish and it streaks, that can also be problematic. It can make the sheen uneven, making the less-than-ideal application stand out.
Best Places to Use Semi-Gloss PaintSince semi-gloss paints are moisture-resistant and durable – tough enough to stand up to scrubbing – they are an excellent choice for kitchens and bathrooms. Along with being suitable for walls, semi-gloss finishes are often favored for high-touch furniture pieces, such as bookshelves or dressers, as well as bathroom or kitchen cabinets.
It can also be a solid choice for molding and trim. With trim, durability and wash-ability are both incredibly valuable. Plus, a hint of shine can help it stand out from wall colors and add visual interest to space.
What Is a Gloss Finish?
A gloss finish is the shiniest option around. It gives surfaces a slick appearance, reflecting a significant amount of light.
Types of Gloss Finish Products
Numerous finishing, refinishing, and painting products come in a gloss finish, including the following items:
- Gloss finish paint
- Gloss finish clear coat
- Gloss finish spray paint
- Gloss finish stains
- Gloss finish varnishes
- Gloss finish sealants
Generally, furniture wax isn’t used to achieve a high-gloss finish. Though it can be buffed and polished to provide a level of sheen, if you’re looking for a noticeably glossy look, you’re better off with a different gloss finish product in nearly all cases.
The Benefits of a Gloss Finish
With a gloss finish, you typically get a highly durable, cleanable surface. Often, it is even resistant to staining, as well as moisture-resistant.
Gloss finishes also brighten up spaces dramatically. They reflect the most light, allowing them to make darker rooms or corners noticeably brighter in the presence of nearly any light source.
The Drawbacks of a Gloss Finish
When it comes to drawbacks, the biggest challenge with gloss finishes is how much it highlights imperfections. Even small problems will appear glaring after a gloss finish is applied. As a result, you have to put a ton of effort into preparing the surface, ensuring it is completely smooth before applying the finish.
High gloss finishes can also be overwhelming when used in large spaces or rooms with a ton of light. In many cases, painting an entire room with gloss paint is practically overpowering.
Additionally, you may notice that gloss paint colors seem to shift depending on the lighting. Since the surface is reflective, it can be altered by the hue of the light, causing the color to appear warmer or cooler based on the light bulbs you use, how much sunlight is coming in, and more.
Best Places to Use Gloss PaintSince gloss paint is highly reflective, it’s wise to use it strategically.
It can be the right choice for trim and molding and may work for smaller furniture pieces, like end tables.
The fun use of high gloss paint is to create subtle patterns. For example, you can pair it with a satin paint in the same color, using the high gloss to create shiny strips or designs on top of a less reflective satin finish base coat.
Comparing Satin, Semi-Gloss, and Gloss Paint
Sometimes, the easiest way to gauge which finishes are best for you is to compare your options directly. That way, you can see where one option outshines the other with greater ease.
The main difference between satin, semi-gloss, and gloss paint is the sheen, with each option being progressively shinier than the last. While semi-gloss and gloss generally offer higher levels of durability, satin still stands up admirably to wear and tear. As a result, beyond sheen, they are highly comparable.
But with the difference in light reflection, each option may be better suited to specific situations. Here’s a set of direct comparisons, allowing you to see where each option may stand out.
Satin vs. Semi-Gloss Paint
Satin and semi-gloss paint are one step apart when it comes to sheen, with semi-gloss being slightly shinier. With semi-gloss, paint colors may appear slightly altered, depending on the lighting in a space. However, it may also offer a richness that you may not get in a more matte finish.
Semi-gloss can be a good choice for high-touch surfaces, like furniture pieces and cabinets. Additionally, since it’s durable and moisture-resistant, it can work well in kitchens and bathrooms. Usually, the sheen isn’t so dramatic as to be overwhelming, so it can be a better choice when you need to brighten up space or want to highlight trim subtly.
Usually, satin paint is a better option if you’re concerned about imperfections. It reflects less light, making the edges of dents and dings less noticeable. Additionally, it may work best for larger rooms where too much shine could be overwhelming.
Satin vs. Gloss Paint
When you’re looking at satin vs. gloss paint, you’re getting close to two ends of the sheen spectrum. Next to each other, satin paint looks practically matte, offering only the gentlest sheen compared to the high-shine finish of a gloss.
That can allow these two finishes to work well together. Both offer reasonably durability, so they can be used in nearly any room. However, satin is often less intense on walls and provides a more authentic color experience since it isn’t as altered by reflected light. Gloss can be excellent for trim and accent pieces, bouncing light and drawing attention to unique room features or furniture pieces.
Semi-Gloss vs. Gloss Paint
The most significant difference between semi-gloss and gloss paint is the sheen. Like satin vs. semi-gloss, semi-gloss and gloss paint are one step apart when it comes to luster. The gloss version is the shiniest, often dramatically so, while semi-gloss still has a shine, but it’s a bit more subdued.
Gloss paint can work incredibly well for molding, trim, and small furniture pieces, suggesting they are imperfection-free when painted. Those items will visually stand out, which can be an excellent design move.
However, gloss paint is typically overkill when put on walls. It can quickly become overpowering, even when used in a single accent wall. When covering a large area, semi-gloss is generally the better option if you must have a noticeable sheen.
Satin vs. Gloss Clear Paint
Satin vs. gloss clear paint is all about the sheen. Satin clear paint offers a velvety look, with just the slightest hint of shine. Gloss clear paint can, at times, provide a near lacquer-like finish. It’s highly reflective, so light bounces off more dramatically.
Also called a clear coat, clear paints are usually placed over traditional colored paint. It can offer the colored surface a degree of protection, reducing the odds that the coloring will wear away over time, become damaged, or stains.
With clear paint, you can alter the sheen of existing paint. For example, if you have a furniture piece with a matte painted finish, you could change it with a clear coat. If you choose a satin clear paint, you’ll create a satin finish without changing the underlying color. With gloss, you also preserve the original hue; the finish gets shinier.
Clear paints can also be used to alter the look of other materials, while also providing a degree of protection. You can potentially apply it directly to wood, metal, or plastic, depending on the exact product. The underlying color and texture remain, with the clear coat only altering the level of shine.
Satin vs. Gloss Polyurethane
Polyurethane is a coating usually applied to wood floors or furniture. It provides a level of protection, coating the underlying wood, and decreasing wear over time.
The main difference between satin and gloss polyurethane is the shine. Gloss polyurethane creates a high-luster finish, reflecting a substantial amount of light. Satin has a subdued sheen, reflecting less light overall. Both options are highly durable, so they can work well in high-traffic areas or high-touch surfaces.
Like satin paint, satin polyurethane is better as disguising imperfections. If you have a wood floor that’s seen better days, satin is likely your best choice. However, gloss can still work for floors. It can be overwhelming in large spaces or when there’s a lot of light. But, if you also use area rugs and have larger furniture pieces, the exposed high gloss wood flooring can make a lovely accent.
For furniture, it’s mostly a matter of personal preference. If you like a glossy finish over a velvety one, go with gloss. If you enjoy something more subdued, satin is for you.
Satin vs. Gloss Varnish
Varnish and polyurethane are highly similar. Both are clear coats often applied to wood surfaces or furniture. However, polyurethane is usually only used indoors, while there are outdoor or exterior varnishes.
The difference between satin and gloss varnish is predominately the sheen. Both offer similar levels of durability and protection, making wood water- and UV-resistant, as well. Satin varnish isn’t as shiny as gloss varnish.
Satin and gloss varnish are predominately used on outdoor wood furniture. This can include chairs, tables, or similar pieces. Spar or marine varnish is highly popular for boats, though it could be used on furnishings as well.
Some people even varnish their decks, hoping to protect the wood from UV damage. However, the right stain can also offer protection and is usually easier to handle.
Paint Sheen Chart
Which Finish Is Best: Satin or Gloss?
If you’re trying to decide, “Satin vs. gloss, which is best?” the answer is, it depends. Each finish has unique strengths and weaknesses and creates an entirely different look.
Before you choose a finish, consider what you’re finishing. Is it a big area, like all of the walls or floors in a room? Is it an accent piece? Are you concerned about durability? How is the lighting in the space?
By reflecting on those points, you can narrow down your options. Ultimately, you want to choose what is right for you, above all else. So, consider the virtues and drawbacks of each finish. Take a moment to reflect on the look. Then, go with a product that aligns with your needs and preferences. In the end, that’s what’ll make you happiest, and that’s what matters.