Ceramic vs. Porcelain Tile: Pros, Cons, and Cost

Out of all the flooring styles we cover here at Flooring Clarity, none are quite as interesting as tile. This type of flooring comes in well over a dozen forms, although most consumers tend to flock towards a particular type of clay.

Ceramic tile is the most popular style used in residential homes today, but Porcelain is not far behind. Unfortunately, the two materials are easily confused, and while they are both made from clay, there are some significant differences.

If you’re wondering these two flooring styles stack up against one another, we’re going to break down the pros, cons, and costs below…

How Ceramic Tile is Made

Ceramic tile has been around in some form for over 1,000 years. While the manufacturing process has changed, it’s essentially the same basic mix that it was long ago. The materials aren’t quite as natural as they used to be, but ceramic tiles are still basically made from a mixture of clay, sand, and water.

The mix is then molded through a pressing or extrusion process into molds which gives it shape. The process can vary depending on the manufacturer and type, but tile that’s been shaped is called green tile. Now things get interesting as before it can go into the kiln; tiles can be processed as unglazed or glazed and come in monocuttura or biocuttura forms.

Glazed tiles are something you’ve seen or walked across. They are found in kitchens, showers, flooring, and even swimming pools. Glazed ceramic tiles have a layer of liquid glass applied to the surface before they are fired. This will keep stains at bay, and while scratches can be an issue, they are extremely easy to clean.

The best way to imagine an unglazed tile is to think of it like a pastry that’s missing its icing. It still looks good but doesn’t quite have the same “pop” as one with a thin layer of glaze. Unglazed tiles are more durable with a solid layer of color all the way through, but they are easier to stain, so they need to be sealed more often than not.

A glazed tile that has been fired once is called a monocuttura tile as it goes into the kiln after the frit or glaze has been applied. When you see a ceramic tile with the biocuttura label, they are double-fired. This means they go for a round in the kiln before and after the glaze goes on. Regardless of the style, all ceramic tiles are fired at around 2,000 degrees.

Porcelain Tile Manufacturing

Despite having a different moniker, porcelain is also made from a mixture of clay. You’ll find feldspar as a substitute for sand along with other materials like quartz and silica. As with regular ceramic tiles, the final product is still porcelain, but there are a few variants of this product.

Fine China is similar to porcelain used in floors but fired at lower temperatures, which makes it softer. That’s why people eat off it, not walk across it. Porcelain floor tiles are fired at a higher temperature than ceramic tiles, so there is less moisture in the product. That makes porcelain tiles stronger and denser, with a distinct look and a degree of translucency due to kaolin and the other materials used.

To qualify as porcelain, a tile needs to meet strict requirements, which is where the PCTA steps in. The Porcelain Tile Certification Agency basically ensures tiles labeled as “porcelain” pass the ASTM C373 certification. Tiles that meet the water absorption requirements of 0.5% or less water absorption are certified as porcelain while everything else falls under the ceramic banner.

While having the PCTA tag on a product may seem like a minor thing, it’s a huge bonus. Many ceramic tiles were sold as porcelain before those standards were put into place, so if you want “real” porcelain flooring tiles, look for certified products. You may also want to steer clear of imported tile, especially if they do not show up on the PCTA’s verified list.

Ceramic vs. Porcelain Tile

As you can see, the main differences between ceramic and porcelain revolve around heat and the types of materials used in the clay mixture. Well, those areas have a significant impact on how these tiles look and how well they will hold up underfoot in your home.

Consumers have been going through the ceramic vs. porcelain tile debate for decades, and we don’t expect it to die down anytime soon. The biggest difference is an important one if durability is a concern. As porcelain is stronger, it will last longer than a glazed or unglazed ceramic tile. If you chip porcelain, you’ll see the same color underneath while ceramic tiles don’t have through-color construction as well.

As it has a low water absorption rate, porcelain can also deal with moisture better than ceramic tiles. It’s often found on outdoors for those reasons as it’s less prone to crack during a freeze. Both are installed in the same fashion, but that’s where ceramic has an edge.

Ceramic tiles are more forgiving to work with because they are softer. If you have a lot of intricate cuts to make, it’s your best choice, and the same goes for style. You find glazed ceramic tiles in an array of colors and finishes, while your options with porcelain are limited by comparison. There can be a significant price difference between the two, but much of that boils down to the style and class of the product.

Tile Certification 

When you are looking for flooring that won’t leech VOCs into your home, certifications like FloorScore come in handy. Well, the same applies for tile as there are agencies that set the standards for tiles produced in the United States.

The Ceramic Tile Institute is responsible for setting guidelines on ceramic tile and is where you can get information on slip-resistance. Tiles are ranked on a scale, depending on how they perform in wet and dry conditions. The greater the number, the better they will do in a shower or bathroom, and anything with a 0.60 or better is considered slip-resistant. Tiles in this class meet both OSHA and ADA requirements.

Conditionally slip-resistant is the next tier at 0.59 to 0.50, but these tiles still meet OSHA’s standards. Any ceramic tile below a 0.50 on their scale is suspect, and not something you’ll want to walk on wet. COF ratings are generally easy to find while the Mohs scale gives you an idea of scratch-resistance.

For porcelain, things are handled by the PEI on the durability front. The Porcelain Enamel Institute has its own system which lets you know which class of tile is best suited for certain areas of your home. Products rated at a 0 are only used for wall tiles, while the Class I and I tiles are geared towards low-traffic areas in your home.

A PEI III tile is good for light commercial use and can withstand any foot traffic in your home. Classes IV and V are the most durable type of porcelain tile but could be overkill unless you have a large family with a lot of indoor pets. That said, imported ceramic tiles from other countries can have their own set of standards or none at all.

Ceramic and Porcelain Tile Cost

Both ceramic and porcelain tiles are sold by the square foot. You can pick it up by the box or case although individual pieces are usually available as well. With that in mind, porcelain is more expensive but easier to find in some cases due to its popularity.

Pricing varies based on a number of factors as well. Quality plays a major part, but so does the style, size, finish, and PEI rating. A pressed porcelain tile with a textured surface resembling marble or slate may run around $4.00 per square foot while a plain grey tile from an off-brand come in at under $1.00 per square foot.

The same rules apply to ceramic tile, but with a larger number of variables at hand. It’s not uncommon to find glazed ceramic tile for around .50 to .70 cents per square foot or over $8.00. There are more styles to choose from as well, so a wood-like tile will be twice as much as one that’s baby blue. On average, you can expect to pay anywhere between $2.00 - $20.00 for quality porcelain tiles while ceramic tiles can come in between 10 – 30% cheaper.

Conclusion

If you’re still not sure which tile is right for you, porcelain is usually the best choice if water or high-traffic is a concern. Bathrooms, foyers, laundry rooms, and patios are all great places to install porcelain tile. Ceramic tiles can work in those locations but aren’t recommended due to their porous nature. They are better suited for other areas in your home, and considerably easier to install if you plan to go DIY.