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Porcelain vs. ceramic tile

Compare tile options for your next renovation project

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by Jessica Render ConsumerAffairs Research Team
installing ceramic tile

Whether you’re building your dream home or renovating, flooring is an important part of your home’s aesthetic. With the right material and pattern, your floors can help accentuate the style of your home.

Two popular flooring options for homeowners are porcelain tiles and ceramic tiles. While these are similar materials, each has its own qualities and benefits to consider.

Differences between porcelain and ceramic tile

Porcelain and ceramic tiles are remarkably alike. They often are used for the same kinds of projects because they have a similar look and are installed in the same way. Though many use the terms interchangeably, porcelain and ceramic tile do in fact have distinguishing characteristics that differentiate them. For instance, qualities like water absorption and durability vary between the two, and while both are made from clay, the types of clay used can lead to a difference in the colors — and ultimately the value — of your tile.

PorcelainCeramic
Average Cost$3 to $10 per square foot$2 to $7 per square foot
LifespanLifetime, if properly maintainedLifetime, if properly maintained
MaintenanceRegular basic cleaning; occasional resealing of grout linesRegular basic cleaning; occasional resealing of grout lines; unglazed pieces require sealing the entire tile
DurabilityHarder; more water-resistant; less likely to show chips because of solid color throughoutMore porous means less water-resistant, leading to more staining; more likely to show chips; more likely to crack under the right circumstances
InstallationMore brittle; requires a more experienced tile setterMuch easier for DIY projects
Best forAnywhere; especially rooms with waterAreas that don’t have frequent water exposure

Porcelain tile

With its reputation for strength and durability and its huge range of color and design options, porcelain tile takes the features of ceramic a step further. It’s known to be harder and more water-resistant than ceramic.

The strength of porcelain tile comes from the clay it’s made with. The clay has finer particles and is fired at a higher temperature, creating a less porous, harder surface.

While porcelain tiles are especially popular in rooms with a higher risk of water touching the floor, like the bathroom or kitchen, it’s also a great option for high-traffic areas in general. If you have radiant in-floor heat, porcelain is an especially good way to go.

Pros

  • Greater durability
  • Color through entire tile
  • More water-resistant

Cons

  • More expensive
  • Brittle
  • More difficult installation

When you’re considering porcelain tiles, there are two main types to be aware of: through-bodied porcelain tile and glazed porcelain tile.

Through-bodied porcelain tile

The main thing that distinguishes a through-bodied porcelain tile from a glazed porcelain tile is the presence of color and texture. In through-bodied tiles, the color and texture run completely through the tile, creating a safety net against chips and scratches. Through-bodied porcelain is also known as unglazed porcelain tile, which means there are no layers that can wear off.

Through-bodied porcelain tiles are a good option for anything you want to tile. Whether you’re tiling the floor, a backsplash or a countertop, through-bodied porcelain tiles are a solid choice for durability and have the protection of embedded coloring.

Glazed porcelain tile

While through-bodied porcelain tiles hold color and texture throughout the entire piece, glazed porcelain tiles are covered with a hard finish called a “wear layer.” This glaze is most often colored.

The benefits of glazed porcelain tiles come down to two factors: strength and versatility. As a denser option, these glazed tiles tend to be stronger. And since the color or pattern is applied in a glaze, they offer a much wider range of options for color and design.

Durability

In terms of durability, porcelain tile will often beat ceramic tile. The process by which porcelain tile is made contributes to this difference, though this process can also make individual tiles a bit more brittle than traditional ceramic tiles. This is an important factor when you’re deciding between professional or DIY installation.

The strength of porcelain makes it an excellent option for areas with heavy foot traffic, and its resistance to water makes it a perfect fit for mudrooms, bathrooms, entryways and kitchens.These tiles have proven to be strong even against chemical and fire damage.

Still, porcelain tiles can be scratched by abrasive tools, like steel wool or scouring pads. If you’re an aggressive cleaner, you may want to opt for a more traditional glazed ceramic tile.

Color and style

One of the distinguishing features of porcelain tiles is the versatility of their design, particularly in terms of texture. More so than ceramic tiles, porcelain tiles can be made to look like a variety of other materials, including:

  • Marble
  • Granite
  • Wood
  • Steel
  • Bamboo
  • Cork

In mimicking other building materials, porcelain tile offers homeowners the chance to avoid sacrificing style over durability. You can achieve the aesthetic you want as well as flooring that withstands the test of time.

Porcelain tiles are also made in an array of colors and patterns. If you are particular about creating your own geometric pattern, porcelain tiles — just like ceramic tiles — can be cut into different shapes, giving you the chance to make a design completely customized to your tastes.

Cleaning and maintenance

When you’re choosing between flooring options, it’s important to consider what the daily upkeep and long-term maintenance will be like. If a flooring option is hard to maintain, chances are you’ll end up regretting it.

This is where porcelain really shines. It’s a low-maintenance, easy-to-clean option. Simple daily tasks like sweeping and vacuuming will be the bulk of your maintenance work, along with the occasional mopping or wiping with a damp rag.

However, abrasives can damage your porcelain tiles. Things like scouring pads and steel wool will leave scratches. Instead, choose a softer cloth when you’re cleaning your porcelain tiles.

While porcelain tiles are known for their durability, there may come a time when you find a chip or a scratch in one of yours. A good practice is to save a couple of boxes of the tile from your original installation. Then, if you need to replace one, you’ll have a perfect match.

Additionally, though porcelain tile is stain-resistant and harder to damage, the grout between the tiles will likely need to be redone at some point. Over time the grout will stain, no matter how many times you bring out the mop and cleaner.

Installation

The installation of porcelain tile is best left to the professionals. While it can be done as a DIY project, it requires a fair amount of time and will likely test your patience. It’s also important to know what type of adhesive to use. The low porosity of porcelain tiles also means a traditional ceramic tile adhesive will not work.

Another important aspect of porcelain tile installation is the underlayment. You’ll need to have a smooth, sturdy, flat surface to install your porcelain tiles. This could be a concrete slab, a cement-based backer board, an underlayment-grade plywood or an existing tile.

Cost

Most porcelain tiles range from $3 to $10 per square foot. From there, you’ll need to factor in the installation cost — you might expect to pay $10 to $25 per square foot for installation.

If you’re concerned about the cost of porcelain tile flooring, consider how long it will last. If you can afford it, it should last for decades with low maintenance. The initial investment is likely to pay off in the end.

Ceramic tile

Ceramic is one of the most versatile, low-maintenance and cost-effective flooring options. A great choice for walls and flooring, ceramic tiles are typically coated with a glaze. Glazed ceramic tile creates options for colors and patterns that are virtually limitless. They also work well for both residential buildings and commercial locations and can be used for walls.

These highly durable tiles are solid and won’t hold dirt, making them perfect for high-traffic areas. Chances are you’ve seen this tile flooring in Southwestern- or Mediterranean-style homes, although they’re increasingly used in other styles of homes due to their versatility.

Pros

  • Greater durability
  • Color through entire tile
  • More water-resistant

Cons

  • More expensive
  • Brittle
  • More difficult installation

Durability

Only slightly less durable than porcelain tiles, ceramic tiles are meant to last. Ceramic tiles are rated on a hardness scale from 0 to 5. For wall work, tiles in the 0 to 2 hardness range are ideal. A level 3 hardness rating for flooring is good for most residences, while a level 4 or 5 hardness rating is a better choice for commercial buildings.

Color and style

Ceramic tiles can also be printed and embossed. While they’re more limited in their ability to copy the look of other building materials than porcelain tiles, there are options that look identical to natural stone or hardwood.

Because there are ceramic tiles that look like hardwood (though they’re much more durable), many homeowners choose this ceramic option. With these patterns you can enjoy the warm look of hardwood without the maintenance and with greater longevity.

Like porcelain tiles, ceramic tiles can be cut into any shape you’d like. These options, paired with myriad color choices, give you the freedom to create a custom pattern for your home while staying on a budget.

Cleaning and maintenance

Ceramic tiles are one of the easiest-to-maintain flooring options. Because they don’t hold on to dirt like carpet or laminate tiles do, sweeping and mopping are quick chores, and because they’re stain-resistant, you won’t have to worry if you spill something. Keep in mind, though, that set-in stains might occur with particular substances over time. You can safely use heavy-duty stain removers on ceramic tile without risking damage.

One reason ceramic tiles are so easy to clean and maintain: the process by which they’re sealed. Each tile is covered in a sealant that protects it from absorbing liquids and stains. Like you might see with porcelain tiles, the grout between your ceramic tiles could be damaged or stained given enough time and use. When you’re choosing your flooring, keep in mind that installing ceramic tile means you’ll probably have to replace your grout at some point.

A favored feature of ceramic tiles for many homeowners — especially those with pets or kids — is how difficult it is to crack the tiles. Should one of your tiles somehow crack, it’s easy to replace, especially if you’ve kept a couple of boxes of tile from your original installation.

Installation

If you’re looking for an easy DIY project, ceramic tiles may not be the best choice, especially when compared to laminate or vinyl flooring. But it can be done — the most important factor is to lay down a sturdy backer for gluing the tiles. Once the tiles are in place, fill the lines between the tiles with grout.

If you fall in love with a specialty ceramic tile, you should turn to an expert for your installation. These specialty tiles include:

  • Rectified tile
  • Polished stone tile
  • Natural clay tile
  • Saltillo tile

You should also be aware that ceramic tile can be heavy and requires a well-built, strong floor framing beneath it. This means that it may not be the right choice for you if you’re replacing flooring on an upper level.

Cost

Many homeowners love ceramic tile for the cost; it’s one of the more affordable flooring options, averaging at $2 to $7 per square foot and scaling up significantly depending on the style, size and hardness of the tiles.

For installation, you’re looking at a range of $15 to $60 per square foot per the national average. To get a better idea of the prices in your area, get estimates from a few different flooring specialists near you. Have the tile you want in mind when you’re requesting an estimate because the type could impact the cost of installation.

Bottom line: Should I get porcelain or ceramic tile?

For flooring, you want a long-lasting, low-maintenance and good-looking material. Both porcelain and ceramic tiles are great flooring options if you’re building or renovating; however, while ceramic tiles are the more affordable option, you can’t beat the durability of porcelain.

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Profile picture of Jessica Render
by Jessica Render ConsumerAffairs Research Team

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs research team, Jessica Render is dedicated to providing well-researched, valuable content designed to help consumers make informed purchase decisions they can feel confident making. She holds a degree in journalism from Oral Roberts University.