A Guide to Ceramic Versus Porcelain Tile

A Guide to Ceramic Versus Porcelain Tile

By Kate Reggev
Though tile can be found everywhere these days, it's hard to distinguish the difference between ceramic and porcelain and where it's best to use each. We have you covered.

Take one step into any kitchen or bathroom and you’re likely to be surrounded by one of the most common and durable surfaces on the market: tile. Yet, identifying exactly what it's made of and figuring out if its location is really the best place for it can require a bit more investigating and a sharp eye. Let’s delve into the differences and similarities between two of the most typical tile materials used today: porcelain and ceramic.

Porcelain Tile

Although the terms "porcelain" and "ceramic" are often used interchangeably, the two are made differently—and consequently have different characteristics and behaviors. For many people, porcelain conjures a certain cachet and perception of high-quality material, with a price tag that reflects it.

These tiles are ink-jet and cold-glazed porcelain, and are meant to weather slightly over time, like wood.

Porcelain, whose ancient roots come from the Italian word porcellana (meaning cowrie shell), is composed of a mixture of clay, minerals, and water that are combined and then fired at very high temperatures. The result is a tile that's extremely dense and not very porous, so it absorbs virtually no water. Technically speaking, porcelain can't absorb more than 0.5 percent its weight after being fired. Otherwise, it would no longer be considered porcelain.

An unglazed porcelain tile covers the shower in this green-and-black bathroom.

These qualities make porcelain ideal for areas that are frequently wet, can easily be stained, or receive a lot of abuse—like walls in bathrooms and kitchens, backsplashes, and even floors. Because of its non-porous nature, stains don't seep in, and it’s therefore easy to clean and durable. It also comes in a wide range of colors, sizes, and styles to accommodate your wildest design dreams. 

In this master bathroom, which is complete with a soaking tub, a linear fireplace, and floating vanities, the floor and walls are covered with large-format Italian porcelain tile from Emil Ceramica.

However, it’s important to note that there's been some false marketing in the tile market, and if it is indeed true porcelain that you seek, make sure that your products say so. Another point to be wary of, especially if you're doing some tiling yourself, is to double check that you’re purchasing the correct kind of setting material, because porous and non-porous tiles require different adhesives and mortar set. 

Ann Sacks and American Olean porcelain tile cover every square inch of this elegant, minimalist master bathroom. 

Bold, three-by-12-inch porcelain tiles line the ceiling of this library space, and were inspired by the industrial wood floors of the 1970s.

Ceramic Tile

A close cousin of porcelain tile, ceramic tiles are similarly manufactured from a mix of clay, minerals, and water, and then fired at a high temperature—but not as high as porcelain tile. After this first firing, ceramic tiles are typically coated with a glaze and then fired again to create a liquid-like glass coating. Yet, even after this coating is applied, ceramic tile is slightly less dense and more porous than porcelain tile, because of the lower firing temperature. 

A custom ceramic wall tile in Jonathan Adler's house was inspired by drawings by Eva Hess.

But because of the re-firing process, ceramic tiles are a hard, stain- and scratch-resistant product. They're also known for their ease of installation, a lower price point, and durability. You'll find ceramic tiles on floors and walls, as well as on backsplashes or accent walls in kitchens and bathrooms. However, because they aren’t as dense as porcelain, they’re not ideal for high-impact areas, like flooring in entryways, public spaces, and other frequently used areas. It's also not a great idea to use them in steam showers or other areas that are wet virtually all of the time.

A combination of textured blue ceramic tiles inspired by Marmara marble (made by Autoban) and traditional Iznik tiles, handmade by Turkish craftsmen in Istanbul, are used in this Turkish restaurant in London.

It’s generally also not a good idea to put ceramic tile outside. Between the weathering on the tile and the freeze-thaw cycles in colder climates, ceramic tiles will tend to crack outdoors. When ceramic tiles do chip or crack, whether its indoors or outdoors, you’ll expose the layer of material under the glaze, which won’t be the same color. Porcelain, on the other hand, is considered a through-body material, where it’s the same composition throughout. Thus, a chipped corner isn’t nearly as noticeable. 

The homeowners of this bathroom, both ceramic artists, baked X-shaped decals into store-bought Olympia Tile before arranging them in their children's bathroom. 

However, ceramic tiles come in a tremendous range of colors, sizes, and styles and work beautifully in a range of interior spaces. Ceramic tile also tends to be less expensive than porcelain tile, and is often easier to install because it requires a more common mortar bed and it cuts easier. So, if you’re considering redoing the backsplash in your guest room yourself, ceramic tile might be the way to go. 

In this bathroom, Roca wall tile in Rainbow Azul continues the citrus color scheme, and the floor is clad in ceramic plank. 

This bright bathroom features Rox Solar yellow ceramic tile by Modwalls Rex Ray Studio, which provides a pop of color, a bit of texture, and a dose of fun.

Do you have a preference between the two? We'd love to hear about what you're putting in your kitchen, bathroom, or wherever it is that you're installing tiles!


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