Four Questions to Ask Yourself Before Painting Your Bathroom

Prepare for moisture, mold, and mildew with the right paints and supplies.

Photo: Eric Piasecki

Painting your bathroom may feel like a small job—it's likely one of your home's smallest rooms—but without the proper groundwork, you could turn it into a much bigger process. Before you dip your brush, ask yourself these four critical questions, say experts Jessica Barr of Behr and Rick Watson of Sherwin-Williams.

Did I prepare the walls properly?

As with any other painting project, preparing your surface before you begin is a critical step toward a beautiful, long-lasting result. Start by looking for surfactant leaching, says Watson, "a tan, brown, or clear streak or stain that sometimes can be glossy, soapy, oily, or even sticky," which is especially common in high-moisture areas like bathrooms. "Surfactants are soap-like ingredients that help in the dispersion of the paint's pigment and latex binders, and surfactant leaching is when a concentration of these ingredients are noticed on the surface of a latex paint film in moist areas," he says. "You should be sure to remove existing surfactants before repainting, otherwise they could leach through the next coat. Wash your walls using a gentle cleaner and degreaser—dish soap works great. Gently wipe with a rag and make sure to thoroughly rinse the surface and not leave any soap residue."

Next, repair any damage to your walls, and use scuff sanding or deglossing wipes to take the shine off your current paint job. "This will cut common bathroom oils from your walls like hair product or aerosol spray, or any other soap or make-up related residue and get your project started with a clean slate," says Barr. "However, it is critical that any sign of mold or mildew is effectively removed from the surface and that water damage is appropriately remediated."

Did I choose the correct type of paint?

Many paint companies offer product lines designed for high-moisture areas, which have upgraded mold- and mildew-resistant properties with an easily wipeable finish—but you can also opt for a more basic paint with antimicrobial ingredients. "If using a non-bath specific paint, sheen is going to be really important," says Barr. "Traditionally, it is easier to clean a wall with a satin finish as opposed to a flat or matte finish." Not all bathrooms require a primer, says Watson: "Instances where you may want to use a primer are when you need to fill porous surfaces, like concrete block, promote adhesion, or block stains." If you do opt for a primer—to cover the previous owner's deep ruby color with your own spa-inspired aqua, for example—look for a stain-blocking product developed for wet rooms. "Not all primers are appropriate for the moisture and humidity of a bathroom, kitchen, or laundry room," says Barr. "These areas can be a breeding ground for mildew, if the proper products aren't used."

How long should I let the paint dry?

The most difficult part of painting a bathroom comes after the walls are covered: There's a longer-than-typical dry time, but it's important to sit tight before exposing your new paint job to the moisture and humidity of showers and baths. "Typically, standard latex paints require seven to 14 days of drying time before you would put the bathroom back into service," says Watson (though some high-end paints dry in just a few hours). "Not waiting for paint to fully dry in a bathroom can lead to surfactants leaching out, water spots, and, in some cases, water penetrating the paint and causing it to run down the wall." How long you need to let the paint set also depends on your room. "A space with poor ventilation or a humid area—like Florida in the summer in a home without air conditioning—will increase the dry time and the amount of time before a shower should be used," says Barr.

How can I make my paint job last longer?

If your bathroom isn't properly ventilated, consider adding a fan to improve your paint's drying time and lasting potential. "Ventilation is key for wear and tear in the bathroom as a whole, including the paint," says Barr. "A good fan near your shower, the source of humidity, that is used during and after the shower to clear steam will help preserve your bathroom over time." Sealing your shower area with a properly-sized curtain or glass enclosure also keeps excess moisture from collecting on your pretty, newly-painted walls. And Barr offers one more expert bathroom painting tip: "Try to get behind the toilet. If you are painting during a renovation where plumbing fixtures are being replaced, paint behind the toilet after the old one has been removed and before the new one goes in. Painting behind a toilet tank can be very challenging."

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