Walking into the paint section of your local hardware store can feel extremely intimidating if you have little knowledge about paint. Words like “acrylic”, “polyurethane” and “volatile organic compounds” may trigger haunting memories of freshman Chemistry. Paints are much simpler than their jargon makes them sound. Basically, there are two main types of paint: latex and enamel. Here are their characteristics and the major differences between them:

Latex PaintEnamel Paint
Paint baseWater-basedOil-based
FinishMatte or glossy, flexible when dryGlossy, dries hard
FumesMilder odor, lower volatile compoundsHigh in fumes, strong odor
Drying timeDries quicklyDries slowly
Best to useLarge surfaces, interior or exteriorSmaller surfaces, exterior

Eager to get started with a DIY project but have no idea where to begin to choose the right type of paint for your needs? Worry not! By the end of this article, you will be well-versed in the properties of latex and enamel paints and will understand which paints are most suitable for various projects.

Major Differences Between Latex and Enamel Paint

Latex paint does not actually contain any rubber latex. The “latex” is referring to the fact that the paint stays flexible when it dries. Similarly, enamel paint does not contain any real enamel. “Enamel” refers to the hard, glossy quality of the paint when it dries. Latex paint is malleable and matte when dry, and enamel paint dries hard and shiny. This is the first essential difference.

The second major difference is that latex paint is water-based, while enamel paint is oil-based. Enamel paints are notorious for their strong odor, which comes from the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air. Oil-based paints are more toxic than water-based paints, and the VOCs can cause irritation of the eyes and/or skin, dizziness, or problems breathing. It is crucial to work with oil-based paints in a well-ventilated area.

Another difference between the two paints is that latex dries much faster than enamel paint. It is convenient to use latex paint, as it is easy to clean up after painting and wipe away splatters or mistakes with water and a rag. You will need to use paint thinners to clean your brushes or remove paint spots when using enamel.

Properties of Latex Paint

Latex paint is water-based and contains plastic resin that binds the paint, like polyvinyl or acrylic. These are lower in toxic VOCs, like acetone, benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene. This makes latex paint much safer to use indoors. However, you should always ensure good ventilation while you are painting, whether you are using latex or enamel paint!

Latex paint is flexible when it dries – this is why it is called “latex”. This makes it good for use on surfaces that expand and contract due to temperature fluctuations. Brittle paint, like enamel, would crack, but latex does not.

It dries quickly, so you have to paint fast to get the coats of paint to apply evenly, without brush or lap marks.

Latex paint is a durable choice for high traffic rooms in the home. It is water-soluble, so once dry, it can be cleaned with soap and water. Alcohol-based detergents can dissolve and remove latex paint, so stick to water and mild soap only!

Properties of Enamel Paint

Enamel paints are oil-based, using either synthetic oil or natural oils, like linseed as a base. Alkyd enamel paint, made with a synthetic oil base, is cheaper and more durable. Due to their oil base, enamel has a strong odor that will linger long after the paint job is over.

The smell is due to the high levels of VOCs. You have to use a respirator mask while working with enamel paint, as the fumes will make you dizzy. It is best to keep children and the elderly away from the painting area and ensure proper ventilation!

Enamel paint dries very slowly, but it has a super hard finish that is durable against regular wear and tear once it has fully cured. It dries glossy to give a polished, elegant finish.

Should You Use Latex or Enamel Paint?

Latex is an excellent option for most painting projects for its safety and ease of use. You can use latex paint on exterior and interior surfaces. It can be used on ceilings, walls, plaster, drywall, stucco, siding and even for painting outdoor flooring. Modern latex paints are designed to be user-friendly, versatile, and durable.

Enamel paint is perfect for metal surfaces or exterior things like door and window frames, where you need a hard, durable finish. It is best for painting smaller objects or surfaces outside. Water-based latex paints should not be used on metal, as it will rust!

Not all enamel paint gives a shiny glass-like finish. There are oil-based paints available that are satin, semi-gloss, or high-gloss. However, using enamel paint over large surfaces inside your house can look old-fashioned and strange. Not to mention the odor that will linger in your newly painted house! This is why it is best to use enamel paint for exterior surfaces and latex paint for bigger projects like walls and interior surfaces.

Advantages of Using Enamel Paint

Enamel paint is appealing for several reasons:

  • It dries extremely hard and is durable on things that experience rough usage in the home, like doors and window frames.
  • Less likely to leave brush-stroke marks.
  • Creates a glossy, glass-like finish that even high-gloss latex paints cannot.
  • No need for a top coat, as the finish is shiny and hard enough.
  • Enamel surfaces are easier to wipe clean because they are so smooth.
  • Coat for coat, you get better, more even coverage with enamel paint.
  • Seals metal from air and water, preventing rust.
  • Waterproof, thus ideal for outdoor surfaces.

Advantages of Using Latex Paint

There are many advantages to choosing latex paint because it is designed to be user friendly:

  • Latex paint stays flexible when it is dry, so it does not crack on surfaces that expand slightly due to heat.
  • No mineral spirits or turpentine needed for clean-up after painting. Just use water, soap, and a rag.
  • Less harsh VOCs that cause eye and skin irritation.
  • Faster drying time, so less time spent waiting between coats.
  • Can be used in a paint sprayer to get a thin, even coat with full coverage.
  • It is available in a wide range of finishes from matte or eggshell to semi-gloss and even high gloss.
  • Latex paint is great for surfaces that need regular cleaning, like in the kitchen or kid’s rooms, because you can wipe it with soapy water and a cloth.

Are Latex and Enamel Paints Compatible?

Latex and enamel paints are very different and are totally incompatible with one another.

If you want to paint latex over a surface that has enamel paint on it, you will need to sand it and use a latex primer so that the new paint does not peel away from the old when it dries.

To ensure proper paint adhesion, one must use a latex paint and primer together or an enamel primer and paint together. Do not mix them up!

Latex and Enamel Paint: FAQs

What Is Latex Enamel Paint?

Just as you thought you knew the difference between latex and enamel paint, you walk into the hardware store only to see latex enamel paint! What is this?

Latex paints have developed a lot over the last few decades, and some have been designed to be just as durable and shiny as enamel paint. This is why you will see some water-based latex paints being marketed as “acrylic enamel” or “latex enamel”. It means the paint has a glossy, hard finish like enamel.

Does Latex Paint Peel?

Many people worry about using latex paint because it has a reputation for peeling. Most often, latex paint fails and peels off because it has not been painted on properly. Here is to prevent latex paint from peeling:

  • Clean the surface thoroughly before painting. Dirt and debris can ruin a paint job. Clean well with a non-residue cleaner, like TSP (trisodium phosphate).
  • Use an appropriate primer. If the paint does not adhere properly to the surface it is painted onto, it will peel.
  • Waterproof primer. In the bathroom, the paint will peel from the ceiling and walls if moisture collects under it. Use a good waterproof primer under latex paint in high-humidity areas.
  • Use fresh, newly strained paint. Paint that has been standing in the garage for years is prone to issues like peeling.

What Paintbrush to Use for Latex and Enamel Paint?

There are so many different types of paint brushes on the market. How do you know which to buy?

Certain brushes are needed for certain types of paint. For example, paintbrushes with natural bristle fibers like pig hair, should be used with enamel paint.

Because enamel is oil-based, it will not absorb into the natural fibers like water-based latex paint. You could also use a synthetic bristle paint brush with enamel paint.

When using latex paint, choose a synthetic bristled paintbrush and stay away from natural fibers, as these will draw up water from the paint.

How to Test if a Surface Is Painted With Latex or Enamel

Picture this scenario: you want to re-paint a surface but do not know what type of paint is on it. How will you know what type of paint and primer to buy to cover it with?

Luckily, it is straightforward to test if the paint is oil-based. Take a cotton ball, dip it in alcohol, and rub a small area of the painted surface. If the paint remains hard and no color transfers to the cotton ball, the paint is oil-based enamel. If the paint color rubs off onto the cotton, it is latex paint.

Do You Need to Use Primer?

It may be tempting to skip the primer, as it just seems like an extra step and takes more time to dry. You are excited to get to the fun part of the painting – the color! However, to ensure that paint applies evenly to a surface, one should always first apply a coat of primer when you are using latex or enamel paint. Many paints are marketed as self-priming, but it is always good to use a coat of primer anyway.

The active ingredient in paint primer is polyvinyl acetate – the same ingredient that is in wood glue. Primer acts as a base coat, creating a smooth, adhesive foundation for the new paint to stick to. It can make the difference between your DIY paint job looking adequate or professional. Because it helps the paint adhere to the surface, you will also need fewer coats of paint to achieve the result you want, saving you time waiting for paint to dry between coats!

If you are painting a surface that is glossy or high sheen with a paint that has a matte or eggshell finish, using a primer is crucial for hiding the shine – two coats will be best. Similarly, if you are changing the paint color from dark to light, one must use two coats of primer to lighten the tone of the underlying color, so that you do not need many coats of paint to cover it.

If the wall you are painting has dark stains from smoke or water damage, you can block these out by using a coat or two of primer. Primer should also be used on walls that have been patched or repaired, at it will hide the lines.

If you are painting a porous surface like wood or brick, it is important to use a primer so that the paint will apply evenly.

If you are painting rooms exposed to high humidity, like the bathroom, use a special primer that seals out damp, as this will prevent mold and mildew from growing as moisture leaches through the wall.

Should I Use Paint Additives for Latex and Enamel Paint?

To add to the overall quality of your paint job, paint conditioners and improvers can be used to boost the paint’s performance. You can save time, labor, paint, and money all while getting a better finish!

These additives decrease the paint’s viscosity, so you can apply a thinner coat, and extend the drying time, giving the paint time to settle and flatten on the surface, thus drying more smoothly.

Different types of paint additives are required for latex and enamel paints, as they are chemically different.

  • Floetrol can be added to latex paints. It helps to prevent brush and rolling lap marks, as it improves the paint’s flow and levelling. Additives are added to paint in spray guns to prevent the tips from clogging.
  • Penetrol is for oil-based enamel paints. It prevents peeling and blistering by increasing the paint’s adhesion to the surface. It also helps the primer and paint penetrate the surface better.


You are ready to take on any DIY paint job with confidence now that you know all there is about latex and enamel paints and the differences between them. In case you forget, here is a handy guide:

Latex PaintEnamel Paint
Paint baseWater-basedOil-based
FinishMatte, semi-gloss of high glossSatin or glossy
DurabilityFlexible when dryDries rock hard
Drying timeDries quicklyDries slowly
FumesLower VOCs, less fumesHigh VOCs, strong odor
Primer neededLatex primerEnamel primer
Paint additivesFloetrolPenetrol
Paintbrush to useSyntheticNatural or synthetic
Cleaning solventWater and mild soapTurpentine or paint thinners
Where to use itInterior or exterior, large surfaces like walls and ceilings.Exterior, small surfaces, door and window frames, and trims.

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