Many aspects of paint performance depend more on the quality of the base than on the color. The tint base largely determines the paint's toughness and resistance to dirt and stains, while the colorant determines how much the paint will fade. But you shouldn't need a chemistry degree or a pro painter's experience to buy interior paint. Here's how to pick the right product for the job.
Buy the top of the line: Over the years, we have found that lower grades--typically dubbed good, better, or contractor grade--do not perform as well. If a top-line paint can cover all but the darkest colors in two coats, lower-quality paints might need three or four coats. That makes them a poor value. Avoid blind product loyalty. The Brand X finish you loved the last time you painted is probably not the same as what's on shelves today.
Think carefully about color: Don't rely on instinct alone. A hue that looks great in the store could turn you off once it's on your walls. Take advantage of the store's color-sampling products and computer programs. Most manufacturers sell 2-ounce sample jars of many paint colors so you can test a paint before buying a large quantity. Manufacturers also offer large color chips, which are easier to use than the conventional small swatches.
Try out samples on different walls and at various times of the day. Fluorescent light enhances blues and greens, but it makes warm reds, oranges, and yellows appear dull. Incandescent light works well with warm colors, but it might not do much for cool ones. Even natural sunlight changes from day to day, room to room, and morning to evening. Color intensifies over large areas, so it's better to go too light than too dark in a given shade.
Breathe easier: Manufacturers are reducing the amount of volatile organic compounds--the noxious chemicals that make paint smell like paint--in their products, in response to new federal standards. VOCs can cause acute symptoms, including headaches and dizziness, and some might be carcinogens. Some manufacturers make low-VOC paints that comply with the even-tougher standards set by California's regional South Coast Air Quality Management District. The earliest versions lacked the durability and sheen selection of higher-VOC finishes, but companies are now making top-quality low-VOC paint. A handful of paints claim to contain no VOCs at all, but none of the ones we tested scored well. You'll find the VOC level listed on the can.