How to Paint Your Bathroom for Lasting Appeal

The best tips from our experts, plus 5 top-rated paints from CR's tests

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Painting a room is an inexpensive way to freshen it up or give it a whole new look. You can turn a moody space into one that’s light and airy, or modernize a room with the latest color trends.

But painting a bathroom can be trickier than painting other areas in your house. Unlike larger rooms where furniture and decorative objects can be moved completely out of the way, in a bathroom there’s a lot more maneuvering you have to do as you paint around fixtures like mirrors, sinks, toilets, tubs, and showers.

Beyond that, choosing the right paint finish is a must.

“We advise a satin or semi-gloss finish,” says Consumer Reports’ paint expert, Rico de Paz. “They’re less likely to trap mold and are easier to clean than flat or eggshell finishes.” For information on all the paints we test, see CR’s paint ratings.

There’s one thing you can do to make your job easier: Skip the primer. In CR’s tests, we found that one coat of self-priming paint is plenty to get the job done.

How We Test Interior Paints

Using nontinted base paints (paint before color is added), we test how well each one covers dark colors and resists stains. The results show whether a paint hides well enough to not require a primer, and also how well it stands up to wear and tear.

MORE ON PAINTS

For the coverage test, we apply one consistent coat to a piece of cardstock that has been painted black and wait for it to dry. Then we use a device called a colorimeter to measure how well the paint covers the black paint. We do this twice per paint sample and average the results.

For stain resistance, our testers apply paint to a plastic panel. After it dries, they apply two lines of soil—coffee and a sootlike substance—and allow them to dry. They then wash the painted panels and use a colorimeter to measure the color of the paint on the rinsed areas. The closer the cleaned portions are to the original coat, the more stain-resistant the paint.

Paint Like a Pro

Play with color. Paint manufacturer websites often have tools that allow you to download a photo of your room, then select wall colors until you find a look you like. Think about your bathroom vanity, too, and whether it needs a fresh coat of paint. For a bathroom next to a bedroom, consider a color that works well with the bedroom paint color, perhaps a shade that’s lighter or darker. And if white is your go-to color, make sure you pick the right white paint.

Choose the right finish. Satin is more durable and shinier than eggshell and is ideal for a bathroom. It’s also easy to clean. Use it for the walls, ceiling, and even the trim, because many satin finishes are tougher than they once were. Semi-gloss is even tougher and a cinch to clean. It can be used on the walls, ceiling, trim, and vanity—if you don’t mind a shinier look. A satin sheen draws attention to any imperfections on the walls (semi-gloss does so even more), so be sure to prep the walls to get them as smooth as you can.

Wash the walls first. New paint needs a clean, dry surface to adhere to. Existing mildew can prevent fresh paint from properly sticking and can even bleed through the new coat. Remove mildew with a sponge dipped in a solution of one part bleach to three parts water. The room should be well-ventilated while you clean, so open a window or run an exhaust fan. Wipe down the surface with clean water and allow it to dry before painting.

Protect what you aren’t painting. With all their nooks and crannies, small bathrooms can be a challenge to paint. Apply painter’s tape to the edges of areas you don’t want painted. And use a sash brush with a tapered tip. Unlike the bristles on a flat brush, those on a sash brush are cut at a diagonal, making it easier to control.

Paint, then wait. Once you’re done applying the paint, let it dry overnight before using the shower. Otherwise, any water that splashes up or beats down on the newly painted surface can cause the paint to soften and run.

Best Interior Paints From CR's Tests

Below are five top paints from our tests, listed in alphabetical order. You’ll notice a number of these paints have Greenguard Gold certification, meaning they emit lower levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs—particularly formaldehyde—than the industry standard. VOCs are chemicals that can easily become airborne and affect your health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Low levels of VOCs—some manufacturers even claim that their paints have "zero VOCs”—are ideal for interior paint projects.

For details on the almost two dozen lines of paint we test, including those from Behr, Benjamin Moore, Kilz, PPG, Sherwin-Williams, Valspar, and more, CR members can check out our full interior paint ratings. And for more information on interior and exterior paints, see our paint buying guide.

How to Paint

Do you have painting projects planned for your home? On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports expert Rico de Paz tells host Jack Rico how to give walls the perfect coat.