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What is the difference between ceramic and porcelain tiles?

Porcelain vs. ceramic tile: Is this a war between two vastly different types of materials, or is it simply a war of words? For consumers, the terms porcelain and ceramic are often used interchangeably as if they were the same thing. And this is understandable since ceramic and porcelain tiles are used for the same applications, are installed the same way, and have largely the same merits and drawbacks as a flooring or wall surface material. At the same time, tile shop salespeople often claim a world of difference between the two, probably to justify porcelain’s cachet and its higher prices. Is there a difference between porcelain and ceramic tile?

Porcelain and ceramic tile are both are part of the larger category of tiles that can generally be called ceramics. This category includes all rigid tiles shaped from natural earthen clays and hardened by heat. In the modern tile industry, however, porcelain tiles occupy their category, assigned there because they meet certain specifications.

One of the things a lot of homeowners often wonder when creating their dream house is what flooring material would be better for their kitchen, bathroom, and the like. Should they opt for porcelain tiles or ceramic tiles? Which one would be more practical and durable?

These people are aware that porcelain and ceramic tiles each have their unique characteristics. What they cannot determine is what makes one better than the other, and that’s what we’re going to discuss in this article.

At first glance, it’s tough to tell the difference between porcelain tiles and ceramic tiles. That’s because both of the products are very similar and they feel alike as well. They are both crafted from a similar process, but some very key differences are important to realize about these tile flooring options. If you want to choose the best tile flooring options for your home, make sure that you understand the latest tile trends and how porcelain and ceramic are different from one another.

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Porcelain vs. Ceramic Tile: Major Differences

According to the industry group that decides whether a tile is a porcelain or ceramic, everything boils down to whether the tile can meet a set of highly controlled water absorption criteria. Both ceramic tile and porcelain tile usually receive a surface glazing that makes them hard to distinguish from one another.

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Porcelain Tile

Porcelain tile has a water absorption rate of 0.5 per cent or lower as defined by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) section C373. To test this, the fired tile is first weighed, then it is boiled for five hours and left to sit in water for 24 hours. Then it is weighed again. If the tile weighs less than half of one per cent more as a result of water-absorbing into its surface, it is considered porcelain.

To achieve this density, a special kaolin clay mixture is used, which is finer and purer than most ceramic clay. It usually contains notable levels of quartz and feldspar mixed in. Porcelain tiles are fired at temperatures ranging from 2,200 to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. To the consumer, it generally suffices to say that porcelain is a dense, fine-grained, smooth tile that is more impervious to water than ordinary ceramic tile.

Porcelain tile virtually always receives a surface glazing treatment—a coating of liquified glass material—while some forms of ceramic tile are left unglazed as a rule porcelain tile is more waterproof than ceramic tile and is thus subject to less water infiltration.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Porcelain Tile

Known as the most durable type of tile on the market, porcelain is harder, denser, tougher, and less porous than ceramic tile. It also has a very low absorption rate, meaning it’s virtually impervious to water damage, even after prolonged exposure. This characteristic makes it an ideal choice for bathrooms, laundry rooms, patios, and other moisture-prone areas. Since porcelain tile can withstand heavy traffic over long periods of time, it works well as a flooring and countertop material.

Despite its durability and versatility, porcelain has two major drawbacks: price and ease of cutting. On average, porcelain tile costs at least 60 per cent more than its ceramic competitors. Also, due to its density and hardness, homeowners typically require a wet saw with a diamond blade to cut cleanly through the material. Professional installation is preferred for a flawless finish with undamaged tiles. If you’re looking to take on a budget-friendly DIY installation project, ceramic tile might be the smarter choice.

Porcelain Tile Upkeep and Maintenance

In general, porcelain is very forgiving when it comes to spills and scratches; it’s hard to damage and relatively simple to keep clean. Sweep and vacuum porcelain tile once or twice per week, depending on how much traffic it experiences. Once a month, use a vinegar-and-water solution or tile-friendly commercial cleanser to banish dirt and day-to-day build-up. If you have glazed tile, use a mop. If you have unglazed or textured tile, rely on scrub with a soft-bristle brush instead. Take care to avoid using oil-based products, waxes, abrasive scrubbers, and anything containing bleach or ammonia. Follow up with a hot water rinse, and dry thoroughly with a towel or microfiber cloth. For step-by-step guidance, consult our tutorial for cleaning porcelain tile, which breaks down the routine for glazed, unglazed, and even textured tiles.

Ceramic Tile

Tile defined as ceramic uses a coarser clay with a smaller ratio of fine kaolin clay, and it generally lacks some of the additives used in porcelain clay. Ceramic tile is fired at lower temperatures, generally no more than 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit. Ceramic tile can be slightly more prone to water infiltration than is porcelain tile, though these differences are fairly minimal if the ceramic tile is glazed.

Ceramic tiles are kiln-fired at a lower temperature than porcelain tiles, making them less dense, softer, and more porous. The clay used in its composition is also less refined, making it a more affordable, albeit less durable, option. Many homeowners opt to install ceramic tiles as flooring, especially in warm climates, where the natural coolness of the tile becomes a welcome perk in the summer months.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Ceramic Tile

Ceramic tile is a versatile and affordable option for those in the market for large quantities of tile. Not only does it cost significantly less than porcelain, it’s also easier to install. Thanks to its relatively soft surface, homeowners can cut ceramic tile with a simple tile cutter —a piece of cake when you consider the far more involved process of cutting porcelain tile. What’s more, ceramic tiles have an attractive clean-lined appearance, and the durable glazed finish can be customized in a variety of colours and patterns.

Ceramic tile is not as durable as porcelain, and homeowners must clear away spills quickly due to its relatively high absorption rate. It’s best to avoid using ceramic tile in areas often exposed to moisture, such as the shower and patio. Also, due in part to its tendency to absorb moisture, ceramic tile requires weekly deep-cleaning, as opposed to monthly. The coolness of the tile might feel nice in the summer, but it can also be uncomfortably cold during the winter. Ceramic tiles are coated with a glaze, and if the tile cracks or chips, the clay material underneath the glaze will show through. Homeowners should consider using ceramic tiles in areas with low or moderate foot traffic.

Ceramic Tile Upkeep and Maintenance

With a bit of discipline, it’s easy to keep ceramic floors looking great for years on end. Once per week, sweep or vacuum your ceramic tile to clear the way for easier mopping. Then, using a mild dish detergent mixed with hot water, work your way from one end of the tile to the other with a string mop. Finally, dry the entire area swiftly and thoroughly with a towel or microfiber cloth. For a deeper dive into howto keeping these tiles sparkling, check out this guide for cleaning ceramic tile.

Appearance

Ceramic tile and porcelain both are often manufactured with a glazed surface coating, and at a glance, they may be indistinguishable.

Porcelain Tile

One recent innovation with porcelain tile is the ability to manufacture them to resemble different materials. While ceramic tile generally has solid colour and pattern, porcelain tiles are available that are remarkably good at mimicking natural stone such as marble or even wood grains. This makes porcelain tile an excellent choice where you want the look of wood without wood’s susceptibility to water damage.

Ceramic Tile

Most ceramic tile that is not categorized as porcelain is a solid colour, and simulations of wood grains or natural stone are not common with basic ceramic tile.

Water and Heat Resistance

Both ceramic and porcelain have very good resistance to heat and are sometimes used on countertops.

Porcelain Tile

Porcelain tile is denser, heavier, and more impervious to water, and thus is a better choice than ceramic tile for outdoor locations. However, outdoor use is recommended only in mild climates. Porcelain tile has excellent resistance to heat, making it a good choice for countertop surfaces.

Ceramic Tile

Ceramic tile is somewhat more susceptible to moisture infiltration, though the differences are minimal if the tile is glazed. Ceramic tile has excellent heat resistance, making it a good choice for countertops.

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Care and Cleaning

Porcelain Tile

Porcelain tile is very easy to clean up by damp-mopping with a mild water-soap solution. The cementitious grout filling the joints between tiles needs to be periodically sealed to guard against stains and mildew.

Ceramic Tile

Ceramic tile has the same care and cleaning needs as ceramic tile—routine damp-mopping and period sealing of grout joints.

Durability and Maintenance

Porcelain Tile

Porcelain clays are denser and thus less porous than ceramic clays. This makes porcelain tile harder and more impervious to moisture than ceramic tile. Due to its through-body composition, it is considered more durable and better suited for heavy usage than ceramic tile. Chip a porcelain tile, and the colour continues all the way through; as a result, the damage is nearly invisible. Porcelain is an easy material to maintain, requiring only period sealing of the grout lines.

Ceramic Tile

Chip a ceramic tile and you find a different colour underneath the top glaze, which means that chips are likely to be quite visible. The clays used for ceramic tile are less dense than porcelain clays, which means ceramic tiles are somewhat more prone to cracking and breaking. Unglazed ceramic tiles may also need to have sealers applied to the entire tile, not just the grout lines.

Installation

Both forms of tile are installed using similar methods. Tiles are adhered to an underlayment of cement board using a mortar-based thin-set adhesive. Once the tiles are set, the joints between tiles are filled with mortar-based grout, which is sealed against moisture once it dries. There are slight differences in how ceramic tile and porcelain tile are handled, based on their differing densities.

Porcelain Tile

Porcelain tile is more brittle and may require the experienced hand of an experienced tile-setter to cut properly. A wet tile saw is the recommended tool for cutting porcelain, while an inexpensive snap cutter generally works fine with ceramic tile.

Ceramic Tile

While ceramic tile is less dense than porcelain tile and thus less durable, it is also a far easier material for do-it-you.

Cost

Porcelain Tile

Porcelain is more expensive to manufacture than ceramic tile, resulting in higher retail prices. Porcelain tiles begin at about $3 per square foot, running to $35 per square foot.

Ceramic Tile

With all other factors equal, ceramic tile is cheaper than porcelain tile. Ceramic tile tends to run about 60 to 70 per cent of the cost of porcelain tile, on average. Ceramics can be purchased for as little as $.50 per square foot or as much as $35 per square foot.

Lifespan

Both ceramic and porcelain tiles are very durable building materials, provided they are well cared for.

Porcelain Tile

Porcelain tile is a harder substance and wears better than ceramic tile, but its hardness can also make it more susceptible to cracking under structural shifting in a building.

Ceramic Tile

By some estimates, a ceramic tile floor can last from 75 to 100 years if the grout is maintained properly and sealed regularly. While it theoretically is softer and doesn’t wear as long as porcelain tile, it also tends to resist cracking due to structure shifting somewhat better than does porcelain tile.

Construction

How are ceramic tiles made?

Ceramic tiles are made using natural red, brown or white clay. Firstly the clay is fired at a high temperature to reduce the water content, the glaze followed by the pattern is then applied. Voila, then you have your finished your product.

How are porcelain tiles made?

Porcelain tiles are made using very specific clay, with finely-ground sand and feldspar added to the mixture. The tiles are fired at a higher temperature than ceramic, and this helps to make porcelain tiles super hardwearing.

Ceramic or Porcelain Tiles For…

The shower

As porcelain is nearly waterproof, porcelain tiles are the best material to use when installing a wet room due to the levels of moisture.

Ceramic is perfect to use all over in a standard bathroom, especially with the wide choice of designs available including some with anti-slip properties.

A tight budget

If you’re on a tight budget, ceramic tiles are likely to be the best solution. The price will be kinder on your bank account, and cheaper tiles don’t have to mean compromising on style. Ceramic tiles are available in a wide range of patterns and styles to suit any look. There’s something out there for everyone.

High foot traffic

The durability of porcelain tiles makes them perfect for high traffic areas as they’re resistant to scratches and scuffs. Whether in an area of the home that sees high footfall, such as the hallway or kitchen or in a commercial space, porcelain is the most hardwearing.

However, compared to other flooring options such as laminate or carpet, ceramic tiles still represent a durable and hardwearing choice.

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A DIY project

For you DIYers who like to get handy, ceramic tiles are far easier to work with, especially in areas that require a lot of cuts to install your tiles neatly. Porcelain is much harder to cut and can require professional tools and skills to create the same effect.

Your patio or outdoor space

Porcelain’s level of water resistance means it’s perfectly placed to weather everything that nature has to throw at your new patio. In cold weather, ceramic may crack, meaning you’ll be needing a replacement floor much sooner than you’d like. In this case, porcelain will offer you peace of mind.

The Verdict

There is not a clear winner when it comes to choosing ceramic tile or porcelain tile. Both are similar building materials, and most forms are equally suitable as a flooring material, wall covering, or countertop surface. While you should make sure that the tile is rated for the use (tiles rated for floor use are typically thicker and the product will specify that this is an allowed use), your choice of ceramic or porcelain tile boils down to what particular tile style appeals to you visually.

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