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Latex Paint: Everything You Need to Know

Latex Paint: Everything You Need to Know

Latex paint becomes more popular as time goes on. This widely-used paint is versatile, easy to apply, and more environmentally friendly than its oil-based cousins. Read on to learn more.

Why Use Latex Paint?

The first choice to make when you are getting ready to tackle a painting project is what type of paint you’ll use. The oldest paintings, dated from 65,000 years ago, used mineral pigments smeared on rock.

Today the most common of paint used for interior and exterior painting of walls and similar surfaces is latex-based paint. About 75 percent of paint sold is latex, and the percentage has been climbing for years.

Why Use Latex Paint graphic against blue background with a photo of a paint can being poured into a paint roller holder displayed on a laptop

There are good reasons for using latex for your paint job. Latex is easy to use and durable. And it emits fewer gases when drying compared to the oil-based paint that is the main alternative.

Latex is also inexpensive and available in different colors and formulations for just about any use. It is washable and available in many finishes, from matte to high gloss.

Here’s everything you need to know about latex paint for your next home improvement project.

Paint Basics

Over the millennia, we have developed a vast number of different types of paints for many different uses. You can get paints specially formulated to make masonry waterproof, to protect roofs from mildew, and to do many other jobs.

If you can think of something you’d like a coating to do, there is probably a paint available with a special ingredient to do it. Most coatings for house painting have four main ingredients:

  1. Solvents
  2. Binders
  3. Pigments
  4. Solids

The solvent keeps ingredients dissolved in liquid so they can be applied to the surface. For latex paints, the solvent is water. For oil-based paints, it’s an oil such as linseed oil.

What Is Latex Paint?

A bunch of multi-color latex paint cans and paintbrush

Sebastian Duda/Shutterstock

Binders are plastic-like substances that make the surface of the paint tough when it dries. Latex paint originally used natural rubber, or latex, as the binder. Today the natural rubber in latex paint has been replaced with synthetic compounds such as acrylic or vinyl.

Pigments give the paint color and covering ability. They consist of fine powders or particles suspended in the solvent. Titanium dioxide is the most common pigment used in primers. 

Solids are what is left behind after the paint has dried. They are made up of the pigments and binders, minus the solvent.

The higher the percentage of solids, the better the quality of the paint. Good latex paint is 30 percent or more solids.

Latex Solids

One way latex paints are differentiated is by the binder they use. Although modern water-based paints don’t use natural rubber later, they are still often referred to and sold as latex paints.

Many water-based paints use a vinyl-acrylic blend as the binder. Vinyl-acrylic is less costly than other formulations and suitable for interior walls.

The highest quality water-based paints use 100 percent acrylic. Acrylic paint is an excellent choice for exterior walls because of its ability to stick to various surfaces and resist fading.

Alkyd-modified is another type of latex paint. It is popular for particular uses such as re-painting exterior walls that have become chalky or begun to flake and peel.

Water-based paints are also described by the synthetic binder they contain. For instance, acrylic latex is one common type. Read the label to find out precisely what the binder is, the percentage of solids, and other ingredients.

Latex Paint Features

close up details of painting walls, industrial worker using roller and other tools for painting walls

Bogdanhoda/Shutterstock

Latex paint is popular for a variety of reasons, but its ease of application and low maintenance stand out.

Easy to Apply

One of latex paint’s best features is how easy it is to apply. It brushes on smoothly and evenly. Compared to oil-based paint, the brush drags less.

Less Mess

Latex paint is also much easier when it comes to cleaning up after the job. All it takes is water. Even partially dried latex paint can be removed with soap and some elbow grease.

Short Dry Times

Another big plus with latex paint is the reduced drying time required for each coat. You can re-coat a latex-painted wall in just one to six hours after applying it.

Versatile

Latex paint is highly versatile and will work with a wide variety of surfaces. You can use latex successfully on wood, drywall, vinyl or aluminum siding, concrete, brick, stucco, and other surfaces.

Latex sticks very well to all these surfaces. Plus, compared to oil paint after drying and over time, it retains more flexibility and elasticity. It’s less subject to cracking, blistering, flaking, and peeling.

In some situations, latex is clearly the best paint. Latex is tops for painting wood that will be exposed to freezing temperatures.

New stucco and masonry generally call for latex. And if you’re painting weathered siding, whether aluminum or vinyl, latex is the first choice.

Weather Resistant

If the surface you’re painting is going to be exposed to direct sunlight, latex is likely to be your best choice. It’s more resistant to fading and becoming chalky than oil-based paint.

If mildew is likely to be an issue, latex has better built-in resistance than oil paint. Mildewcide is often added to both types of paint to reduce susceptibility to mildew further.

Latex and oil-based paints both have distinctive odors. But latex is much less smelly than oil-based paints. And oil-based paint will continue emitting odorous gases for many hours after applying.

Environmentally Friendly

With oil-based paint, those odors are composed of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Safety concerns about VOCs have led to increasing regulation of products, including paints, that contain them. That’s another reason latex paint is becoming more popular.

Oil-based Paint vs Latex Paint

Hand drawn oil painting. Abstract art background. Oil painting on canvas. Color texture. Fragment of artwork. Spots of paint. Brushstrokes of paint. Modern art. Contemporary art. Colorful canvas.

Sweet Art/Shutterstock

Perhaps it’s best to illustrate the benefits of latex paint by comparing it to traditional oil-based paints. Read on to learn why latex wins on every time.

Stickier

Oil-based paint does have some superior characteristics compared to latex competitors. For instance, it sticks better on some surfaces.

If you get a powdery substance on your hand when you run it over a surface you are re-painting, oil paint may be a superior choice. Oil-based paint sticks better to chalky, old paint.

Chalkier

On the other hand, oil-based paint is more likely than latex paint to become chalky itself. It is also more likely to fade when exposed to the sun.

Chips Easier

If you’re painting an exterior surface, think twice before using oil-based paint. And in interior applications, yellowing and chipping are bigger issues with oil-based paint than with latex paint.

Trickier to Apply

Oil-based is a little trickier to apply since the brush tends to drag more when putting it on. However, it’s easier to use a thicker coat with oil-based paint as well.

This means it’s easier to get one-coat coverage with oil-based paint. If covering in a single coat is a primary concern, an oil-based paint may give better results.

Requires Prepping

Oil-based paint is, like latex, suitable for covering many types of surfaces. However, with some surfaces, pre-treatment is required. If you’re painting galvanized metal or new concrete, stucco or other masonry, you should use a sealer before applying oil-based paint.

More Mess

Clean up is a significantly bigger hassle with oil-based paint. You can’t just use water and perhaps some mild soap as you can with latex paint.

Instead, it takes turpentine, mineral spirits or paint thinner to clean brushes, pans, and drips. After you’re done, you’ll have thinner-soaked rags that must be disposed of carefully to avoid fire risk.

Longer Dry Times

Also, instead of drying in a few hours, oil-based paint requires at least eight to 24 hours to dry. It may be a day or two before you can re-coat a surface you have covered with oil-based paint.

So, Should You Use Latex Paint?

Compared to oil-based paint, latex paint is easier to apply and clean up, and less likely to crack and fade. It dries faster and emits fewer possibly harmful gases. If you’re painting an interior or exterior wall or other items this should be your first option.

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