Go into your bathroom right now. Chances are that there’s at least one place that’s been tiled. Either the floor, walls, or shower, take your pick and take a hard look at it. Can you tell if it’s ceramic or porcelain? By sight alone, it can be hard to tell the difference, but that’s because the difference goes much deeper than the surface.
Tile is made by heating clay, and different tiles contain different clay. The molecules in porcelain clay tend to be smaller and packed more tightly. So even a thin porcelain can be very strong. With ceramic clay, there’s a wide range of low and high fire clays. High fire ceramic has the strength of porcelain, but low fire clays are more affordable.
Because of these differences, some tiles are better for different projects. Today, we’ll go through the most important factors to consider when tile shopping, and see how they apply to different uses.
As discussed, porcelain molecules stick closer together, so they’re incredibly dense. This helps them stand up against general wear and makes them better for areas with a lot of traffic or that are prone to dropping. Hallways that see a lot of feet (especially a variety of shoes) are better off with porcelain. Kitchens where someone might drop cooking implements or break plates, porcelain will hold up better. And since it’s built strong, there’s more flexibility in size and shape. Those long tiles that look like wood planks are almost always porcelain.
This doesn’t mean it’s invulnerable of course. It’s still tile, it can still break. However, while most ceramic tile is just clay with a glaze on top, through-body porcelain has the color cooked all the way through. If it cracks or scratches, it’s less noticeable compared to ceramics which will show the orange clay underneath.
If your top priority is long-term strength, you want porcelain.
As usual, the more expensive product lasts longer. The price of ceramic varies widely, but it’s almost always much lower than porcelain. Does that mean you shouldn’t use it? No. In most cases, ceramic will still work, just not as long. If you plan on redoing your floors in a couple years, ceramic is fine. If you need a wall tile for a shower or backsplash, you might as well save the money and get ceramic for it.
Of course, if you’re a DIY person, you probably want ceramic anyway. Since it’s a “softer” material, it’s easier to cut to the shape you need without specialized equipment.
You know how we said ceramic will work “in most cases”? This is the one where it won’t. Since ceramic is more porous than porcelain, it traps more water. This becomes a problem when you live in a cold climate. Imagine, you live in Chicago near the lake, you’re in that weird halfway point between winter and another season where it can become very cold very quickly. If you’ve ever left a water bottle in the freezer, you know how this goes. Any water that’s trapped in your ceramic will expand when it freezes, and the tile will crack. Ceramic tile is not recommended for outdoor use because it’s exposed to this kind of extreme temperature change.
The one floor that will just about always be tile is the shower floor. So what’s ideal? You can use either porcelain or ceramic really. You’ll probably do porcelain for durability since it’ll see a lot of use and you might drop things. Porcelain generally is more water resistant – it has a tighter bond and is less likely to let water in even if it does crack. Of course, if you have a professional doing your tile, they’ll waterproof behind the tile so it won’t be a problem. You might use a ceramic tile all the same though.
In the US, tiles are rated by their coefficient of friction, meaning how slippery they are when wet. This is why some tiles are only recommended for walls or backsplash and not flooring, and it has little to do with whether they’re porcelain or ceramic. Although porcelain is generally the better tile across different uses, it’s entirely possible to have a ceramic tile with a better COF. So if you’re between a particular ceramic and porcelain for your bathroom floors, choose the one with better slip-resistance.
So there are a few places where you might use ceramic to save on costs or because you like the handmade feel of them. More often than not, however, you’ll choose porcelain if you’re looking at the long-term benefits. The most important lesson to take away though is to choose a tile with a good COF if you’re using it for flooring.