If you’ve ever wandered through the paint aisle at any big box store, you may have found yourself completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of paint formulations available. How do you know which is best suited to your project?
This is of particular concern when deciding between latex or acrylic paint. I know that it can be tempting to shrug and mutter “paint is paint” as you grab the nearest gallon and head over to the paint counter, but there really are important differences between acrylic paints and latex paints in terms of composition and intended use. Let’s dive into these differences, shall we?
What Do All Paints Have In Common?
All paints, whether acrylic, latex, enamel or any others, are made by mixing a pigment (the part that gives paint its color) into a base.
You might be wondering why we don’t just cut out the middleman and apply pigment directly onto our walls and upcycled Craigslist furniture finds? Well, here’s the deal: pigment typically comes in the form of a granular powder, and you can’t really dust your walls with powder and hope that it covers evenly or sticks around for very long, can you?
This sounds obvious, but I’d venture to guess that most of us have never given a second thought to the purpose of a paint base. We usually just look at the back of our desired color swatch and find the matching can per the instructions and then go on our merry way.
However, the base and how it is formulated is the main difference between our acrylic and latex options. We’ll get into those details in a bit, but what purpose does the base actually serve, regardless of its composition?
The base does two things: firstly, it allows the pigment to stay suspended in the mixture and holds onto the little pigment granules so that they stay in place wherever brushed or rolled on. This is the job of the “binder” ingredients. You can think of these binder ingredients as being a bit like when you were a kid and would draw letters and shapes out of Elmer’s glue and then dust glitter onto the glue letters to turn them into magical glitter letters, instead. Fun, right!?
Secondly, it makes the transfer of both the pigment and binder possible so that it can be applied to a surface in the first place – this is the job of the “vehicle” ingredients.
Both the binder and the vehicle make up the base and can each have a multitude of formulations depending on the brand, sheen, and the paint’s intended use. Now we’ll do a deeper dive into each specific paint type.
The most common paint types are generally categorized as either “oil-based” or “water-based”. Acrylic paint doesn’t really fit into either category as its base consists of an acrylic polymer emulsion and other chemicals like plasticizers and stabilizers that don’t include water.
This can be confusing at times because latex paint is a type of water-based paint and might be labeled “acrylic-latex” paint. We’ll discuss this type of paint in detail in a later section, but it is important to note that acrylic paint is not the same thing as acrylic-latex paint, though they both typically use acrylic polymer as the main binding ingredient.
What are the Pros and Cons to Using Acrylic Paint?
- Because acrylic paint is largely made of flexible plastic resin, it can expand and contract more readily than latex paint without cracking or flaking.
- It is highly weather resistant and durable when painted on surfaces that might be exposed to the elements or temperature swings or on a material that expands and contracts, like wood.
- One small but noticeable benefit is that you don’t have to mix your paint as thoroughly, if at all, before painting because the pigments are suspended and held in place better than if it were water-based.
- Acrylic paint also adheres easily to surfaces and requires less prep time than other paint options in order to achieve a high quality finish.
- It has a moderate drying time, meaning it’s not the fastest drying time but it is still relatively quick-drying compared to other paint options, like oil-based paints.
- Acrylic paint is harder to find in large quantities and, depending on the formulation.
- It can be harder to clean up than other paint options due to its chemical base properties. A paint thinner may be required for cleanup with certain formulations.
- Acrylic paints provide slightly less coverage than other paints.
- It is generally more expensive than other paint types.
- Acrylic paint contains higher VOC content than other paint options, meaning it produces harsh odors when used in large quantities and can present environmental concerns.
The term “latex” is one based in chemistry and describes a polymer microparticle emulsion within a water base. What this means is that the pigments and binders are suspended in water. The characteristics of water are much easier to understand than the plethora of chemicals in acrylic paint, especially when considering how it behaves once applied to a surface.
Latex paint can be either acrylic-latex or vinyl-latex, depending on the binder used in the specific formulation you choose. Acrylic-latex paints that use 100% acrylic as the binder will be more flexible and durable than other latex paints.
- Latex paint is an inexpensive paint option.
- It can be found in large quantities more easily than acrylic paints since it is much more common and readily available from big box stores or your friendly neighborhood hardware store.
- Latex paint generally has better coverage per coat, a greater variety of sheen options to choose from, and more color choices available than other paint types.
- Because latex paint is water-based rather than chemical-based, it is naturally less toxic and easy to clean up with just soap and water.
- Latex paint also dries rather quickly as the water base evaporates away from the pigment and binder.
- Latex paint doesn’t carry the same elastic characteristics of acrylic paint. Acrylic-latex paint provides improved durability for exterior projects, but surfaces coated in latex paint will still experience cracking and flaking over time because water-based paints are much more vulnerable to UV rays, temperature swings, and the expansion and contraction of materials like swelling wood.
- Latex paints generally provide a thinner coat than oil-based or acrylic paints which also means reduced smoothing capabilities. This means that quality surface prep is very important.
So, Which Should You Choose: Acrylic Paint or Latex Paint?
When deciding which type of paint to choose, it’s important to first determine what is important to you in a paint. Is durability important to you? Is color vibrance the thing that matters most? What material are you painting and what kind of conditions will it be exposed to?
In reality, there are more options than just acrylic or latex, but between the two options discussed here, what type of paint is best for my project: an acrylic paint or a latex paint?
We hope that this table will help you decide:
|Project||Recommended Paint Type|
|Arts and Crafts||Acrylic|
|Exterior Wall||Acrylic or Acrylic-Latex|
|Dining Room Table||Acrylic-Latex|
|Wood Patio Chair||Acrylic|
|Vinyl Shutters or Siding||Acrylic or Acrylic-Latex (budget dependent)|
|Wood Shutters or Siding||Acrylic|
|Wooden Yard Fence||Acrylic|
|Vinyl Yard Fence||Acrylic or Acrylic-Latex (budget dependent)|
|Cabinetry (Kitchen or Bathroom)||Acrylic|
Keep in mind that there are other paint options that might be a better choice for your specific project than an acrylic or latex paint. For example, an oil-based enamel paint may be the best option for painting cabinets and an acrylic-urethane or urethane paint might be best used when painting high traffic surfaces. In any case, we hope that this article makes you feel more equipped to handle the decision as you stand timidly in the paint aisle and stare at that seemingly endless wall of paint cans.
Thankfully, paint manufacturers and brands have begun to market and label their products with descriptive verbiage and typically provide hints as to what each option is best used for. When in doubt, rely on the manufacturer’s understanding of their own product. Also keep in mind that you can always look up the product you are interested in and read the associated user guide for even more information about its use for your particular project.