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Can I Use Exterior Paint Inside My Bathroom?

Bathroom interior with blue walls, wooden cabinetry, a window, and an alcove tub/shower combo.

Painting a bathroom is a challenge. The moisture exposure of bathrooms makes selecting the right paint essential. It's tempting to turn to exterior paint, because it is designed to stand up to moisture. However, the VOC content of typical exterior paint means that it's not safe to use indoors.

There was once a young woman who purchased a home. She had no knowledge of paint and thought that choosing the right colors was all there was to it. This girl ended up with bathroom walls that were a beautiful pale blue and were irrevocably stained as well.

Dirty hands often went into the bathroom to be washed, leaving black prints all over those beautiful blue walls. Soon, moisture began to leave its streaks as well. Finally, the young woman realized her mistake. She had chosen the worst possible paint for the project. Flat paint is never a good idea in a bathroom or any high traffic area in my opinion. If you want your paint to look good down the road, you have to choose the correct paint for the job at hand.

Bathrooms are the most demanding room of your home in terms of paint. The paint will frequently be exposed to moisture and temperature changes, both of which can wreak havoc on paint. Worst of all, the wrong paint can allow mold or mildew to grow. Your bathroom is a high humidity area.

Every time someone takes a bath or shower, the humidity in the room goes way up. In addition, water sometimes gets splashed on the walls directly. Exterior paint is designed to stand up to moisture, so it may seem like a natural solution to your bathroom dilemma. But is it?

The Problem With Exterior Paint

Exterior paint is a must-have if you are painting the exterior of your home or outdoor furniture. You need a paint designed to withstand UV rays, rain, and temperature extremes. Since exterior paint is more durable and designed for high moisture environments, you might be wondering if it’s ok to use to paint your bathroom.

The problem with most exterior paint is their VOC content. VOC stands for volatile organic compounds. As the paint dries, and for months or years afterward, the paint goes through a process known as off-gassing. This occurs as the compounds in the paint evaporate and are released into the air.

When the paint is used outside, this isn’t a concern. The compounds are released into the open air, so they aren’t concentrated enough to cause health concerns. When it’s used indoors, there can be serious risks to your health.

VOCs are responsible for short term issues including headaches, irritation of the lungs or sinuses, and nausea in the days after painting, and long term problems like reduced liver function, kidney, and nervous system disorders, respiratory disease, and increased risk of some cancers.

Painting an enclosed area like your bathroom with a high VOC exterior paint is not wise for the health of you and your family due to VOCs. So what do you do?

High Gloss Paints

Modern bathroom vanity in red and pink colors.

High or semi gloss paint was once the only reasonable solution for bathroom walls. The gloss allows the paint to create a hard nonporous shell. It stands up to moisture well, and any stains are easily wiped away. High gloss can appear too shiny on large areas like walls, but it works well on bathroom trim.

Semi-gloss isn’t quite as shiny as high gloss and provides the same benefits and durability. It’s resistant to moisture. Satin or eggshell paints are a mid-range gloss that is perfect for most areas of your home but isn’t a great choice for bathrooms due to the moisture. When the risks of VOCs were recognized, it seemed like a glossy look was the only option for safely painting your bathroom. However, times have changed.

Bathroom Paint

In recent years, paint has become a lot like phone apps. If you are wondering if there’s one for your specific purpose, there probably is. Bathroom paint is a type of specialty paint designed for, you guessed it, bathrooms. Does it differ from regular paint, or is it simply a matter of branding to increase the price?

Bathroom paint uses special resins that create a tighter bond than most types of interior paint. This keeps moisture from getting through the paint and prevents cracking peeling, and yellowing commonly associated with moisture exposure. It’s suitable for the walls, trim, and ceiling of your bathroom. Best of all, it’s available in matte finishes. Can you imagine a high gloss ceiling?

Bathroom paint also provides mold and mildew resistance. Special chemicals are added to the paint to inhibit mold growth. High gloss paint makes it easier to clean and remove mold, but bathroom paint should help prevent mold from growing in the first place.

Hybrid Paint

Hybrid paints are designed for both interior and exterior painting. They are low VOC, so they are safe to use indoors. They are supposed to have the durability and performance of exterior paint as well. While it may not perform quite as well as strictly exterior paint, it’s a reasonable option. It should help protect against moisture and be more durable than typical interior paint.

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