How Gloss and Sheen Differ, and Why it Matters


By Rick Watson, Sherwin-Williams


What’s the difference between paint gloss and sheen? While both features strongly impact color and finish selection, it can be complicated to differentiate between the two. Brush up on the details in order to select the right paint for the job.

Across the painting industry, gloss and sheen are measured by reflecting light off of specific angles. Gloss is measured at a 60-degree angle — meaning a beam of light is deflected from 60 degrees off a surface and back into a receptor. The receptor provides the number of gloss units, from 0 to 100. The closer the gloss units are to 100 units, the shinier — and glossier — the paint. 

Because gloss finishes have the highest reflective characteristics, lighting of the space should be the biggest consideration when choosing gloss levels. Also to consider: 1) the amount of natural light from the window and/or door position, 2) the level of traffic, 3) performance expectations and 4) aesthetic preference.

Sheen, on the other hand, is measured at an 85-degree angle. Sheen and gloss aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s important to know that some paints have a gloss value, some have a sheen value, and some have both. They also work together. For example, the differences of sheen on a surface are most noticeable in low-gloss paints. Knowing these values can increase confidence that the right product has been selected for the project. 

Below are tips for specifying a product’s gloss and sheen to ensure the end result meets client expectations. 

Using a low gloss/sheen:

  • Low gloss and sheen will help to hide flaws — especially in interiors. This is ideal to specify for walls with imperfections, such as hotel hallways that have heavy traffic.
  • Consider low-gloss coatings when a space has plenty of natural light — such as a retail shop. Gloss and light have a close relationship, and using high-gloss paint in an area exposed to significant natural or artificial light could cause a mirror-like effect and lead to excessive glare. This could highlight imperfections in the drywall and finished paint job.
  • Certain ceilings and halls in schools or government buildings don’t need much attention and therefore work well with a flator very low gloss or sheen finish. 
  • Low-gloss paints have continued to remain popular due to recent advancements in technologies that allow flat finishes to be washable, making these coatings both design-forward and durable.  

Using higher gloss/sheen:

  • If an area has significant traffic and needs to be cleaned often, higher-gloss/sheen paints are a good option. These products traditionally provide the toughest and most stain-resistant finishes, which is why they are common in high-traffic areas, such as restaurants and office lobbies.
  • Contrasting paint finishes in a space can create the illusion of depth. To achieve a 3-D aesthetic, consider specifying a high-gloss coating on the trim in an area that has otherwise been painted with a low-lustre or flat-finish coating — such as a small office space.
  • Consider gloss finishes as a tool to help accentuate architectural features.
  • High-gloss finishes are increasingly popular with customers looking to accentuate details in places like hotel lobbies, restaurants and high-rises. 

Note that, while products with higher gloss and/or sheen are generally easier to clean, paints with advanced coating technology provide exceptional washability at all sheen levels. Additionally, while the industry agrees about how to measure gloss and sheen, descriptions for finishes and gloss levels can vary significantly among different manufacturers. Always start by selecting the right product for the job, and then determine the appropriate sheen or gloss level.

From the sponsor: Sherwin-Williams offers products for any project application or performance expectation beyond broad formulations.

*Claims or positions expressed by sponsoring authors do not necessarily reflect the views of TPC, Durability + Design or its editors.

Rick Watson, Sherwin-Williams

Rick Watson, director of Product Information and Technical Services, has been with Sherwin-Williams for 31 years. He began his career in the Management Training Program before progressing through a number of roles of greater responsibility, including professional coating sales rep, store manager, product information team leader and product information manager.