Preparing and Painting Bathrooms

I’ve had the occasion in recent months to see the effect of an improper finish and inadequate preparation in a couple of bathrooms. The dual purposes of painting, beautification and protection, are crucial in bathrooms, unlike other interior areas. The moisture level in bathrooms requires use of an impenetrable finish and sealing any openings through which moisture may gain access to the painted substrates. The type of finish required depends on a couple of factors, including personal taste.

Painting a bathroom is the perfect project for the Do-It-Yourself painter. However, as with everything else, the proper preparation and understanding of procedure is essential to achieving a successful result.

Which Bathroom Paint to Use 

The current trend in new home construction is to run the builder’s flat throughout, even in the bathrooms. Flats might suffice in a large, airy master bath with a powerful ceiling fan, but it is not a smart choice for the smaller baths and powder rooms, regardless of the fan. Steam will penetrate a flat finish and splashing water will at least mar your finish over time.

The minimum recommended sheen level for any bath or powder room is eggshell or satin. In smaller baths, especially those lacking ventilation, or if you like steamy showers, switch to a full semi-gloss for the ceilings, walls, and trim. If your taste is for less sheen, consider using oil flat or eggshell. Though these finishes are getting harder to find, there is a new generation of waterborne alkyds (oil) with the characteristics of oil and the convenience of latex. How these will square with traditional application realities remains to be seen, but it is worth inquiry.

Many manufacturers offer paints specifically designed for bathrooms. The primary difference in these coatings is the addition of a mildewcide to prevent mold and mildew growth, which may be helpful if your bath is prone to them. However, a light mixture of bleach and water will wipe mildew away easily. Zinnser offers a product called Perma-White, marketed as “mold and mildew proof“. Perma-White comes in colors and three different sheens. Benjamin Moore offers Aura Bath and Spa, which I’ve used and favor highly. This finish will appeal to those who prefer low sheen as it comes in a matte finish, which BM describes as flat. However, it does have a very subtle, attractive sheen. Bath and Spa should also eliminate the need for clear coating to protect the darker colors. However, confirm this with your Ben Moore dealer.

Peeling Paint in Bathrooms 

Any peeling or flaking paint in a bathroom will most likely be moisture related, especially around the sink top, baseboards, and around the tub enclosure. Proper preparation prior to painting a bathroom is a crucial step in protecting against the ravages of moisture. Prior to starting, review the bathroom for areas of failure to determine what course is required to remedy the damage. The baseboard adjacent to the tub may need caulking, but it might also call for a splashguard to prevent water from escaping the tub environment.

Minor paint failure surrounding ceiling fixtures might indicate exposed drywall under the fixture, this will require dropping the fixtures, repairing the damage, and painting the entire exposed surface underneath. Moisture laden air travels, especially wherever a draft may take it, and any exposed substrates will absorb that moisture. The wiring opening for the light may have a draft that pulls the moisture under the fixture, the exposed surface wicks the moisture, and over time begins to cause paint failure around the fixture. Your basic goal is not to just repair the damage, but to address the cause of the damage to prevent reoccurrence.

Using Caulk to Prevent Paint Failure in Bathrooms

Pictured here, the original contractor filled the gap with joint compound and painted it, but never caulked the joint between the drywall and the shower enclosure.

Bathroom Drywall Failure

They also left exposed drywall at the pipe cutout. Visible signs of water damage began to appear. To remedy, I dug out the old deteriorated compound and repacked it to make it flush again. Then I primed it with pigmented shellac and caulked it to the enclosure. To finish it, I brought the paint out over the caulk to protect and reinforce the caulk bead. This is an area where a caulk bead is an absolute must, yet continually neglected by homeowners and contractors alike. It is good practice to caulk the gap at the sink top/wall joint to protect and achieve a cleaner edge.

Repaired Bathroom Drywall

Finished Drywall Repair 

Another common area of paint failure is at the baseboard. Scrape away any peeling paint and failed caulk, and sand the exposed wood. If the wood is moist, allow it some time to dry prior to priming. Once the wood has been primed, recaulk all the joins. It may be possible that moisture is gaining access between the shoe molding and the floor. If so, fill that gap with caulk. As usual, bring the paint out over the caulk about 1/16″. Remember, if there is a breach in your coating, moisture will find it and gain access to the substrate.

Final Tips on Painting and Maintaining Bathroom Finishes: 

  • For a better aesthetic, sand the walls and devote some time to fixing any defects on the surfaces since you will be applying a sheen, which highlights roughness and defects.
  • Some bath ceilings and walls can accumulate soap residue, which will impede bonding of the new finish. As you sand the soap residue will clog the sandpaper. If so, the surfaces will need rinsing.
  • Remove all hardware, towel racks, etc. Avoid placing a tension shower rod on freshly painted walls. Instead, position on the shower enclosure for a couple of weeks to allow the paint to cure and prevent the fusing of the rod to the wall.  
  • Use a Whizz, mini roller, on a long handle to get behind the toilet tank.
  • To get a straight cut against tile, brush on to the tile a bit and take a rag over your thumbnail and wipe the over brush to the tile edge. Follow with a wet rag after you roll to pick up any paint spatter on the bull nose tile. Dried paint can be removed with denatured alcohol and a nylon scouring pad.
  • Use a 3/8″ roller nap, the standard with sheen paints.
  • Allow 48 hours, if possible, before showering in a freshly painted bath. Allow as much time as you can, especially with dark colors. Exposing fresh paint to steam too soon is thought to increase the possibility and severity of surfactant leaching, which is a natural reaction of latex paints to moisture. Surfactants appear as brown stains or runs, which wipe off with a wet rag.
  • Since dark colors don’t harden as much as lighter ones, due to the tint quantities, it is helpful to consider applying one or two coats of a clear flat or satin polyurethane to prevent color streaking.
  • Early on, if you see evidence of water markings in the color, leave them alone. They should disappear. If they do not, you might want to clear coat.
  • If you have a ceiling fan, use it. It has been my experience that most builders do not install fans adequate for the cubic space. If your fan does not seem to be effective, check your model to determine if it is the appropriate model for your space.
  • Open a window a crack. If you have a double hung, lower the top window and leave the door open an inch or so.


Baths, especially masters, are evolving to spa-like retreats. With the proper preparation and finish, you will not only achieve the look fit for a spa, but it will maintain.


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