Distinguishing acrylic paint from oil paint: What sets them apart?

Mar 04, 2024

There are many types of house paints available in the market, oil and acrylic being two of the most common. Most other paints, if not all, including enamel, emulsion, or dispersion paints, are either based on oil, water, or a combination of both. The latter is also called acrylic paint since its main diluter is water.

On the other hand, oil-based paint, as the name suggests, is made using oil and fat as the main solvents. There are many other differences in the nature and composition of the two, which we shall get familiar with in this post. 

So, without further ado, let’s get started.

Acrylic Paint vs Oil Paint

Here’s how both paint types differ from each other: 

1. Composition

The key difference between the two lies in their respective ingredients, as it is how they get their peculiar name and properties.

Acrylic paints are made using water as their main solvent with different amounts of polymer binders and colour pigment. On the other hand, oil-based paint consists of tiny particles of pigment that are mixed within a medium of oil like linseed oil, animal fat, or synthetic polymer.

Acrylic paint, made from acrylic acid, uses mineral spirits and acrylic resin for mixture and suspension, whereas oil paint is mixed and suspended in thinner, oil, a stabiliser, and a drying agent.

2. Cost

Since water is a much cheaper resource than oil, oil paints are naturally more expensive. But as costly as they are, oil-based paints tend to be more durable as well.

The reason is the long history of the development of oil paints that has been going on since the earliest of the 13th century. Since then, the amount of research and money that has gone into the production and development of oil paints has vastly surpassed the time and money that has been dedicated to water-based acrylic paints, as the latter had only been made available by the mid-20th century circa 1950s.

As such, acrylic paints are fairly new compared to their counterparts.

Regardless, the cost and relevance of these paintings have nothing to do with their historical background but rather their purpose and durability in the modern landscape.

Since oil paints are highly durable, they are perfect for outdoor areas and surfaces that are exposed to sunlight and other elements of extreme nature, including pollution. 

On the other hand, acrylic paints are extremely durable for interiors such as indoor wall painting. That’s because external forces won’t temper them. In the end, it saves you a lot of money in the long term as well as time by drying instantly.

3. Application and drying time

The two things you need to consider when choosing between the two are the type of surface you are going to use it on and the drying time you can spare.

FYI, oil evaporates more than water. As such, oil-based paints take a longer time to dry than acrylic paints.

In the case of water-based paints, the drying time is extremely fast, as it can dry up as early as 60 seconds after applying a coat. It is during this process that water evaporates from the surface, leaving a polymer fraction of an impressive 60-70%, which is how you get the colour!

The solvent also gives paint its volume and evaporates later without taking away the pigment off the wall. For any type of paint in which water is the primary solvent, the drying time would naturally be much faster.

4. Texture or finish

It’s interesting to know that both types of paints can be modified to look like one another or even give different textures and colours. This can be done by adding certain additives, at least as far as their final finishes are concerned; both have their own natural and peculiar finishes that prevail nonetheless.

Acrylic paints have a dry and matte finish that has a crispy edge to it if you seek some home interior painting ideas for your walls. Oil paints, on the other hand, carry a smooth, glossy, and shiny appearance by default.

The latter, however, is more transparent than watercolours, which are rich in definition. The good thing is that water-based paints can also be made to look as transparent as you want by adding water, gels, or other additives. 

Another major aspect of their physical properties is the heat and extreme weather conditions that they can resist. Acrylic paints are quite lightfast and do not fade away in time. Since they aren’t water-resistant, water and air moisture can still cause them some harm.

Oil-based paints, on the other hand, might go yellow over time but are completely waterproof and have a longer life span. 

5. Safety & health concerns

When it comes to measuring the health effects of these paints, it is important to understand the term VOC or Volatile Organic Compounds that are emitted by these house paints upon application. 

In essence, it is the amount and intensity of petroleum fumes that are released during the process. This can take up to several days to be considered safe for inhalation.

Although water-based paints are safe and have fewer VOCs, they can still take up to 2-3 days to become harmless to people around.

Oil-based paints, on the contrary, are quite toxic and should be avoided to come in contact with at all times. With a relatively higher VOC content, they emit a very strong odour, which can irritate your sense of smell and skin.

In short, it is the water-based acrylic paints that are safe and harmless to use.

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We are a locally owned residential and commercial painting company based in Melbourne. We offer exterior and interior painting Melbourne services to give your properties a fresh coat of paint. Our painting contractors use high-quality paint to ensure a long-lasting, flawless finish. Additionally, we can advise on colours, paint types (matte, gloss, non-allergenic) and applications for residential, commercial and even industrial spaces. We use modern tools and equipment to enhance the overall appearance of your property. 

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Final advice

Choosing between acrylic and oil paint depends on various factors, such as your budget, wall size, and aesthetic goals. Each is superior to one another in its way.

While water-based acrylic paints are easy to afford, apply, and dry, oil paints are expensive and can take a longer time to dry. As such, it gives you all the time to play around with different shades of colour while you’re at it.

Needless to say, both are durable and long-lasting should you apply them in the right place. Acrylic is for indoors, and oil paint is for bigger walls in the exteriors.


To assess the color scheme of your space, utilize our Color Visualization Tool.

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