Satin vs Semi-Gloss Finishes

If you buy something through a link in our posts, we may get a small share of the sale.

One of the qualities used to describe a finish is reflectivity – how much light the finish reflects and how much it absorbs. Finishes that do not reflect light are called flat or matte. At the other end of the scale are highly reflective finishes that do not absorb much light at all, often called glossy or high-gloss. 

In between these two extremes are satin and semi-gloss finishes. Learn about their similarities and differences and use this guide to choose which is best for your next project. 

What is a Satin Finish?

A satin finish dries to a light sheen. It’s not glossy or shiny, nor does it completely absorb light. When you shine a light on a satin finish, about 26-40% of the light will be reflected. Only matte and eggshell finishes reflect less light than satin. (<10% and 10-15%, respectively)

As a less-reflective finish, satin products help disguise some unevenness in the material they are applied to. The light sheen makes them slightly more resistant to damage and easier to clean than a matte finish.

Wall with satin finish being fixed by fillers

Satin is usually a painter’s default choice for interior walls that won’t see a significant amount of moisture or abuse. 

What is a Semi-Gloss Finish?

In gloss testing, a semi-gloss finish reflects 41-69% of light sent it’s way. The only shinier finish is called ‘full gloss’ or ‘high-gloss’, which reflects 70-90% of light. 

Christmas Scroll Saw Template Packs for Sale

Semi-gloss finishes are shiny and reflective. When applied to an uneven surface, these qualities will make each lump, bump, pit or pockmark stand out. However, a semi-gloss finish isn’t usually reflective enough to show every fingerprint and smudge. 

The shiny finish is often used to call attention to architectural details in the home. It’s also popularly used in kitchens and bathrooms due to its durability and ease of cleaning. 

Satin vs Semi-Gloss

There are no universally applicable rules for what can be labeled satin vs what can be called semi-gloss. These finishes are so similar that they can be difficult to tell apart. However, they perform differently under different circumstances, and these distinctions are important to take note of as well. 

Similarities

The similarities between satin and semi-gloss finishes include their wide availability, adjustability, and effect on VOC emission. 

Availability 

Satin and semi-gloss are labels applied to a variety of finishes. Acrylic, oil, and latex based paints all come in satin and semi-gloss varieties, with eggshell as an additional option. Possible finishes for varnish, lacquer, and polyurethane exclude eggshell, but include matte, satin, semi-gloss, and high or full gloss.

Adjustability

Once the finish has been applied, it can often be adjusted or altered. Chemical deglossers and abrasive means such as sanding or buffing can be used to alter the gloss level of most finishes. The exception is paint, which does not respond to any kind of sanding or buffing. However, a glossier or less glossy topcoat can be applied to change the reflectivity of a painted surface.  

Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane cans

VOC-Emission

The gloss level of a finish has no effect on the amount of VOCs it emits. Many paints and some polyurethanes are available in low or no-VOC emission formulations. 

Differences

Although these two finishes that can be difficult to tell apart, satin and semi-gloss also have several important distinctions. These include the relative durability and cleanability of satin and semi-gloss finishes, as well as the way they display color. 

Christmas Scroll Saw Template Packs for Sale

Durability

A general rule of thumb is that the glossier a finish is, the more durable it will be. Since semi-gloss finishes are glossier than satin finishes, they are also more durable. 

Cleanability

Semi-gloss finishes have a rough surface that is not the easiest to wipe clean. The slicker surface of semi-gloss finishes both discourages dust from sticking, and also makes rags and sponges slide more easily along the surface.

Color

The amount of light reflected off a surface affects the way the color is displayed. The same color paint may appear lighter or darker depending on the finish. Before you decide between a satin and semi-gloss finish, take the time to do some test swatches and determine which finish best displays the color you were hoping to achieve. 

Major Differentiating Factor

The most significant difference between satin and semi-gloss finishes is the amount of light they reflect. Semi-gloss finishes reflect more light, appearing shiny. Satin finishes reflect less light, giving off a gentle sheen. 

Man brushing semi glossy finish

When to Use Satin

Use Satin for Imperfect Surfaces that Don’t See a Lot of Use and Abuse 

The low-reflectiveness of satin finishes makes them ideal for when you can’t (or don’t want to) prepare a perfectly smooth surface. While satin finishes are easier to wipe clean than matte or eggshell varieties, they don’t have a slick surface. For this reason, avoid using satin in the kitchen or bathroom, where walls need to be regularly wiped down. 

When to Use Semi-Gloss

Use Semi-Gloss for Surfaces you Don’t Mind Calling Attention to, or That are Frequently Wiped Clean

Semi-gloss is a popular choice for window and baseboard trim, or anywhere there is a bit of architectural interest. If your home has a feature you’d rather not highlight, skip semi-gloss and go with a flatter finish. 

Where durability is the determining factor, choose a semi-gloss finish over satin. Kitchen walls, mudrooms, and children’s play areas are all good candidates for semi-gloss paint. The slicker surface of semi-gloss discourages dust, won’t show every fingerprint, and is easy to wipe. 

Which Is Better, Satin or Semi-Gloss?

Satin finishes are better than semi-gloss for most interior walls, or any surface that is uneven or imperfect. The low reflectiveness of this finish helps hide any lumps or bumps on the surface it covers. It will also show less dirt. 

Christmas Scroll Saw Template Packs for Sale

Semi-gloss finishes are better at creating wipeable surfaces, such as worktops or kitchen and bathroom walls. They help surfaces resist more damage from scuffs and scrapes than satin paints. The flip side of this equation is that they are more prone to showing fingerprints and other smudges, though this isn’t a big concern since they can be easily wiped clean.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.