Paint Buying Guide
The Ultimate Paint Primer

Buying a can of paint should be easy. But walk into any home center or paint store and you’ll see just how confusing the choices can get. Brand lines keep expanding, and the price might jump $5 to $20 per gallon. The good news is that the perfect paint for your needs is out there, and this buying guide will lead you to it. We test dozens of interior and exterior paints in a variety of finishes to help you find the best one for the job and your budget. 

Choose Your Color

Most people start by choosing a color. Color-matching systems have improved to the point where you can get close to the color your crave in just about any brand. But the sheen can vary by brand, and that can affect your perception of color. Choose the hue you love, then the best paint and sheen for the job.

Despite all the colors available, whites and off-whites remain the top-selling interior colors. With dozens to choose from, zeroing in on just the right white can be tricky; read "How to Pick the Right White Paint" for tips on nailing it. For exterior palettes, it's smart to take a cue from other homes in the neighborhood, as well as nature. For example, ocher and forest green play well in wooded regions, and earth tones are more suited to desert landscapes. Here are some additional pointers:

Gather Paint Chips
Look at the biggest paint chips the store offers. A store’s lighting affects your take, so step outside to get another look in natural light. Once home, place the chips on the wall, next to the trim, and look at them at different times throughout the day as the natural light changes. Do this over the course of several days, omitting colors that aren't working.

Keep in mind that on indoor projects, color tends to intensify over large areas, so it's generally better to go too light than too dark in a given shade. But the opposite is true outdoors, where what you see on a paint chip will probably look darker than what ends up on your house because natural light tends to soften color.

Factor in Finish
Flat finishes absorb light, making the paint look darker. Glossy reflects light, so it looks brighter. In between there are eggshell and satin finishes. Many interior eggshells and satins have become much better at standing up to scrubbing, so semigloss is no longer a must for indoor trim.

Try Them Out
Once you’ve narrowed your choices, buy small cans for testing. For interior projects, paint sample colors on large sheets of heavy paper so that you can move them from place to place without having to paint the walls. Live with them for at least a few days. Observe the effects of changing light on the color throughout the day, both natural light and light provided by bulbs.

For exterior projects, paint a sample board with each color you're considering. Again, observe the paint at different times of day as the natural light changes.

Pick Your Paint

You can choose the most beautiful shade, but if the paint itself is mediocre, the end result is likely to disappoint. Our tests find that economy grades of interior paint don't perform well overall, and you may need to apply three or four coats to cover dark colors. Paints scoring Very Good or Excellent in hiding cover all but the darkest colors in one coat and cover the darkest colors in two coats. Most of these paints are claimed to eliminate the need for you to prime. Economy exterior paints don't weather as well as top-of-the-line products from the same brand. 

In response to stricter federal and regional standards, manufacturers have reduced the levels of volatile organic compounds—some of the noxious chemicals that can make paint smell like paint—in their products. Earlier low-VOC paints lacked the durability of higher-VOC finishes, but now all the paints in our tests are claimed to have low or no VOCs, and many performed very well.

For more information on paint, see "5 Secrets to Great Paint Preparation," "5 Ways to Save Money on Paint," and "When to Call a Painting Contractor."

Photo of a can of "pure white" Behr interior paint.

Interior Paint

Flat paints (and textured walls) absorb light, so colors seem darker. Glossy paints and smooth surfaces reflect light, so colors look brighter. The degree of glossiness may differ from one manufacturer to another. See this article for a look at different sheens and where they work best.  

Our ratings tell you how well a paint hides what’s underneath it, how smooth the finish will be, and whether the paint resists stains, scrubbing, gloss change, sticking, mildew, and fading.

Because a brand's flat, eggshell, and semigloss formulations perform similarly overall, we've combined the scores into one to make it easier for you to choose. 

Flat: These finishes hide imperfections well but are the least stain-resistant and are better suited for low-traffic areas.

Eggshell and satin: Use only on fairly smooth, well-prepared surfaces because their shine can accentuate imperfections on the walls. These paints are tough enough to be used in family rooms, kids' rooms, and hallways. Some might change sheen when scrubbed.

Semigloss: Shinier still, these paints are formulated to stand up to stains. They're generally the easiest to clean, but some may tend to dull when scrubbed. They're ideal for kitchen and bathroom walls, windowsills, and other woodwork. Semigloss paints require a very smooth, well-prepared surface with few imperfections.

Explore Our Interior Paint Ratings
Photo of a Clark + Kensington can of "flat enamel" exterior paint.

Exterior Paint

Wild temperature swings that cause wood and other siding materials to expand and contract are also tough on paint, prompting less flexible formulas to crack and flake. Our exterior-paint test was designed with this in mind, so the paints we recommend should perform predictably well in all conditions. But always check the weather forecast before applying. Paints applied in cold weather might not dry properly, resulting in poor adhesion. Daytime temps between 50° and 90° F and little or no wind are ideal. 

We painted pine panels and placed them outside under conditions that would intensify the effects of weather. A year of our test is equal to about three years on a typical house. The best paints still looked fine after the equivalent of nine years.

Like interior paints, exterior paints come in a variety of sheens, but we've combined scores of the various exterior-paint sheens into one to make it easier for you to decide. Here are the types to consider:

Flat: This dullest of finishes is the best choice if you need to mask imperfections. Flat finishes look best on exterior walls, especially those that are older and more weather-worn. 

Eggshell and satin: These finishes have a slight gloss and can also work well on walls, especially those that are newer and smoother.

Semigloss and gloss: Most often used for trim because they highlight the details of the woodwork and are easy to clean.

Check Out Our Exterior Paint Ratings
Behr is a leading brand of interior and exterior paints and is available exclusively at Home Depot. In addition to water and oil-based interior paints, Behr offers primers, specialty finishes such as Venetian plaster, masonry waterproofers, wood-flooring coatings, and cleaners. Behr is a part of Masterchem, which also makes the Kilz brand of primers and paints.
Benjamin Moore is part of the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio of companies owned by Warren E. Buffett. Benjamin Moore has positioned itself as an aspirational paint brand, particularly since breaking through the top tier with the introduction of Aura. Benjamin Moore has a network of 4,000 independent dealers who carry the brand and has said that training and service are the key reasons it hasn't entered the home-center channel. Benjamin Moore also operates more than 1,200 Benjamin Moore paint stores across the country.
Glidden is a popular brand of paint available through Home Depot and independent hardware and paint specialty stores.
Olympic is a member of PPG's family of coatings brands. Olympic interior paints are sold exclusively through Lowe's and include paints for the ceiling, kitchen, and bath, and primers.
Sherwin-Williams is the largest producer of paints in the U.S. and includes Pratt & Lambert and Thompson Minwax among its brands. Sherwin-Williams manufactures interior paints and sells them through more than 3,000 company-owned retail stores. In addition to paints, Sherwin-Williams offers primers, faux finishes, interior wood stains, and wallpaper. Its retail stores cater to professionals and consumers, and offer a variety of paint supplies and tools.
Valspar is a leading brand of interior paint, and its most widely sold line—Signature Colors—is available exclusively at Lowe's.
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