9th Dec 2022 -

Occupying an increasingly large share of the consumer and trade paint markets, innovations in design now mean that water-based paints can be used for a huge range of purposes, and are sold in sheens from matt to gloss. In this guide from Building Materials Nationwide, we’ll explore the water-based paints sold in the UK, and compare them to oil-based paints, which are traditionally the preferred option for professionals.

Types of Water-Based Paint

Paints are produced from pigments and binders within a solvent, water in this case. Additives will also be added to the mix to give specific benefits, such as quick drying or mould resistance. When looking to buy water-based paints you will typically be choosing emulsion options in the UK.


Emulsion paints surround their pigments with polymer particles, which are then suspended in water. This allows them to form a solid layer of colour once dried. A huge range of interior and exterior emulsion paints will be available, including those designed with specific surfaces or benefits in mind. Emulsion paints are referred to as “Latex” paints in America.

Is Acrylic Paint Water-Based?

Within the UK, acrylic paints will typically be used as a term for craft or art paints. These will be produced in a similar method to emulsion paints but will offer increased toughness. Acrylic undercoats are also sold in the UK.

Primer Paint

Water-based primer paints are also available, which can be used around a building but are especially useful on tricky or uneven surfaces. Primers adhere to a surface, creating a clean, consistent surface to which paint can then be applied. Water-based primers can be an excellent choice for indoor usage, as they will not release any volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during drying.

Water-Based Paint for Wood

Water-based emulsions are available for wood and are designed to offer a durable and washable finish for high-impact areas. They will likely need to be used alongside a primer to ensure that they strongly bond to the wood and to avoid paint being absorbed. There are also options for exterior wood surfaces that will need to deal with rain, wind, direct sunlight, and temperature fluctuations.

Water-Based Paint for Metal

Brands like Ronseal and Hammerite produce water-based metal paints for use indoors and outdoors. When painting metal it’s crucial to either use an undercoat of primer beneath a water-based product, or a self-priming option, as direct contact with water can cause metal elements to rust. 

What Sheens Are Water-Based Paint Available In?

The sheen of paint describes the level of reflectivity on a finished surface, ranging from non-reflective (matt) to near fully reflective (gloss or high gloss). Traditionally, even when a water-based emulsion matt was used on the walls of a house, an oil-based gloss would be used for the wooden elements like furniture and skirting. Today, thanks to advances in water-based paints, high-quality gloss emulsion options will be available. 

In general, a matt will be used for standard walls and ceilings within a house, while glossier finishes can be used for standout elements. Options that sit between the two, such as eggshell and satinwood, can be good choices in bathrooms or kitchens as they tend to offer better durability.

Water-Based Paint Vs Oil-Based Paint

While oil-based paints were traditionally the choice of professionals, major advances in development have levelled the playing field. However, there are still a few advantages to oil-based paint that are worth noting when choosing the best product for you. When looking for oil-based paint, bear in mind that in certain countries the term solvent-based paint will be used instead of oil-based.

Water-Based Paint Advantages

  • Full Range of Paints: In the modern decorating world, almost every possibility can be covered by water-based paint. You’ll be able to paint the inside and outside walls of a property, and all wood and metal elements. There are water-based paints built around durability, water resistance, oil resistance, easy cleaning, and more. In the customer-facing space, a move towards being fully water-based seems likely, with producers like Dulux committing to switching to water-based whenever possible.
  • Quick Drying and Repainting Time: Water-based paints will offer quicker drying times than oil-based, allowing for multiple coats to be applied within a day. If you are a professional, this can be a huge benefit.
  • Cleanup: Water-based paints can be simply cleaned with soap and water, while oil-based options will require white spirits. 
  • Crack and Yellowing Resistance: Oil-based paints can have a yellowing effect over time, damaging their look. They are also inflexible which can cause cracking. Water-based paints will have neither of these issues.
  • Colour Performance: Water-based paints boast generally superior colour retention over time, resisting fading. With advances in durability, this means that emulsion paint can offer a consistent look for many years.
  • Fewer or No VOCs: Volatile Organic Compounds are found within oil-based paints at far higher levels than water-based. These can emit dangerous gases during painting, and while there are limits in place within modern paints, this can make emulsion a better choice for internal elements. When oil-based paints are used internally the room should be properly ventilated.

Oil-Based Paint Advantages

  • Slightly Better Durability: Traditionally oil-based paints offered far better performance, making them the favourite of professional decorators. Today, these advantages are less pronounced but still exist, with many sticking with oil paints due to their performance. Water-based trade paints, or those that prioritise durability, will be very hard-wearing.
  • Finishing: Many find that oil-based paints are easier to apply for a clean and attractive finish, with brush marks sometimes showing through emulsion options.

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