The Best Kind of Paint to Use on Plastic

white paint brush and roller

Plastic is everywhere, isn’t it? From the mailbox outside your home to the lawn chair you relax on during summer evenings, it’s ubiquitous. But when these items start to show their age, a fresh coat of paint can extend their life, provided you know the best kind of paint to use on plastic.

Why is Painting Plastic Challenging?

Painting plastic has unique challenges that you need to overcome to ensure a nice finish:

  • It’s Not Porous: Unlike materials like wood or metal, which are porous to varying degrees, plastic is non-porous. This means that the paint doesn’t seep in and adhere; it merely sits on the surface, making it more susceptible to flaking or chipping.
  • Flexibility: Many plastics, especially those in outdoor furniture or toys, have a degree of flexibility. This flexibility allows them to withstand the stresses of daily use without breaking. However, this flexing can cause paint to crack or peel.
  • Chemical Composition: Plastics are made up of various chemical compounds, some of which can react adversely with certain paints. This reaction can lead to bubbling, discoloration, or even a breakdown of the plastic itself.
  • Plastic Expands and Contracts: Plastics expand and contract significantly with temperature changes. If the paint applied isn’t designed to handle these changes, it can warp, bubble, or peel off.
  • UV Rays Degrade It: Plastics left outdoors are exposed to UV rays, which can degrade both the plastic and the paint over time. This can lead to fading, chalking, or a powdery residue on the surface.
  • Surface Contaminants: Over time, plastic can accumulate oils, mold, or other contaminants that can prevent paint from adhering properly.

Understanding Plastic: More Than Just a Single Material

Before diving into the paints, it’s essential to understand that not all plastics are the same. Many plastic items, especially packaging materials, come with a number inside a triangle of chasing arrows. This is known as the Resin Identification Code (RIC).

The RIC symbol is typically found on the bottom or the back of plastic items, especially on containers and packaging. For larger items, it might be imprinted somewhere less conspicuous, like the underside or the back. For smaller items or those where branding is crucial, the symbol might be omitted, but this is less common.

Here’s a breakdown of what each number signifies and their compatibility with various paints:

  • #1 PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate): PETE is one of the most commonly used plastics in consumer products. Its clarity and strength make it ideal for packaging purposes. However, its smooth surface can pose challenges when it comes to painting.
  • #2 HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene): HDPE is known for its rigidity and strength. It’s resistant to moisture and chemicals, making it a favorite for containers. Its resilience means it requires paints that can adhere well.
  • #3 PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride): PVC is versatile, found in both rigid forms like pipes and flexible forms like blinds. Its flexibility can make painting a challenge, especially if the paint itself isn’t flexible.
  • #4 LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene): LDPE is softer and more flexible than HDPE. Its flexibility makes it great for bags and wraps but poses unique challenges when painting.
  • #5 PP (Polypropylene): PP is tough yet flexible, making it popular for a range of products. Its chemical resistance, however, means standard paints might not adhere well.
  • #6 PS (Polystyrene): PS is lightweight and easy to mold, making it ubiquitous. However, it can be sensitive to solvents, affecting paint choices.
  • #7 Other (Polycarbonate, BPA, and LEXAN): This category is diverse, covering a range of plastics. Each type within this category can have unique painting requirements.

Choosing the Best Paint for Plastic

Whether it’s to rejuvenate an old item or to give a personal touch to a new one, the paint you choose plays an important role. However, not all paints adhere well to plastic, and some might even damage its surface.

So, how do you navigate this colorful maze? Let’s dive into the best types of paint for plastic to ensure your painting project is a success.

1. Acrylic Latex Paint:

colorful acrylic paint
Photo Credit: rudchenko / Canva Pro / License

Acrylic latex paint is a water-based paint known for its versatility. It combines water, acrylic resin, and pigments to offer a balance between durability and ease of use.

Best For:

Polyethylene (PE): Often used for items like lawn chairs, picnic tables, bird feeders, etc.

Acrylic paint is a top choice for PETE and can be applied to HDPE items. Before painting, thoroughly clean and consider using a plastic primer for better adhesion. For LDPE, exterior acrylic house paint or elastomeric paint are more appropriate.

Polypropylene (PP): Garden chairs, watering cans, wheelbarrows.

PP is tough yet flexible. Specialized paints for polypropylene or multi-surface acrylic paints are recommended. It’s essential to prepare the surface and consider priming for a significant difference.


  • Fast drying.
  • Environmentally friendly due to its water-based nature.
  • Easy cleanup with soap and water.


  • It might require multiple coats for full coverage.
  • Not as durable as oil-based paints.

2. Oil-Based Paints:

Oil-based paints are durable paints that provide a robust and glossy finish. They consist of pigments suspended in a mineral spirit or petroleum-based solution.

Best For:

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): PVC fencing, deck boards, trellises, etc.

Although light-colored acrylic or latex paints are preferable for PVC, oil-based paints can still be used if applied with care. Oil-based paints might not adhere well to PVC and can sometimes even dissolve or warp the plastic. If you choose to proceed with oil-based paint for PVC, a plastic-specific primer can enhance paint adhesion and protection.

Polystyrene (PS): Commonly used in plastic toys, plastic flower pots, bird feeders, some outdoor furniture, etc.

PS is sensitive to solvents, making solvent-based or oil-based paints less ideal. They can dissolve or warp polystyrene. It’s important to use a light hand and avoid heavy applications, as these can increase the chances of the paint reacting with the plastic.


  • Long-lasting and durable.
  • Provides a smooth, glossy finish.
  • Resistant to wear and tear.


  • Longer drying time compared to water-based paints.
  • Strong odor requires proper ventilation.
  • Cleanup requires mineral spirits or paint thinner.

3. Acrylic Paint Markers:

Acrylic paint markers are perfect for detailed work on plastic items. These water-based markers are filled with acrylic paint, allowing for precision.

Best For:

Polyethylene (PE): For detailed artwork on items like flower vases or decorative pieces.

Acrylic paint markers can also be used effectively on PETE and LDPE items. Given the precise nature of markers, they’re perfect for decorating or labeling items without altering their primary functionality. Ensure the surface is clean for optimal results.

Polypropylene (PP): Ideal for adding designs or labels to watering cans, garden pots, or plastic lawn furniture.

Polypropylene surfaces can be tricky to paint. Acrylic paint markers might adhere better than regular paints, especially if the PP surface is prepped with a primer or pre-sanded for better adhesion.


  • Precise application for detailed work.
  • Quick drying.
  • Wide range of vibrant colors.


  • Not suitable for large surface areas.
  • Might not be as durable as traditional paints.

4. Epoxy Paints:

epoxy resin on a flat surface
Photo Credit: Doralin Tunas / Canva Pro / License

Epoxy paints are known for their strong adhesion properties and durability. They consist of a mix of resins and hardeners.

Best For:

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Given the durability of epoxy paints, they’re suitable for PVC items that face wear and tear.

Epoxy paints bond well to PVC surfaces, providing a hard, protective finish. Ensure that the paint doesn’t contain solvents that could react adversely with the PVC. Always mix the paint according to the manufacturer’s instructions and apply it in a well-ventilated area.

Polystyrene (PS): For items that require a hard, protective finish.

While epoxy paints are durable, care should be taken when applying them to PS due to the plastic’s sensitivity to solvents. It’s important to do a patch test first and possibly seek out epoxy variants meant for plastic applications.


  • Extremely durable and resistant to chemicals.
  • Bonds well to various surfaces.
  • Provides a hard, protective finish.


  • Requires mixing before application.
  • Short pot life once mixed.
  • Can be challenging to work with.

5. Enamel Paints:

airfix enamel paint can
Photo Credit: Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Enamel paints offer a high gloss, reflective finish. They are oil-based and dry to a hard, durable surface.

Best For:

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): For items that benefit from a glossy, reflective finish.

ABS plastic can handle enamel paints quite well. Preparing the surface with light sanding and priming can help achieve a smoother finish.

Polypropylene (PP): Suitable for decorative items or those that require a shiny appearance.

While enamel can adhere to PVC, make sure that the paint doesn’t contain solvents that might damage the plastic. Using a primer designed for plastics can improve adhesion and longevity.


  • Provides a high-gloss, reflective finish.
  • Durable and long-lasting.
  • Resistant to wear and tear.


  • Takes longer to dry than acrylic paints.
  • Strong odor requires proper ventilation.
  • Cleanup can be more challenging than water-based paints.

6. Elastomeric Paint:

white elastomeric roof paint
Photo Credit: Pancaketom / Canva Pro / License

Elastomeric paint is a high-build coating made up of polymers that allow it to stretch and contract. It’s known for its exceptional thickness and flexibility, which makes it ideal for surfaces that experience a lot of movement or temperature fluctuations.

Best For:

Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Given its flexibility, elastomeric paint can be suitable for outdoor PE items that experience temperature changes.

Elastomeric paints are perfect for LDPE surfaces, especially those that are exposed to the elements. Given the paint’s ability to expand and contract, it can handle temperature fluctuations that some plastics undergo without cracking or peeling.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Excellent for outdoor PVC structures or items.

PVC can benefit from the protective and flexible features of elastomeric paints, especially when exposed to varying weather conditions. Make sure to prepare the surface appropriately with a plastic-specific primer for better adhesion.


  • Highly flexible, allowing it to bridge small gaps and cracks.
  • Waterproof and weather-resistant.
  • Durable and long-lasting.


  • Requires thorough surface preparation.
  • Can be more expensive than other paint types.
  • Not suitable for all plastic types due to its high elasticity.

7. Latex Paint:

white colored latex paint with a brush
Photo Credit: TEERASAK AINKEAW / Canva Pro / License

Latex paint is a water-based paint, but unlike acrylic latex, it doesn’t necessarily contain acrylic as the resin. It’s known for its ease of application and cleanup.

Best For:

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Given its ease of application, latex paint can be suitable for indoor PVC items.

Latex paint can be applied to PVC items, especially those kept indoors, as it might not be as durable as other options when exposed to external elements. Before application, ensure the surface is clean, and it may be helpful to apply a primer to improve adhesion.

Polystyrene (PS): Indoor items made of PS can benefit from the quick-drying properties of latex paint.

Since polystyrene is sensitive to solvents, latex paint can be a good choice as it’s water-based. Ensure a light application to avoid overwhelming the plastic, and consider priming the surface first.


  • Quick drying.
  • Easy cleanup with soap and water.
  • Low odor compared to oil-based paints.


  • Might not be as durable as oil-based or acrylic paints.
  • It can be sensitive to temperature changes.
  • Might require multiple coats for full coverage.

Preparation: The Key to a Flawless Finish

Even the best paint can fail if the surface isn’t prepared correctly. Here are some steps to ensure your plastic is ready to be painted:

1. Polyethylene (PE)

  • Clean with a degreasing agent to remove any oils.
  • Lightly sand with fine-grit sandpaper to improve adhesion.
  • Wipe down with rubbing alcohol to ensure a clean surface.

2. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

  • Wash with a mixture of mild soap and water.
  • Lightly sand to create a slightly roughened surface.
  • Finish with a wipe-down using rubbing alcohol.

3. Polypropylene (PP)

  • Use a flame treatment method to oxidize the surface, making it more receptive to paint.
  • Clean thoroughly with rubbing alcohol.

4. Polystyrene (PS)

  • Clean with mild dish soap and water.
  • Sand lightly to improve paint adhesion.
  • Wipe down with rubbing alcohol.

5. Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA) or Acrylic

  • Clean with a solution of mild detergent and water.
  • Sand with fine-grit sandpaper to create a surface for better paint adhesion.
  • Finish with a wipe-down using isopropyl alcohol.

6. Polycarbonate (PC)

  • Clean using a microfiber cloth to remove any dust or debris.
  • Use a plastic cleaner or mild detergent solution to remove oils or residues.
  • Sanding is generally not recommended for PC as it can introduce scratches. If necessary, use ultra-fine sandpaper and sand gently.

7. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

  • Clean with a mixture of warm water and mild detergent.
  • Rinse thoroughly and let dry.
  • Lightly sand if the surface is too glossy, then wipe down with rubbing alcohol.

Application Tips for a Perfect Finish

Achieving a smooth and lasting finish on plastic requires a bit of technique. Here are some expert tips to guide you:

1. Spray Paint Technique

  • Distance: Hold the spray can nozzle about 12 to 18 inches away from the plastic surface.
  • Starting Point: Begin spraying slightly to the side of the plastic, then move the can smoothly across the surface, stopping once you’ve passed the edge.
  • Overlapping Strokes: Continue spraying in this manner, ensuring that your strokes overlap. This guarantees even coverage without any missed spots.
  • Avoid Over-Spraying: Paints formulated for plastic generally adhere well. Therefore, there’s no need to overspray. Multiple thin coats are better than one thick one.
  • Safety First: When painting, especially with spray paints, always work in a well-ventilated area. Wear protective gear (masks and gloves) to protect yourself from fumes and potential skin irritations.

2. Multiple Coats

  • Thin and Even: For the best results, apply several thin and even coats. Avoid leaving patches of buildup.
  • Drying Time: While the paint might feel dry to the touch within 15 minutes, it’s advisable to wait about 30 minutes before applying the next coat. If you’re painting in a humid environment, consider waiting even longer.

3. Use a Paint Sealer

  • Clear Acrylic Sealer: If the painted plastic item will be outdoors, it’s a good idea to protect your paint job with a clear acrylic sealer. This adds an extra layer of protection against the elements.
  • Application: After allowing the final paint coat ample time to cure, apply the sealer using smooth, overlapping strokes. While one coat might suffice, there’s no harm in adding two or three for added protection.
  • Drying Time: Allow 30 minutes of drying time between each sealer coat. After the final coat, let the plastic sit for at least two hours.

FAQ About Painting Plastic

Why does the paint look different on plastic?

Paint can appear different on plastic compared to other materials due to the unique reflective properties and texture of plastic.

The way plastic interacts with light can alter the perceived color and finish of the paint. If the plastic isn’t primed or if the paint isn’t formulated for plastic, it might not spread evenly, causing variations in appearance.

How long should you let paint dry on plastic?

Drying time varies based on the type of paint and environmental conditions. However, as a general rule, it’s advisable to let the paint dry for at least 24 hours to ensure it’s fully set. Checking the manufacturer’s instructions on the paint can provide specific drying times.

How do you waterproof paint on plastic?

To waterproof paint on plastic, apply a clear acrylic sealer or varnish over the painted surface. This sealer acts as a protective layer, preventing moisture from reaching the paint and ensuring its longevity. Before applying the sealer, ensure the paint is completely dry to avoid smudging or streaking.

Does 100% acetone burn through plastic?

Yes, 100% acetone can dissolve or soften many types of plastic. Acetone is a powerful solvent that can cause certain plastics to become brittle, warp, or even melt. Common plastics like polystyrene (PS), polyethylene (PE), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can be particularly susceptible to acetone.

Perfecting the Plastic Painting Process

DIY projects often bring a sense of accomplishment, especially when you see an old plastic object transformed with different colors. By choosing the right paint, you can infuse new life into your plastic furniture and other items, making them look vibrant and fresh.

Remember, while you can achieve fantastic results on your own, sometimes a professional touch can make all the difference. If you’re unsure or want expert guidance, we can help connect you with an experienced pro near you. Whether you’re revamping a cherished piece or experimenting with a new project, the right approach can turn any plastic item into a masterpiece.

Main Image Credit: Lemonsoup14 / Canva Pro / License

Adrian Nita

Adrian Nita, a former marine navigation officer, has transitioned his precision and attention to detail into the world of painting and color. With over four years of writing experience, he brings a unique perspective, specializing in painting techniques and innovative color trends. When not exploring the latest hues and painting techniques, Adrian enjoys annoying his wife with new painting projects in their home.