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Distemper vs. Emulsion: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on December 28, 2023
Distemper is a water-based paint with chalk and pigment, ideal for walls and ceilings, while emulsion is a water-based paint with synthetic polymers, offering more durability and a variety of finishes.

Key Differences

Distemper is an early form of paint, primarily water-based, containing chalk and pigments, and is mainly used for walls and ceilings. Emulsion, on the other hand, is also water-based but contains synthetic polymers like acrylic, offering a more durable and washable finish.
Distemper provides a matte finish and is often chosen for its historical authenticity in restoration work. In contrast, emulsion paints are available in a range of finishes from matte to glossy, making them versatile for different aesthetic needs.
The application of distemper is relatively easy and it can be directly applied to plaster. Emulsion, however, sometimes requires a primer for better adhesion and can be used on a variety of surfaces.
Distemper is more eco-friendly due to its natural ingredients and is often preferred for its minimal environmental impact. Emulsion paints, though more resistant to moisture and wear, contain synthetic compounds and can have a higher environmental footprint.
In terms of cost, distemper is usually more affordable but less durable. Emulsion paints are more expensive but offer better longevity, making them a cost-effective choice in the long run.

Comparison Chart

Base Composition

Water-based with chalk and pigments
Water-based with synthetic polymers


Ranges from matte to glossy


Less durable
More durable and washable

Application Surface

Direct application to plaster
Often requires primer on various surfaces

Environmental Impact

Eco-friendlier due to natural ingredients
Higher due to synthetic compounds

Distemper and Emulsion Definitions


A state of agitation or disorder.
The news of the storm put everyone in a state of distemper.


A water-based paint with synthetic polymers.
We chose a high-quality emulsion for the living room walls for its durability.


A water-based paint with chalk and pigments.
The old mansion's walls were coated with distemper to maintain its historical look.


A mixture of two liquids that usually don't mix, like oil and water.
The chef prepared a delicate emulsion of oil and vinegar for the salad dressing.


A tuning of musical instruments in a non-standard way.
The pianist used distemper tuning to achieve a unique sound for the composition.


A light-sensitive coating on photographic film.
The emulsion on the film captures the image when exposed to light.


A term used historically for certain diseases.
In medieval texts, distemper referred to a variety of illnesses without specific symptoms.


A creamy mixture used in skincare products.
Her skincare routine includes a moisturizing emulsion for hydration.


A viral disease in animals, especially dogs.
The stray puppy was diagnosed with distemper and required immediate treatment.


A fine dispersion of minute droplets of one liquid in another.
In the lab, we created an emulsion of oil in water as part of the experiment.


Canine distemper.


A suspension of small globules of one liquid in a second liquid with which the first will not mix
An emulsion of oil in vinegar.


Feline panleukopenia.


A photosensitive coating, usually of silver halide grains in a thin gelatin layer, on photographic film, paper, or glass.


A stable suspension of small droplets of one liquid in another with which it is immiscible.
Mayonnaise is an emulsion where egg is used to keep oil and water mixed.


(chemistry) A colloid in which both phases are liquid.


(photography) The coating of photosensitive silver halide grains in a thin gelatine layer on a photographic film.


Any liquid preparation of a color and consistency resembling milk; as: (a) In pharmacy, an extract of seeds, or a mixture of oil and water united by a mucilaginous substance. (b) In photography, a liquid preparation of collodion holding salt of silver, used in the photographic process.


(chemistry) a colloid in which both phases are liquids;
An oil-in-water emulsion


A light-sensitive coating on paper or film; consists of fine grains of silver bromide suspended in a gelatin


How does distemper differ from other paints?

It's more breathable, less durable, and easier to apply than oil-based paints.

Can distemper be painted over?

Yes, but the surface may require preparation for best results.

Is distemper toxic?

Modern distemper paints are generally non-toxic, but older formulations may contain harmful ingredients.

What is distemper?

Distemper is a type of water-based paint used for walls and ceilings.

Where is distemper paint commonly used?

It's often used in older buildings due to its breathability.

How long does distemper paint last?

It can last several years but is less durable than other types of paint.

What is emulsion paint?

Emulsion paint is a water-based paint used for interior and exterior walls.

What is the drying time for distemper?

It typically dries within a few hours.

What are the ingredients of distemper?

It typically contains chalk, lime, water, and sometimes pigments for color.

Is distemper paint washable?

No, it's not as washable or durable as emulsion or oil-based paints.

Can distemper be used on wood?

It's not recommended for wood; it's best for plaster walls and ceilings.

Why is emulsion paint popular?

It's easy to apply, dries quickly, and has low VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).

Can emulsion paint be used in humid areas?

Yes, it's suitable for kitchens and bathrooms.

How does emulsion paint affect indoor air quality?

Being water-based, it typically has lower VOCs, making it better for indoor air quality.

What surfaces can emulsion paint be used on?

It can be used on plaster, brick, and wood surfaces.

Can emulsion paint be mixed with other types?

It's not recommended to mix with oil-based or other types of paints.

How do you clean up after using emulsion paint?

Clean brushes and tools with water, as it's water-based.

Does emulsion paint need a primer?

It depends on the surface; some may require priming for best results.

What are the key components of emulsion paint?

It contains pigments, binders (like acrylic or vinyl), and water.

Is emulsion paint durable?

Yes, it's more durable and washable than distemper.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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