Not sure when to choose ceramic or porcelain tile? Now you know.

By Wendy Rose Gould
Updated: May 21, 2019
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When it comes to deciding between porcelain and ceramic tile, there’s a lot to consider, including quality, durability, application, and cost. Ultimately, the choice is pretty simple when you consider the project at hand. In other words, it’s really not something you need to overly stress about.

With expert insight from an interior designer and several tile experts, we’re outlining the primary differences between porcelain and ceramic tiles, the benefits and drawbacks of each, and highlighting scenarios where it might be advantageous to choose one over the other. By the time you reach the end, you’ll be able to make a confident, informed decision and forever stop stressing about choosing porcelain vs. ceramic tile.

Porcelain vs. Ceramic: The Primary Differences

The truth is, porcelain and ceramic tiles have quite a few similarities. In fact, to the untrained eye, it’s hard to see the visual differences between them.

“The majority of technical differences between porcelain and ceramic are in material composition and durability,” says Katie Michael-Battaglia, the design director for Nemo Tile + Stone. “That said, a trained eye may be able to identify differences based on finishing. Porcelain, for example, offers crisper, cleaner edges, whereas ceramic tiles are often handmade and have an imperfect shape. These differences are slight and challenging to identify, even for the eyes of tile experts.”

Beyond that, the primary difference between porcelain and ceramic tile—and this difference will really help steer your decision—is that porcelain offers a much denser composite compared to ceramic. This means that porcelain is better able to keep from absorbing water and air, which tend to expedite the aging process.

“This attribute allows for porcelain to be applied to indoor and outdoor settings, as the materials won’t crack or warp with weather exposure,” Michael-Battaglia says. “Because of this, strength and durability of porcelain is a good choice. Ceramic is more porous by nature and soaks up moisture in a detrimental manner, limiting the application to indoors.”

Liz Toombs, a certified interior designer and the president of PDR Interiors, adds that in porcelain tiles, the color often goes all the way through the tile design. (Do double check this when you’re purchasing tiles, though, as some cheaper porcelain options don’t have this traditional feature.)

“Conversely, in ceramics, the color is only applied to the top layer, meaning that if chipped, you see the clay underneath,” she says.

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The Best Applications for Porcelain and Ceramic Tiles

If porcelain seems like the no-brainer option, why the debate of porcelain vs. ceramic tiles in the first place? For starters, ceramic tends to be cheaper (more on that later). Also, sometimes using ceramic tile actually does make more aesthetic sense.

For example, both Toombs and Michael-Battaglia agree that ceramic tiles tend to work better for wall applications. 

“Ceramic tiles can be more artful in their application, used as a backsplash in a kitchen or as art in a transitional space,” Michael-Battaglia says. “As a backsplash—whether set with smaller mosaic tiles or larger format ceramic—the tiles set the stage for the design theme of the space. Limiting the application to a central focal point or small statement space allows designers and homeowners to achieve an elevated style.”

Porcelain tiles typically work best in floor applications. “I try to keep the floor in porcelain so that no chipping and color issues occur,” says Toombs. “I also avoid using ceramic tiles outdoors, as they are not meant for that application due to their propensity to absorb moisture. Porcelain tile may work in outdoor applications, but it’s best to consider it on a case-by-case basis.”

If you’re seeking a wood look, then porcelain is also the way to go, says Nancy Epstein, CEO and founder of Artistic Tile. This is because porcelain has many color and texture variations that aren’t even possible in real wood. She also makes the point that porcelain “wood” can be used in areas where real wood can’t, such as showers and high-traffic floors.

“The uses for porcelain tile are endless, with the surfacing working wonders in high-traffic and high-risk areas, such as entryways, mudrooms, basements, kitchens, and baths. Porcelain provides an easy-to-clean, durable, and stylish solution,” Michael-Battaglia says.

Which Is More Expensive, Porcelain or Ceramic Tile?

Ceramic tiles are usually less expensive than porcelain, with average ceramic tile costs ranging from 85 cents per square feet to $2.40 per square feet. Still, cost does vary within each category, and it’s still possible to find porcelain at a lower price.

“From a cost perspective, porcelain tiles are offered in a huge range of price points, with options starting at $2 a square foot through options available at upwards of $50 a square foot,” says Michael-Battaglia. “In the same vein, porcelain affords designers and homeowners a way to achieve a stone look without the cost-prohibitive price tag of real stone.”

Shopping for Tile

While shopping for the right type of tile, it’s important to pay attention to quality. According to Epstein, the Porcelain Enamel Institute (PEI) rates ceramic and porcelain tiles for durability. Ratings go from Class 1, which is for wall only, up to Class 5, which is for heavy-duty commercial traffic. Class 3 and Class 4 are suitable for residential kitchen and bathroom floors.

“You should always check with your supplier what the PEI or classification is of any manufactured tile product you may purchase for use,” advises Epstein.

Other characteristics to look for are the uniformity of thickness and the flatness of the tile. Both will greatly affect the installation and finished look. Also, any tile with lippage (raised areas) normally has greater breakage in the field, so it comes with the risk of lost money and can even potentially create a safety hazard.

The bottom line on porcelain vs. ceramic tiles is that you really shouldn’t overthink it too much. To recap, ceramic is best for wall applications, including backsplashes and shower walls, and in small, indoor decorative motifs. Porcelain should be your go-to for floor applications, high-traffic areas, and in some approved outdoor spaces.

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