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Oil vs. Latex Paint: What’s The Difference?

oil vs latex paint

oil vs latex paint

Oil and latex paint are two of the most common paint types for interior and exterior painting. Both of these options can turn an otherwise shabby atmosphere into a beautiful space. However, many DIYers don’t know the difference between the two.

If you are not familiar with things like consistency, best use, and function, you can find yourself in a mess very quickly. Using oil without the correct primer, or using latex for high traffic areas can make your back-breaking work seem like a wasted effort.

To help you avoid all of that, we are going to break down the difference between the two mediums. We will share the essential differences between the two, what are the best uses for both, and how best to use them. We will also get into durability, finish, and clean-up procedures. Anything and everything you need to know about these two types of paint will be covered below, so keep on reading!Divider 2

The Difference Between Latex and Oil

The main difference between these two types of paint in their composition. Oil paint, as its name suggests, is oil-based. Latex, on the other hand, is water-based. Another difference between the two is how they are used and what they are used for. Some substrates are better suited for latex while others cannot handle oil paint at all. Another important aspect to keep in mind is that latex is fast-drying while oil takes longer to cure.

Materials and Projects

The paint type you decide to use depends on the material or substrate where it will be applied. Latex paint is better for interior walls and larger surfaces. It dries faster, it is easier to work with, and repaints and touch-ups are simpler for the painter. Latex also emits a lower amount of fumes than oil, making it a better alternative when working inside.

Oil paint is better for wood furniture or projects, metal substrates, and exterior work. While this type of paint is slow drying, it stands up better in temperature fluctuations making it more durable. Oil also works better on wood due to the oil acting as a natural barrier against the porous wood. As a very absorbent substrate, it can take its toll on latex even with a thick layer of primer.

Another reason latex is not recommended for wood is because the agents in the paint cause the fibers to stand up. This requires sanding the surface after each coat. It can happen with drywall as well, yet it is not as apparent.

More often than not, however, you can choose either type of paint for any substrate. Determining which one you want to use can depend on your personal preference. The only exception to this rule is metal. If you want to use oil paint on a metal substrate, you will need to use a latex primer first, otherwise, the paint will slip right off.

divider 6 How To Use Each Paint

Regardless of whether you’re using oil or latex, they both require the same tools for application. Both can be hand-brushed, rolled, or sprayed, but they do need to be applied in different ways. Not only that, but they have different cleaning and ventilation processes, as well.

Oil PaintMEEDEN Oil Paint

Oil paint is a slower-drying medium, giving you more time to work. That being said, oil can be difficult to manipulate for beginners. As it’s thicker, it is not going to lay down as easily as latex. For another thing, oil can require thinner depending on the project and your personal opinion. This is especially true if you are spraying the paint.

Meanwhile, oil paint can’t be used on any damp surface. As water and oil do not mix, even a slightly damp surface will cause the paint to run off. This type of paint has to be laid down one coat at a time, as well. This can extend the work time because oil can take up to a week to dry in hot and humid weather. Keep in mind though, oil does not usually require a second coat as it is very opaque.

As mentioned, you can use any tool to apply the paint, though China bristle paint brushes are recommended for oil. These brushes are easy to clean, and they stand up under the harmful consistent thinner use. You also want to make sure you are using gloves, goggles, and a mask for oil paint so you do not breathe the chemicals in nor get any paint on your skin; which brings us to cleaning.

Oil paint needs to be cleaned with a thinning agent for all surfaces, tools, and even your skin. Once the oil has a chance to dry, is it can be very difficult to remove any mistakes or overspray that may have occurred.

Latex PaintRust-Oleum 285144 Ultra Matte Interior Chalked Paint

Latex can be used with a paintbrush, roller, or sprayer. It is thinner than oil so generally requires more than one coat for an opaque covering. This water-based paint also dries quickly and is easier to lay down. This will make applying multiple coats easier for you. Typically, latex will require at least two coats even when there is a primer laid down first. This will ensure a solid and opaque layer of color.

As mentioned above, latex can raise the grain on wood surfaces and, to some extent, drywall as well. For that reason, sanding between coats is necessary to get a smooth glass-like appearance on the substrate.

Latex can also be thinned if necessary, however, it is not done as often as it would be with oil paint. Typically, the brand of paint has a lot to do with whether you would need to thin it or not, and it is more common if the paint is being sprayed. Flow control and dry time are both good reasons to thin the paint so you can get a better application of the product.

Unlike oil, latex is a lot easier to clean. It can be removed from surfaces and skin with soap and water. Tools can also be cleaned with just water as you are essentially just rinsing them clean. That being said, for safety purposes, gloves and goggles are recommended.

divider 8 Performance, Finish, and Durability

Oil paint is very durable and, once cured, can handle more traffic and temperature fluctuations. Over time, however, the paint can crack and peel, but that is to be expected with any paint over time. What’s more, oil paint that is used on exteriors can oxidize. This is generally due to the sun’s rays over an extended period.

Oil paint does not come in different finishes. It does have a natural glossy appearance though, making it better for exteriors, or kitchen and bathroom cabinets. This type of paint should also be stirred before use instead of shaken because oil can have bubbles that could transfer to the substrate.

Latex paint is also durable under different conditions. It can actually outlast oil paint indoors but would fall far short when used on the exterior. Latex paint will chip and peel over time and can dull or fade especially in a situation where the walls are washed often.

Unlike oil, latex paint does come in a variety of finishes. A gloss medium can be added to create a high shine, the paint can be left as a matte, or anything in between. The most common finishes are matte, satin, and semi-gloss. Something important to note is that the more gloss that is in the paint, the harder it is to work with.

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The Four P’s To Consider

The last few things you want to keep in mind are the four P’s; primer, pigment, price, and poison.


The use of primer with different paints is such a debated and long story that an entire article could be written about it alone…so we did. Take a look at this article that will break down the difference between paint and primer and breakdown all the various uses.

In a nutshell, though, a primer is a good idea for most paint jobs. Primer smoothes the substrate, covers stains and uneven texture, and creates a paint grabbing surface for the application. When priming, try to keep this rule in mind; oil will seep through water. So, if you are painting latex over oil paint, you should use an oil primer.


Next up we have pigment. Oil has a more opaque covering due to its composition and pigmentation. Latex, on the other hand, does not have as much. When it comes to color selection, the choices are endless with both types of paint. The only colors you cannot get with latex are Prussian Blue and Zinc White. As far as oil, fluorescent colors are much harder to come by, but that will surely change eventually.


Moving on to price, it is a more varied conversation. Paint can vary depending on the brand and finish. In general, though, oil paint is more expensive than latex, but when you add in the layers of latex you could potentially need, the cost can end up being similar.


Finally, we have poison, or in this case, toxicity. Oil paint is toxic, and the fumes can be harmful. You should always use a ventilator, goggles, and gloves when using this paint. If you are working indoors, be sure to ventilate the area as much as possible.

Latex paint is not toxic, yet the fumes can still be hard on the painter. While you don’t necessarily need a ventilator, gloves and goggles should still be worn along with a face mask if needed. Ventilation is also key when working indoors to allow the fumes to dissipate as much as possible.

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We hope this article has shed some light on the differences between latex and oil paints. Choosing the right tools and material for each paint can make the difference between a job well done and a job that needs to be done again.

If you are interested in the differences in flat versus satin paint or satin versus semi-gloss, you are in luck! Different finishes can also have different purposes and rules. Check out the flat vs. satin article here, and the satin vs. semi-gloss here for more information!


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