Difference Between Paint and Enamel: Overview
Paint and enamel (which is actually a subcategory or type of paint) share similar compositions with the same basic agents. Other paints and enamel paints are designed to be pigmented, durable, and water-resistant.
The most distinguishing difference between “regular” paint and enamel paint is going to be the base. Enamels are oil-based, while latex or acrylic paints are water-based (no real latex is included). This means that enamel paints have an oil binder while latex and acrylic have an acrylic binder.
While enamel is technically under the general classification of paint, it has ended up in its own category because of its oil base and the resulting water resistance and hardness compared to other paints.
Enamel paint has an oil base compared to water-based acrylics and latex paints. It has a glossy, hard finish that is great for metals and smooth finishes on trims. Water-based paints are highly durable with long-lasting color and UV resistance and are great for use indoors and out.
What is Paint?
Paints are composed of a liquid, binder, and pigment.
Along with the bases, paints also differ according to their use and application. These are designed to perform differently and with certain environmental conditions.
You get paint for interior, exterior, bathroom paint, floor, texture, or priming. For a primer, you need one with the same base as the paint you are intending to paint over it. This will ensure the best results.
Your local hardware store will be able to help you identify the best paint according to the painting you are doing and the finishes and benefits you are looking for. Alternatively, the product information should define the intended use for the painting products.
Types of Paint
When you think about the common house paints, you are likely thinking of acrylic paint. There are other types, but this is the form that has come to be known as the universal paint.
Acrylic paint is water-based paint that is intended for more matte finishes and quick-drying applications. What classifies it as different is the addition of the acrylic binding agent into the paint solution. Both an acrylic polymer solution and acrylic resin are included in the mix.
Acrylic paint is a more elastic formula due to the chemical base it has. This means that the paint will flex better with temperature differences and be less prone to cracking, especially for exterior use.
It is a durable paint mix, more so than latex paints, having the bonus of being rather sturdy in the face of sun exposure and other elemental impacts, which proves to be a significant leg-up on other paint types.
Acrylic paint comes in enamel, latex, and latex-enamel variations. These paints are still only water-based as per the characteristics of acrylic paints. The classifications are intended to show the different specializations of the paint and serve to make them last longer, dry with a harder shell, improve color, prevent yellowing, and help adherence (particularly in the presence of water).
Latex paint, like acrylic, is water-based, and so is intended to be fast-drying and have a more matte-like finish.
Unlike acrylic paint, the latex version lacks a significant chemical base. This also means that latex paint can be cleaned up with soap and water and gives off fewer fumes and odors than acrylic paint.
Latex paint is a cheap option that you can order in large quantities and usually requires only a few coats to achieve the optimal pigment.
Latex paint, most notably, is great for surfaces such as drywall and wood due to its gas permeability.
In the past, latex paint had a lower quality finish and durability, but with the developing technology in latex paint, it is now a serious contender. Acrylic latex refers to the addition of acrylic resin to the latex paint mix to help with adherence.
As I mentioned, enamel paint is included in the different types of paint, but it is rather different from the above-mentioned acrylic and latex paints.
What is Enamel?
Enamel paints have an oil binder.
Being oil-based (or solvent-based), this paint has a hard finish with high shine (metal flakes or glass powders are sometimes added to achieve this). Oil-based paints generally take a longer time to dry compared to water-based paints.
Due to how the paint dries down hard, this makes it very resistant to scratching and scuffing. Barn paints were traditionally oil-based, but there are now good quality water-based barn paints available.
Oil-based paints are harder to remove and require the use of harsh chemicals, where water-based paints do not.
Because enamel paint is itself a subtype of paint, there are not many variations.
Some paints may be advertised or named enamel but are often only acrylic paints designed to be more sturdy, smoother, and have higher sheen finishes. These are still water-based paints though, so if you are after true enamel, make sure you read the label carefully.
Tables of Differences Between Paint and Enamel
The following tables are based on the differences between each option when properly primed and prepared.
Paint vs Enamel
|Paint (General, non-enamel)||Enamel|
|Dries quickly||Dries slowly|
|High durability||High durability|
|High to very high weather (including UV) and water resistance||Weather-resistant and acts as a layer of waterproofing|
|Easier to clean up (soap and water or a little paint remover)||Hard to clean up (requires heavy paint remover)|
|Flexible and resistant to peeling, cracking, and chipping||Hard and prone to cracking|
|Very little or no fumes and odor||Strong fumes and odor|
|High coverage||High coverage|
|Long-lasting color (even outside)||Discoloring occurs over time|
|More susceptible to temperature and moisture changes while drying||Unaffected by temperature and weather during drying|
Acrylic Paint vs Enamel
|Dries quickly||Dries more slowly|
|Easier to clean||Harder to clean|
|More matte finish, but the sheen stays consistent with wear||Semi- or high-gloss finish, but the sheen can fade with time|
|Highly weather-resistant (especially with the sun)||Good weather-resistant but prone to cracking|
|Best for everywhere||Best for doors, window frames, and trims|
Latex Paint vs Enamel
|Dries very quickly||Dries slowly|
|Easy to clean up||Hard to clean up|
|Very durable (primarily intended for interior use)||Very durable|
|High weather-resistance||High weather-resistance|
|Best for interior painting||Best for doors, window frames, and trims|
Is Enamel Better Than “Regular” Paint?
Enamel paint is certainly a better fit for specific applications in comparison to other paints in terms of what would give the best results. For example, for exterior doors, enamel paint is very hardy and long-lasting. But the best paint for your needs will depend on personal choice and what you intend to use it for.
Enamel paints are used on far fewer surfaces than the versatile latex and acrylic options. They are an excellent paint for using on metal surfaces as the water-based paints are more likely to result in rusting where the oil-based will not.
However, enamel paint is not as popular as it was a few decades ago. Water-based paints are less harmful due to the lower levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and are considered more environmentally friendly compared to harsher enamels.
You should never handle enamel paints without proper protective gear and good ventilation. VOCs impact the respiratory system and nervous system, as well irritating the eyes and skin. Significant damage to the central nervous system and organs can also be caused by extended exposure.