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Can You Use Exterior Paint on Kitchen Cabinets?

A woman painting the kitchen cabinets with brown paint.

Exterior paints can technically be used to paint kitchen cabinetry, and they will provide very good resistance to moisture. However, because of their chemical makeup, using exterior paints can expose a person to very risky fumes and off-gassing that can cause health problems. If used, proper ventilation is a must.

Lots of folks who have lived in their house for any length of time or regularly work on paint projects will have extra cans of paint stored in the garage or similar. And that can trigger the idea of using the available paint as a quick, low-cost solution for painting interior cabinetry needing a serious makeover.

After all, kitchen cabinets get a lot of use, they get exposed to moisture and they realize a lot of traffic over the years. So, wouldn’t an exterior paint be better as it can handle more wear and tear than interior paint? The idea often seems like a win-win solution.

The Benefits of an Exterior Paint in General

Exterior paints are chemically prepared for handling the elements and resisting wear and tear. Originally, exterior paints were oil-based, which was highly resistant to water and moisture. However, due to more recent laws and rules on products poisoning the environment, these products were phased out and replaced with acrylic-based exterior paints instead.

The evolved paint version still works and is far more durable, even with moisture. It also has a strong binding resin formula that allows it to withstand exposure abuse will absorbing into its surface far better to avoid peeling.

As a paint, however, exterior products can be used just about anywhere to produce a colored, surface layer. In fact, because of the way that exterior paint is produced, it has a stronger ability to bond with the target surface and absorb with related materials than interior paint does (which often needs a primer first to increase absorption).

The Risks Involved with Painting Cabinetry

A man surveying the kitchen cabinets he just painted.

The big issue when using exterior paints will be fumes and off-gassing. Because of the very chemical additives that make exterior paint stronger and tougher, it is also riskier to use, especially in an enclosed room or area. The paint fumes technically referred to as volatile organic compounds or VOCs, can cause serious health damage and illness if a person is exposed too long to them.

Even with paint respirator masks, the risk increases over time with long exposure. This becomes exponential if the paint is being applied with a sprayer, which aerosolizes the paint and chemicals (i.e. it turns it into a breathable mist). Common immediate symptoms include nausea, headaches, and dizziness. Long-term issues from heavy exposure can include cancer and brain damage.

Preparation and Pre-Paint Work

If you are going to apply exterior paint to cabinetry, some prep work is definitely advised. First, remove the cabinet units as much as possible and clean them off. This may require some sanding, but all the prep work and staging should be done ideally in an outside area with plenty of airflows. If the cabinets cannot be removed from their location, plan on placing and using airflow fans. You will need at least two: one to bring in fresh area to the area, and one to pull out the old air and vent it outside. Simply opening windows during work will not be enough.

Getting Started Painting

A close look at a kitchen cabinet being painted with the used of a brush.

The better way to paint with exterior paints will be the brush method. This is far safer than using a sprayer, especially in the case of fume inhalation. You may find that the paint itself could be a bit hard to find as well; cabinetry should be gloss or semi-gloss, but most exterior paints tend to be matte. Matte-painted cabinets won’t look good and will retain stains and marks more frequently. That said, it’s cosmetic, so functionally a matte paint could be applied.

An Alternative Approach

There is an interior paint for just about any color that one has in exterior paint, so the need to use an exterior version is more often than not based on trying to save money and use up existing paint supplies. Instead of going through the additional work, safety risk, and hassle, folks working on a tight budget should consider looking in the discount paint section.

These consist of excess, mistaken returns and discontinued paints, most being interior type, that is marked down considerably in cost just to move them out of the store. Big box hardware stores are likely to have more of these simply due to the volume they tend to move versus small stores. Checking the discount section a few times can easily save a lot of money and find some good working interior paints if one is not stuck on a certain color only.

Again, using exterior paint for kitchen cabinets isn’t the best approach for the above reasons and the risk. With so many interior paint options available, there isn’t much gain to trying to save a few pennies with leftover exterior paint that might be sitting around. Your health costs a lot more and is far more valuable in the long run, so protect it and use the right paint for inside work on cabinetry.

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