Your guide to painting popcorn ceilings.


By Ginny Bartolone

The mid-20th century welcomed a long list of curious design and architectural choices. Sharp angles, floral wallpaper and avocado-colored everything lived among one of the most unique trends in home design — popcorn ceilings. This ceiling type earned its name from its textured, popcorn-like surface. Unfortunately, it can be tricky to handle if you're new to your home or simply looking for a ceiling upgrade.

Painting popcorn ceilings, however, might be the key to upgrading without having to remove the ceiling altogether. But, before you break out the rollers and start laying down the drop cloth, it's important to note that popcorn ceilings don't always handle paint in a predictable way. Experts recommend completing a few pre-project steps to ensure it's worth taking on the painting project.

We'll walk you through how to paint popcorn ceilings safely with some helpful tips from experienced painting pros.

What is a popcorn ceiling?

Textured ceilings — especially the one known as the popcorn, stipple or "cottage cheese style — became all the rage in the mid and late 1900s. In addition to providing a new look, they offered a handful of benefits. The thick material dampened surrounding noise, making these a helpful tool for apartments with noisy upstairs neighbors. The look also covered up common imperfections in older ceilings.

The ceiling style, while a brief hot trend, lost its popularity quickly. Popcorn ceilings tend to flake easily and are difficult to repair when there's a leak or when the material starts to chip. Additionally, from the 1950s to the 1970s, popcorn ceilings often included asbestos — an issue we'll dive into more below.

Before you start: have a pro check for asbestos and lead paint.

Due to the risk of serious diseases (such as lung cancer and mesothelioma) when handling crumbling material that contains asbestos, it's crucial to have your ceiling checked before launching into the painting process. In fact, you should “avoid disturbing any materials that you think might contain asbestos, including pipe and furnace insulation, siding, flooring, vermiculite attic insulation and popcorn ceilings installed from the 1950s to the 1970s,” states the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC).

So, before you start painting your popcorn ceiling, consider contacting a local asbestos abatement expert to check it out. They will likely take a small portion for testing.

Is it a good idea to paint over a popcorn ceiling?

If you've just moved into a new home with a popcorn ceiling, you have a few options to make it your own. Perhaps your ceiling nowhere resembles its original white hue or you're simply looking to stylize a space with a shade of gray, pale blue or cream. No matter the reason, delicately painting over texture is a viable option for upgrading this older design detail.

First of all, painting a popcorn ceiling is likely more cost-effective than removing it. However, it's important to note that the process is not as straightforward as painting a traditional ceiling or wall. It can be time-consuming. Before jumping in, double-check that your popcorn ceiling is sturdy enough to hold a coat of paint and primer. You may also need to weigh the pros and cons of hiring a pro versus tackling it yourself. All in all, be sure you have the right amount of time to take on this slightly tricky — but totally doable — DIY project.

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What kind of paint do you use on a popcorn ceiling?

A popcorn or textured ceiling will require more paint than non-textured ceilings, so be sure you buy extra. Also, be sure to apply a primer first. Once the dried primer essentially seals the popcorn ceiling in place, opt for a high-quality flat or matte latex or acrylic paint. 

Popular popcorn ceiling colors.

Not sure which color will properly showcase your newly designed ceiling? While many homeowners opt for white or off-white varieties to draw the eye upwards, you can branch out to other soft hues, depending on the colors of your walls. Gentle gray, cream or even light blue ceilings pair well with complementary walls.

DIY vs. hiring a pro for popcorn ceiling painting.

Whenever you're questioning how to paint a textured ceiling — popcorn or otherwise — the decision between tackling it yourself and calling a professional is a big one. 

Hire a pro if your ceiling is breaking down and contains asbestos.

The first question should always be: does my popcorn ceiling contain asbestos or lead paint? Similar to the asbestos issue, the U.S. banned lead paint in 1978. If your home was built before then, it may be worth having a professional test for both substances. The Environment Protection Agency outlines how to arrange an assessment of the paint on your walls to make sure. 

If your popcorn ceiling contains asbestos and is breaking down, contact your local or state environmental agency and/or a certified asbestos contractor, states the CDC. And make sure the contractors understand the laws around safe asbestos removal and disposal. 

DIY if you're an experienced home improvement buff.

Painting a room is relatively low on the DIY difficulty scale, but a popcorn ceiling requires a bit more know-how. As you'll read below, popcorn ceilings are fragile and absorbent. Using the wrong paint or roller may cause the popcorn texture to disintegrate or chip. Use too little paint, and you won't see much of a difference in its overall appearance.

All this aside, the process is not overly advanced. It just takes a bit more pre-planning and some extra patience.

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Tips for painting popcorn ceilings.

Let's say you've chosen your favorite ceiling color, got the green light from your asbestos and lead paint test and are ready to start painting your popcorn ceiling. Gather the following tools and materials to get started:

  • Roller or paint sprayer (recommended for textured ceilings)
  • Roller trays
  • Paint and primer
  • Screwdriver
  • Tarp, furniture covers, painting tape
  • Dust mask and eye protection
  • Step ladder
  • Extension pole
  • Duster, microfiber cloth or vacuum arm extension

1. Protect the room.

Remove as much from the room as possible before starting. Popcorn ceilings often require more paint than traditional ones, increasing the chances of drips and splashes onto your art and furniture. Cover the floor and remaining items with painter's plastic or drop cloth, making sure to secure the edges to the floor to avoid tripping. Line the ceiling and walls with cling-on painter's plastic to ensure a smooth edge and protect your walls from rogue paint. 

And while you're at it, protect yourself as well. Pop a protective mask, eyewear and your best painting clothing. Ensure the room has plenty of ventilation.

2. Dust your ceiling.

Due to their textured nature, popcorn ceilings easily accumulate cobwebs, dust and other dirt over the years. Very delicately remove anything covering your popcorn ceiling with a vacuum attachment or by hand.

3. Apply primer in one direction.

If you choose a paint sprayer, consider renting one from your local hardware store for between $30 and $50 a day. Remember that you may need more than one day to allow the primer and second layer to dry, so plan ahead. 

If you take the paint roller route, paint in one direction. This method helps protect the stability of the popcorn as it absorbs moisture. Also, opt for a painter extension pole instead of climbing on the ladder for each stroke. This will offer some visual distance from the paint and allow cleaner, longer strokes.

4. Apply paint perpendicular to primer.

Once the primer has completely dried, add one layer of paint to the ceiling in strokes perpendicular to the first coat. 

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Find local professionals to paint your popcorn ceiling.

While there are similarities between painting a traditional and popcorn ceiling, this job requires a gentle touch. Because of this, you could encounter different results depending on the state of your ceiling.

If you're in doubt about embarking on the project on your own, a local painting specialist can simplify any part of the process, from initial plans to the final touches. Speak with a pro when choosing paint, testing the safety of your ceiling or for the entirety of the job.


Here are the answers to common questions homeowners have about painting popcorn ceilings.

Do I need to prime a popcorn ceiling before painting?

Yes. Priming your popcorn ceiling before adding a layer of paint can help protect its stability before adding the acrylic or latex paint on top. Remember to let the primer dry before applying the paint.

How much does it cost to paint a popcorn ceiling?

Like all interior paint jobs, the cost to paint a ceiling comes down to square footage and your paint choice. On average, painting a ceiling costs roughly $0.75-$1.20 per square foot.

Can I use a paint sprayer on a popcorn ceiling?

Paint sprayers are a dependable alternative to rollers and paint brushes for popcorn ceilings. More consistent pressure means there’s a lower chance of chipping the popcorn texture or over-saturating the material. You can either rent or purchase a paint sprayer.

Take extra care to cover every vulnerable spot in your room before using a spray painter. Move in even lines, taking care not to overlap the same area with too much paint.

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