Time to paint the living room, nursery or kitchen, but the available choices are confusing. Latex and enamel aren't the same thing -- except when they are. And "acrylic" muddies the issue even more. Sort out the difference between enamel and latex and discover the best paint for your walls -- and for your health.
Latex for Better Breathing
Latex paints don't actually contain any natural latex -- the "rubber" is a polyvinyl material, not the sap from rubber trees. The paints are water-based and usually contain acrylic as the binder to form the paint film. So people refer to them as "acrylics," and they are durable, flexible and almost odor-free with good adherence. Advances in paint technology resulted in water-based paints that go on smoothly, cover well, dry fast, may not require a coat of primer, don't "chalk" or fade, come in finishes from flat to high-gloss, clean up easily with soap and water, are non-flammable and can be washed with plain water once they have dried. Water-based paints have fewer to no volatile organic compounds, the potentially hazardous chemicals that release into the air and cause that strong paint smell.
Enamel, With Oil
Oil-based paints dry to a hard, glossy, durable finish. They are often referred to as "enamel" although the term can also refer to types of acrylic paints, so it gets confusing. An oil-based paint has a linseed oil, synthetic oil or alkyd resin base, which holds the pigment. You have to clean or thin oil-based paint with a solvent, such as mineral spirits. The paint has reliable "leveling" -- the brush strokes fill in smoothly as you work -- and it may mask wall surface imperfections and not require a prime coat. Enamel or oil-based paint resists chipping and marks, fades faster than water-based paint and has a definite odor that comes from its VOCs. But oil-based is not the only type of paint called enamel now, so be careful when making your choice.
All enamel has a hard, glossy and opaque finish, no matter the paint composition. The term covers both water- and oil-based paint and indicates the finish and hardness more than the base. Water-based enamel is easier to use, less toxic, comes in the full sheen spectrum from eggshell to low luster, satin, semi-gloss and high-gloss. The paint has low odor because of its lack or low level of petrochemicals and can be used for areas that traditionally were oil-base painted: trim, stair rails, kitchen and bathroom walls and other surfaces that clean up or inhibit mildew growth better with a hard, shiny finish. The best way to choose between "latex" and "enamel" paints is to evaluate the surface to be covered, determine your desired effect, consider whether no-VOC paint will do the job, read the labels in the paint store, and look for manufacturer's directions that specify coverage for unusual items -- metal, appliances, rubber, tile, existing paint finishes and some furniture.