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15 Causes of Peeling Paint on Walls and Ceilings

Fredrick is a professional painter and author of painting guides. He has been painting houses and other structures for more than 13 years.

There are many factors that can cause paint to peel off your walls, floors, or ceiling. Here are a few.

There are many factors that can cause paint to peel off your walls, floors, or ceiling. Here are a few.

Peeling paint significantly lowers the attractiveness of a building. It can turn a beautiful house into a rotting structure, a clean bathroom into an unsanitary mess. And, if the peeling happens on the interior walls or ceiling, it can even cause health issues for the occupants; falling paint chips can be harmful if they land in your eyes, and breathing in paint dust can irritate your lungs.

Paint can start to peel a few days to several years after applying a fresh coat of paint. It is common on drywalls and old plaster ceilings, but bathrooms, wooden decks, trims, sidings, and window frames can also be affected by this problem.

Why Is My Paint Peeling?

According to experts, peeling, cracking, or blistering paint occurs when there is a loss of adhesion between the paint and the surface it's placed on. This loss of adhesion can be caused by a number of factors. The following are 15 common causes of peeling, cracking, or bubbling paint:

  1. Water
  2. High humidity and excessive condensation
  3. Poor surface preparation
  4. Dirty surface
  5. High temperatures and intense sunlight
  6. Using a paint incompatible to the surface
  7. Many different coats on the same surface
  8. Too many layers of paint
  9. Low-quality paint brands
  10. Using the wrong paint or primer
  11. Expired paint
  12. Corrosive substances
  13. Extreme dryness
  14. Poor application methods
  15. An old coat of paint

1. Your Painted Surface Is Exposed to a Lot of Water

Water is the primary cause of flaking paint on bathroom walls and ceilings, as well as on exterior walls. When water penetrates through the coats of paint, it causes the layers to separate and detach from the surface. This results in bulging, cracking, and finally, peeling.

The water can originate from a leaking roof, gutter, flashing, or soffit. It can also be the result of a permeable wall allowing water to penetrate to the inner surface, or even from splashes of water in the washroom.

2. The Wall or Ceiling Is in an Environment With High Humidity and Excessive Condensation

In poorly ventilated buildings, these two factors are the main causes of flaking paint. High humidity causes a moisture build-up on the walls, which leads to the blistering and bulging of the coatings. The end result is cracked and chipped layers of paint.

On the other hand, condensation leads dampness, an environment that favors the growth of mold and mildew. These fungi cause the layers of paint to lift up and flake. Condensation, which usually occurs during and after a rainstorm, can also ruin new coats of paint.

3. The Surface Wasn't Properly Prepared for Painting

For a coat of paint to stick properly, the surface should be adequately prepared. If the paint is applied on an uneven or unprimed surface, it won't take long before the paint begins to blister and peels. Other factors, such incomplete joint compounds and improperly placed seam tapes, can also hinder the paint from sticking properly.

4. The Surface Was Dirty Before Painting

Paints do not stick to dirty surfaces. Dirt, grease, and oil prevent paints from adhering properly to wooden, metallic, and even concrete surfaces. If the paint is applied on an extremely dirty surface, it will immediately begin to bubble and bulge, causing the coats of paint to fall off.

Make sure to wipe the surface down before painting it. Even if you do not see anything dirty about it, something as imperceptible to the eye as dust (such as that left over from freshly sanded drywall) can hinder paint from sticking properly.

Paint will begin to peel or crack if it's painted over a dirty surface.

Paint will begin to peel or crack if it's painted over a dirty surface.

5. The Surface Is Exposed to High Temperatures and Intense Sunlight

Paint doesn’t adhere quite well to surface with temperatures above the standard atmospheric range. High temperatures cause the paint to dry faster, preventing the layers from forming strong bonds.

On the other hand, intense sunlight makes oil paints fragile and vulnerable to cracking. Both latex and elastic paints expand and contract when exposed to the sun, weakening their adhesive bonds.

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6. The Type of Paint Used Was Incompatible With the Material of the Surface

Some surfaces contain substances that react with paints, hindering compatibility. For example, new or poorly-cured woods produce natural oils that prevent effective paint adhesion. Smooth or glossy surfaces also have compatibility problems with some paints. These types of surfaces are unable to form a mechanical adhesion with the paint, and so any layers applied to them flake off immediately.

In addition, some synthetic polymer materials can hinder the coat of paint from achieving full adhesion. The incompatibility problem is worse if the polymers are chemically cured. Some good examples of these materials are epoxy and polyurethane.

You have to make sure that the type of paint the surface type are compatible. For example, oil-based paints are affected by concrete and galvanized steel. These materials have chemicals that react with the pains, breaking down the adhesive bonds and weakening the layers.

If the type of paint is incompatible with the surface, then there will surely be some peeling.

If the type of paint is incompatible with the surface, then there will surely be some peeling.

7. Different Types of Paint Were Used on the Same Surface

Some paints do not bond together well. If these different types of paint are applied together on the same surface, peeling occurs. Oil-based paints do not work properly when applied over latex ones and vice versa. Make sure to use the same type of paint on each layer.

What's the difference between oil-based and latex paints?

It's important to choose the right type of paint for your surface and to make sure that the paint is suitable for the environment it will be sitting in. There are two main types of paint:

  1. Oil-based paint is made with either alkyd or linseed oils. It is more durable than latex paint and tends to apply in a smoother coat. It is usually used on areas that take a lot of abuse, such as doors, windows, and trims. However, it tends to yellow or crack over time. It is also very pungent, so if you are sensitive to smells you might want to hire someone else to do the painting for you.
  2. Latex paints, also known as water-based paints, are easier to work with than oil-paints and dry more quickly, but they are not quite as durable. They work best used on general areas, such as walls or ceilings, and are easier to clean than oil-based ones.

8. There Are Too Many Layers of Paint on the Wall or Ceiling

If too many layers of paint are applied to a surface—especially the ceiling—the coating becomes heavy and can end up falling off. If there are no strong adhesive bonds to support the weight of the layers, the coat of paint will fall off immediately.

9. The Surface Was Painted With Low-Quality Paints

Some paint brands are really poor in terms of flexibility and adhesion. Low-quality paints do not dry or stick properly, and they'll start to peel after a short period of time. For example, most paints that contain calcimine are not very good. You want to choose a paint that has a lot of pigment, resin (what makes paints stick), and fewer solvents (such as water).

10. The Wrong Type of Paint or Primer Was Used

As mentioned above, different paints are designed for different surfaces. Some are designed for wooden or plastic surfaces, while others are created for metallic or concrete surfaces. This means that using a wrong paint can lead to peeling. Similarly, there are different primers available for wooden, metallic, concrete, and plastic surfaces. These substances are also designed to be used with different kinds of paints, so using the wrong primer can also lead to peeling.

In the 14 years that I have been painting, I have come across many primers, most of which were of poor quality. They couldn't seal surfaces properly, and peeling would occur immediately after painting. However, I have come across a few high-quality primers that made my job much easier, such as the Zinsser Bulls Eye Sealer, which is suitable for all kinds of surfaces.

11. The Surface Was Painted Using Expired Paint

Like other chemical products, paints expire after a certain period of time. Some paints separate, others grow mold or mildew, and others freeze. Water-based paints stored in a tin can will cause the can to rust over time, which also ruins the paint. If your paint exhibits any of these signs or smells abnormally bad, then it is expired—by using it, you should expect to face a flaking problem.

12. The Surface Is Exposed to Corrosive Substances

There are many substances that can corrode a painted surface. If a corrosive substance comes into contact with a painted surface, it causes the coat to blister, crack, and finally peel off. Corrosive substances usually contain a strong acid or base. This is why you should not clean the walls of your home with bleach or another highly acidic product—make sure to dilute it so that it doesn't ruin the paint.

13. The Surface Is in an Extremely Dry Environment

According to my research, extreme dryness can also cause peeling paint. This environment prevents the formation of the strong adhesive bonds that allow the innermost coating of paint to stick to the surface properly, and thus makes a new coat fail.

14. The Surface Was Not Painted Properly

Using poor painting methods, such as using the wrong brushes and applying very thin layers, can make a coat of paint fail to adhere to the surface. These two methods do not promote the formation of the strong cohesive bonds that hold paint molecules together. They, therefore, contribute to weak layers that are vulnerable to cracking and chipping.

Though there are many brushes to choose from, most are unreliable—after a while, they'll break or the bristles will start to detach. If you are looking for a durable brush, I would recommend that you go for the Pro Grade Chip Paint Brushes. I have been using these tools for more than two years and they have never shown any signs of breaking or wearing out.

15. The Coat of Paint Is Too Old

With time, the cohesive bonds of a coat of paint become stronger than the adhesive bonds. This causes the layers to detach from the surface. Other paints lose bond strength and become brittle with time, which subjects them to cracking and chipping.

Surfaces need to be repainted every so often to keep the building and its interior looking neat and clean. How often it needs to be repainted depends on the type of surface—for example, wood exteriors need to be repainted every 3–7 years, while aluminum should be repainted every 5 years.

What Is the Difference Between Bubbling, Cracking, and Peeling Paint?

Depending on the state of the building, the deterioration of the paint may take appear in one or all of the following ways: cracking, peeling, and bubbling.

Bubbling, cracking, and peeling are different faces of the same problem. Cracking paint is the start of the process—it’s a clear sign that the paint job will start peeling or flaking eventually—whereas bubbling occurs when the coat of paint loses its adhesion and lifts away from the surface. Peeling occurs when paint simply can't hold on to the underlying layer, or as a continuation of prior bubbling or cracking.

Any of the reasons mentioned above can result in bubbling, cracking, or flaking paint, so be sure to avoid recreating any problems while repainting your home or office. If you feel like you might have trouble fixing it yourself, hire a professional.

Make sure to smooth out any uneven areas before repainting the surface.

Make sure to smooth out any uneven areas before repainting the surface.

How to Fix Peeling Paint

Luckily, peeling paint on your walls and ceilings can be fixed—it's simply about removing the old coat and applying a new one, this time correctly. Always make sure to exercise adequate safety precautions and to use the proper tools. Wear the appropriate clothes for working with paint. Protect your eyes from falling paint chips by wearing safety goggles, and where a dust mask to stop yourself from breathing in paint particles.

  1. Prepare the space where you need to remove the paint from. This means that, if the wall or ceiling is indoors, you must remove all furniture or carpets from the room and cover the floor with a drop cloth or a rag. Cover the edges of doors and windows with masking tape to protect them.
  2. Remove the old coat of paint by using a paint scraper or wire brush. Use a putty knife on any especially tough layers you might come across.
  3. Prepare the surface for a new coat of paint. This means fixing any cracks and holes you may find, smoothing down any uneven areas. Also, make sure to wipe down the area with a damp cloth—you want to make sure to paint on a clean surface.
  4. Prime the surface. Make sure to use the right type of primer for the paint that you'll be using.
  5. Get to painting! You may need to apply multiple coats to get your desired result, so be sure to follow the directions on the can so that your paint comes out looking exactly how you want it to.