Q&A / 

Washable Flat Wall Paints

DEAR TIM: I really like flat wall paint. I also like to wash my walls on a regular basis. That's my problem. In the past, flat paints have been tough, if not impossible, for me to clean. I know glossy paints clean well. Why can't you clean ordinary flat wall paint? My husband has suggested professional help for my compulsive behavior. What do you think? E.R.

DEAR E. R.: Good news! Technology advancements in the paint industry have produced new, washable, flat wall paints. A trip to the paint store is all the therapy you will require.

Thousands of people, including myself, have had problems cleaning flat wall paint. Many older flat paints would readily stain. Worse yet, if you were successful in removing a stain, the area you cleaned often had a glossy appearance. Sometimes the paint would end up on your sponge or wash rag. Many of those problems are gone forever.

To make flat wall paints washable, the paint companies had to overcome some hurdles. If you look at conventional flat wall paint under a microscope, it would look something like the Rocky Mountains. The rough texture does an excellent job of scattering light rays. This gives the paint its flat sheen. However, the valleys between the mountains provide great places for dirt to hide.

Paints have three primary ingredients: pigments (color), resins (adhesion), and vehicle (water or paint thinner). Pigments give paint its color. Resins coat the pigments and are the glue that allows paint to stick to things. Vehicle is there just for the ride. Without it, you couldn't apply the paint. Once paint is applied, the vehicle evaporates into the air.


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Resins are the most expensive component of most paints. Some washable flat wall paints use vinyl resins. Some use acrylic resins. Others use a blend of vinyl and acrylic. Acrylic resin is often twice as expensive than vinyl. Acrylic resin is so durable, that it is the resin of choice in most exterior paints. Resins are also shiny. That's a problem.

The shape of pigment particles is critical in flat washable wall paints. The shape of older pigment particles resembled balls or rocks. Newer pigment particles are sometimes shaped like snow flakes. They are more two dimensional than three dimensional.

The challenge in creating a washable flat wall paint is to use these newer pigments and coat them with enough high quality resin to make them washable. If too much resin is added, the valleys between the pigment particles will fill up. If this happens, you end up with a smooth, shiny surface.

Shopping for a quality washable flat paint is not too difficult. In years past, the resin content of a paint was often printed on the paint can label. This is no longer done by most paint companies. As such, use price as a guideline. The most expensive paints often contain the highest quality resins. This is the ingredient that gives you washability. Furthermore, a paint company that includes lots of high quality resin in their paint simply has to pass that cost on to you.

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