How can you tell the difference between paints?
Consumer Reports and similar companies have performed first-hand tests on paint quality in order to rate different paint products (for an in depth overview of these different tests, check out Consumer Search). Architects, interior designers and paint contractors also look at Product Data Sheets, also known as Technical Data Sheets, in addition to evaluating actual experience with a particular interior paint product. Data Sheets are published by each paint company and provide information on what makes up the paint. In a nutshell, lower quality paints contain more water and less pigment compared to high quality paints. Higher quality paint also contains higher quality binders, the component of the paint that helps it stick to the wall.
How do the most commonly used paints stack up?
At the end of the day, buying a quality interior paint means evaluating several factors to reach the perfect balance of coverage, durability, health and value. Looking at each of these factors, we found that three nationally available paint products rose to the top: YOLO Colorhouse INSPIRED, Benjamin Moore Natura and Sherwin-Williams Harmony. Taking value into account (best price for high quality), YOLO Colorhouse INSPIRED is our #1 recommended buy. If we add to our comparison paints available only in certain regions of the United States, Dunn-Edwards ENSO also meets our criteria of high quality interior paint at a reasonable price.
Here’s a more detailed look at how we evaluate and compare paint quality.
Ease of Coverage (Look for high % solids by volume)
Solids are the pigments and binders in paint. They create the film left behind after the paint dries and the liquids have evaporated. Higher quality paints usually have a higher percentage of solids. According to the Paint Quality Institute “A high solids content helps provide a thick dry film which in turn is important for key properties, including hiding, resistance to cracking and mildew, and general durability.”
In our 2013 paint comparison, the highest quality latex paints contained at least 39% solids by volume for an eggshell sheen. (Eggshell is the most broadly used interior paint sheen and was therefore the standard for our paint comparison). For example, Olympic Premium, which has received average results in performance tests by Consumer Reports and the like, is made up of 34% solids by volume. In contrast, Benjamin Moore Aura, which is often preferred by professional paint contractors despite the fact it costs twice as much as Olympic Premium, has a whopping 47.2% solids to volume ratio.
Higher quality paints also use higher quality pigments, so you can’t really say whether an interior paint with 42% solids by volume will have better coverage than paint with 40% solids by volume. You also can’t compare these numbers across different paint sheens. But an interior eggshell paint with 40% solids by volume is certainly going to get you better coverage than an interior eggshell paint with 30% solids by volume. Save yourself the time, money and frustration and stick with an interior paint with high solids to volume ratio for better wall coverage on the first coat.
Paint Durability (Look for 100% Acrylic)
The most durable paint uses 100% acrylic resin as it binder. All of our 2013 top picks contain 100% acrylic resin. Cheaper, lower-quality paints will use a combination vinyl-acrylic, also known as PVA. According to the Paint Quality Institute, 100% Acrylic latex paint will “stand up to cleaning” and “resist softening when cleaned or soaked.” In a New York Times review of various low-VOC paints, YOLO Colorhouse’s 100% Acrylic paint performed especially well in this category: “Yolo Colorhouse was the easiest to clean — the dirty fingerprints wiped away quickly.”
Additionally, quality paints will often include additives that help increase its quality. For example, both YOLO Colorhouse INSPIRED and Sherwin-Williams Harmony include an anti-mildew additive. This helps with both durability and health considerations, since even invisible mildew can contribute to respiratory problems when found in closed indoor environments.
Health (Look for no VOC’s post-tint)
Consumers have gotten smarter and are demanding paints with zero VOC’s, meaning no damage to our health. According to the EPA, VOC’s are toxic chemicals that can irritate the lungs, cause headaches and may even contribute to cancer. Our paint review favors zero VOC paints with the best coverage and durability (compared to all paints regardless of VOC content) and a reasonable price. For example, although Behr Premium Plus Ultra and Benjamin Moore Aura both have high coverage and durability ratings and are considered “low-VOC,” neither product made our shortlist of top interior paints due to the fact that any and all VOCs are harmful to human health.
It’s also very important to make sure the paint you buy is zero VOC post-tint. Several paints, including Behr Premium Plus and Valsapar Ultra paint, are advertised as “no VOC” but can have VOC’s added when the zero VOC base paint is mixed with the colorant of your choice. In contrast, you can be confident that both the YOLO Colorhouse and Benjamin Moore products are no VOC no matter what your color choice.
In the past, Sherwin-Williams Harmony came under fire for false advertising as no-VOC when their colorants contained VOCs. However, the paint company recently launched a no-VOC colorant called ColorCast EcoToner and as a result managed to make it onto our 2013 list of top picks. Sherwin-Williams also reformulated the Harmony product in 2013 to improve overall quality.
Quality Paint at a Good Value (Look for a price of $30 - $50 per gallon if not on sale)
The cold hard truth is that you won’t find high quality interior paint for less than $30 (unless it’s on sale, in which case you might get a gallon for $25). While some reviews have called the $20 ACE Royal a good “budget buy,” what they really mean is that ACE Royal is the highest quality paint when compared only to the other lower quality paints. True high quality paints cost more because the higher quality pigments and resins, and higher percentages of solids by volume, cost more for paint manufacturers to produce compared to paint full of water and low quality (cheaper) resins and pigments. That said, few homeowners are willing to pay upwards of $50 for a gallon of paint. For that reason alone, Farrow and Ball’s high quality $80/gallon Estate Emulsion didn’t make our list of top picks and Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams products fell to the number 2 and 3 spots. If the paint you choose costs somewhere between $30 - $50, chances are the quality is good enough to save you from the headaches a $15 - $25 gallon of paint will cause you due to the need for additional coats to get the job done.
Paint Quality Checklist
In sum, a high quality paint has …
- a high solids to volume ratio for good coverage on the first coat
- is 100% acrylic for greater durability
- contains zero VOCs, even after the color tint is added
- typically costs between $30 - $55 – less if you find a good sale!
EPA Guide to Healthy Home Remodeling
Consumer Reports Paint Buying Guide
Paint and Primer in One: Does it Work?