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How to Choose Your Paint Material: Oil-Based VS Water-Based

Image courtesy of Studio Abby

Given the vast sea of information out there on the internet, this is probably not the first article you’ve read about comparing oil-based paint and water-based paint.

If you have indeed done quite a bit of research on the two materials, you should know a few things about them.

For example, how one releases VOCs (volatile organic compounds) during the curing process while the other does much less harm to your health. Or how one scratches more easily than the other.

You might also be wondering if these articles are actively persuading you to choose one over the other for various business-related reasons.

But really, choosing your material is more about choosing the appropriate material for your specific purpose rather than the ‘best’ material out there.

Today, we’re going to break down the specific traits and usage of oil-based paint and water-base paint. Choose your weapon wisely.

Oil-based paint

Five decades ago, almost all paint used in architecture was oil-based. And then the concern over carcinogenic VOCs encouraged manufacturers to make water-based paint with better quality and performance. It is said that water-based paint nowadays is so well-developed that it is beginning to replace oil-based paint.

But the fact that oil-based paint is still in use suggests that it does have an edge over its counterpart. Oil-based paint tends to give a smoother, more high-gloss finish. It is more resistant to wear, high temperature and humidity.

Indeed, some circumstances do call for the use of oil-based paint:

1. Baseboards


Oil-based paint’s durability makes it more likely to withstand scrapes and dings from the vacuum cleaner.

2. Window frames

When opening and closing the windows, oil-based paint is less likely to cause the frames to stick together.

3. Trim

The smooth, high-gloss finish of oil-based paint serves well to accentuate the interior and exterior which might be bland otherwise.

While using oil-based paint in the interior is generally not encouraged, there are instances where using it for the interior has more advantages than disadvantages. A good rule of thumb is never use it for large surfaces like walls.

Water-based paint

Image courtesy of Adroit ID

The main difference between water-based paint and its counterpart is that water-based paint uses acrylic and latex to binder pigments and water. It gives off less to virtually no VOCs. Acrylic polymers as a binder also make the coating more flexible, thus less likely to crack compared with oil-based paint.

Water-based paint has a full range of colour options and shorter curing time, which makes it an excellent choice for larger interior surfaces. It is also more resistant to colour fade due to its UV durability.

Best uses of water-based paint:

1. Interior walls

Water-based paint is great for large interior surface because of its cleaner characteristic. It does not smell as much, and dries more rapidly than oil-based paint. Renovation using water-based paint causes less disruption to your daily life, and less harm to your health.

2. Masonry

  Oil-based paint Water-based paint
Common basic components Pigments, binders (alkyd and other oil derivatives), paint thinner, additives (eg. thickening agents, stabiliser) Pigments, binders (acrylic polymers), water, additives (eg. co-solvents, biocides to prevent bacterial growth
Finish Smooth, high-gloss Less smooth
Durability Resistant to wear and tear Chips easily
Sensitivity to environmental factors Resistant to extreme temperature and humidity Not suitable for wet climates and high humidity
Odour High levels of VOCs Low levels of VOCs
Flexibility Lower Higher
Colour options Restricted Full range of options
Curing time Longer Shorter
UV durability Lower Higher

Water-based paint has a chemical makeup that is resistant to alkalis. This means that it adheres better and last longer on brick, stone, concrete and plaster structures.


To wrap up…

Visit your local paint store and you will find that product labels specify which usage the paint is designed for. It is useful to know the general differences between oil-based and water-based paint, but manufacturers often fine-tune the chemical makeup of both types of paints to cater to specific needs.

For example, ‘exterior’ paint is tailored to resist cracking, chalking and moisture, while ‘interior’ paint is designed to resist abrasion. Within the category of water-based paint, some give off close to no VOCs which suits families with young children and pets.

With all things considered, we strongly advise against using a paint for purposes it is not intended to serve. While using an interior paint for the exterior might increase maintenance cost, using an exterior paint for the interior will certainly cost your health.

HKDecoman, now going global as Deco-Man, is a Hong Kong-based renovation platform which provides professional consultancy services and pioneers in the development of A.I. homeowner-engineer matching. We aim at educating the public about the art of home renovation and have our eyes on transforming the traditional renovation industry, bringing standardisation, transparency, convenience and automation to the business.


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