Paint and paint finishes have come a long way in the past 20-30 years. When I was a kid, the walls were always "off white", latex semi gloss and ceilings were always flat white. (Or at least it seemed.) Nowadays there are a variety of finishes available. Below is a brief overview of each:
High-gloss enamel paints
- Durable, shiny finish
- Not used on walls, but can be used for trim and accents, especially in high-traffic areas
- Sometimes used to finish furniture
- Reflects the most light of any paint finish
- Easily washable
- Not quite as shiny and durable as gloss
- Great for trim
- Easily washable
- Moisture resistant
- Often used in kitchens and baths
Satin finish paints
- The 'glossiest' finish widely used (outside the kitchen and bath)
- Moderate sheen, smooth, velvety finish
- Washes well
- Does not hide imperfections as well as eggshell or flat/matte finishes
Eggshell finish on the walls, and semi-gloss on the baseboard
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Eggshell finish paints
- Very slight sheen
- Washes better than flat paints
- Hide imperfections almost as well as flat paints
Flat (or matte) finish paints
- No gloss or sheen
- Ideal for ceilings, low traffic areas, and closets
- Hides imperfections better than any other finish
- Reflects very little light
- Difficult to wash Choosing a paint finish
Semi-gloss, flat, or somewhere in between?
The less gloss you have on your walls/ceiling the more you'll hide any imperfections. Also, if you have a dedicated home theater, or a multi-purpose media area, the less sheen the better- especially if you're using a front projector.
Light reflecting off the walls will adversely affect the projected image. The more sheen you have on your walls, the more light they'll reflect, and the easier they'll be to wash. If you have kids, having walls that wash well can be a definite benefit! In a basement with little or no natural light, a satin finish may help brighten the room.
As mentioned in How to pick a paint color, it's a good idea to buy a small amount of paint in a couple of different finishes if you're not sure. Prime and paint a scrap of drywall, or buy a few white poster boards to try the different finishes to see which you like best!
For more information, see these books on interior design!