In this post I’m going to show you what type of tile (ceramic or porcelain or stone) is the best choice for your shower walls & shower base, and why.
I have installed a lot of tile over the years and from this experience I have compiled a list of little known facts and advice to help you choose your tile with confidence.
Please keep in mind that this is strictly a “nuts and bolts” guide to choosing the right type of tile for your shower remodel – it is not a design guide. Remember, I’m a contractor, not a designer…….. although I do have a lot of opinions about design. 🙂
So let’s get into it!
Ceramic vs Porcelain Tile
Shower Base Tile vs Shower Wall Tile
Ceramic or Porcelain Tile – Which is best for showers?
Porcelain tile is the best tile for showers in my opinion. They can be as attractive as any other type of tile but they have the added advantages of high density and low moisture permeability. These are important factors when shower wall waterproofing is a priority.
In my humble opinion, a porcelain tile shower is generally better than a ceramic tile shower, but there are benefits to using ceramic over porcelain.
Below I will compare these two types of tile, assuming that they are being installed into an area of constant water immersion…….. in other words, a fish pond you plan to build in your backyard (just kidding), or a shower (much more common).
The Main Difference
In a word, the primary difference between porcelain tiles and ceramic tiles is density. The more dense a tile, the less permeable it is to water (more on that later), and the more load stress it can handle.
Porcelain and Ceramic Density
As mentioned above, the decision about ceramic or porcelain tile is all about material density. Although the density of porcelain tiles can vary significantly, porcelain is more like glass in the way it absorbs water.
Think of a porcelain tea cup that you may have in your kitchen cupboard. It is not completely water resistant like glass, but it does repel water similar to glass.
In contrast, ceramic tile absorbs water quite readily.
You can probably look in your kitchen cupboard again for another good example of this. On the unglazed base of any ceramic mug, you can see the tone of the ceramic gets darker when exposed to water. This indicates that it’s absorbing water.
I’m not suggesting that the top face of the ceramic tiles in your shower will be unglazed like the base of your coffee mug, but it’s a good way to see the major difference between the material used to make porcelain vs ceramic tile.
The fact is, the glazing on the top surface of all ceramic products only inhibits moisture from being absorbed. No matter how it is glazed, it will always be far more permeable than porcelain.
And speaking of permeability…..
Ceramic Tile Permeability Problem
If you’re considering ceramic tile in your shower, you should keep in mind that it’s significantly less dense than porcelain, which means that it’s more permeable to moisture. This can be a problem when you’re building a tiled shower.
When you are laying tile, the hydration of the mortar beneath your tile is extremely important for secure bonding to the substrate, and strength after setting.
Because the back side of all ceramic tiles absorb water extremely well (hygroscopic), they tend to remove the water from the mortar reducing its ability to bond and set properly.
As the mortar dries, it stiffens and become brittle as the ceramic draws the moisture out of it.
This also causes a serious and very irritating problem of tile immobility. Nothing is worse than your tiles being stuck in place after being set into the tile mortar…. not being able to adjust them at all because the mortar is too dry and stiff.
A terrible situation all around if you’ve ever experienced it. And because of the poor bonding, your ceramic tiles can eventually delaminate over time.
Use a Bonding Agent
If you plan to install ceramic tile in the shower, a simple solution to the permeability problem is to apply a bonding agent to the unglazed back of the tile.
If you use this strategy, the ceramic will be partially “sealed” allowing the tile to absorb only a small amount of moisture from the mortar.
This allows for perfect tile adhesion, perfect tile mobility, perfect bonding, and perfect mortar setting. A lot of extra work, but definitely worth it.
Wetting Instead of Bonding?
Some contractors prefer to just wet the back of the tile with a sponge and water before setting it into the mortar. I do not recommend this.
One of the problems with tile wetting is that you must do it while you are in the middle of laying your tiles. This adds another time consuming step to an already very hectic tile installation process.
There is also a very real risk of wetting the back of the tile too much using the sponging strategy. If it gets too wet, the mortar will also not bond properly.
If you are using modified mortar, the risk of delamination is a fair bit lower but I would still highly recommend pre bonding.
Varying Sizes of Ceramic Tile
In the debate over ceramic or porcelain tile, varying tile size is another strike against ceramic tile in the shower in my opinion. Ceramic tiles can vary in size significantly, even within the same box.
I have noticed this problem with both ceramic tiles and porcelain tiles, but it seems to be a bigger problem with ceramics. The problem is also more pronounced between different boxes, even if they belong to the same tile lot.
WARNING: In my experience, I have found that the lower the tile cost, the more exaggerated this problem becomes.
I have actually spent many hours measuring and sorting through tiles so that I can alternate rows of smaller and larger tiles on a shower wall. This is often the only way to keep rows of tiles uniform and symmetrical.
If your ceramic tiles vary too much in size, and you’re using a fixed size tile spacer, your grout lines will drift out of level and out of alignment.
I talk more about tile drift in my Tile laying post.
Advantage of Ceramic Tile
It’s time that I balanced the scales a bit on the question of Ceramic or Porcelain Tile.
I’ve made it pretty clear that I have a slight bias against ceramic tile…. 🙂 , but I must admit that ceramic tile is much easier tile to work with, especially if you don’t have access to a tile saw and you’re using a standard scoring type tile cutter.
Because ceramic is so much softer than porcelain (less dense), it can be a breeze to cut with a tile saw or a standard tile cutter. Everything about cutting tile is more difficult with porcelain tile.
And because you can quite easily shape your cuts with tile shaping hand tools, your rounded corners can be made to look perfect without the need for an electric cutting or grinding tool. My diamond file is my best friend when I’m cutting the valve openings into a ceramic tile shower wall.
Ceramic Tile – The Bottom Line
After all I have said about the deficiencies of ceramic tile, most of these can be managed with the strategies I have mentioned except one, the permeability problem.
The main problem that I have with ceramic tile is that the shower wall is always going to be exposed to vast amounts of moisture, regularly throughout the life of your shower.
The more permeable a tile is, the more work the shower wall waterproofing membrane has to do to keep moisture from getting behind the shower wall.
This is not necessarily a terrible thing if your membrane is great and you live in a relatively mild climate.
But if you have a shower wall waterproofing membrane with a poor perm rating, and you live in an area with more extreme temperature variations throughout the year, the permeability of your ceramic tile may become a problem.
Of course there are other measures like increasing your outside wall insulation that can lessen this risk, but the risk is simply higher with ceramic tile vs porcelain tile.
So the bottom line is….
Because moisture can permeate a ceramic tile, there is a risk of condensation and mold growth behind the tile and eventual tile delamination if mounted on an outside wall.
And if there is no shower wall waterproofing membrane present this scenario only gets worse, as moisture condenses within the tile backer board or within the stud wall cavity.
Porcelain tile has a clear advantage over ceramic tile in the shower but you must weigh the risks and decide for yourself.
One way to eliminate the ceramic or porcelain tile question is to skip both these options and go with natural stone or quartz stone tiles instead.
Natural stone tiles are quite popular in the bathroom and in the shower, but they can be tricky to handle, install, and maintain. So if you want these tiles in your shower, there are a few things you should know.
Stone tiles can include marble tiles, slate tiles, travertine tiles, granite tiles, pebble stone tiles, engineered quartz tiles and a few other less common stones.
A huge benefit of these tiles over ceramic or porcelain tiles is simply that their color is the same throughout the tile. That means that there may be no need to install tile edging, as long as your cuts are clean and you are willing to do a little hand finishing.
Any of these tiles are dense enough to be used on the shower walls or shower base…… with conditions.
Marble Tiles & Travertine Tiles
Marble tiles are by far the most popular natural stone tiles chosen for the bathroom and shower. I’m guessing that because of it’s extensive use throughout history, it’s become an important part of classic bathroom styling (so I’ve heard… 🙂 .
Anyways….. both marble and travertine tiles are sedimentary rock, which means they are quite soft and porous, travertine being the softer and more porous of the two.
They are also both made from carbonate rock so they are very sensitive to acids of all kinds.
So what does this mean to you, you’re wondering? It means that they must be sealed with a good stone sealer!
I routinely use Aqua Mix Sealers Choice Gold,
Because these stones are relatively soft, it also means that they can wear unpredictably over time.
It can also mean that the color and finish of marble tiles and travertine tiles can be altered or damaged with exposure to acids or organic stains. This damage can be mitigated but not eliminated by regular maintenance.
Is it worth it?
If you install either marble tiles or travertine tiles in your shower, you should thoroughly clean and dry out your shower a couple of times a year to apply a new coat of stone sealer.
Even if you do seal these tiles regularly, you must be ok with the possibility of damage from soaps and other personal care liquids that may pool on the stone surface. Many of these liquids are acidic enough to damage the finish, or cause staining on marble or travertine tile.
And if you are unlucky enough to use a some of the many household cleaners that are not suitable for travertine and marble, you may end up damaging the surface instead of cleaning it.
It is also fairly easy to chip, scratch or mark their surface permanently. All it takes is to drop something solid, sharp or heavy near the edge of one of these tiles to cause a chip or compression mark.
After all that, I still love the look of a marble tile shower…… just not quite enough to install it in my own shower. A bit too much work for me. 🙂
All of a sudden ceramic or porcelain tile doesn’t sound so bad does it? I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it’s worth it.
Granite Shower Tiles
Granite tiles are extremely dense so they can be used anywhere in your shower. They are also pretty much worry free when it comes to cleaning and maintenance.
I regularly see the advice that granite needs to be sealed regularly, much like marble. Like I’ve said before, I’m not a scientist, but I can tell you that granite is not porous and does not require sealing …. Period.
Granite has fissures and pits in it’s surface that can accumulate material so it may look like it’s staining but it will not absorb liquids, so it cannot stain.
To clean granite, you simply have to remove or bleach out the material in the fissures.
Oxi-Clean powder dissolved in water and sprayed on the surface, works great for this purpose. Let it rest for about 10 minutes and then wipe clean with a good microfiber rag (also works great for grout lines).
Pebble Mosaic Tiles
Pebble stone tile shower floors are very unique and compelling but there are some risks associated with them.
This type of mosaic tile is most often made out of granite pebbles glued to a mesh sheet or matt, but they can also be made out of small marble, travertine or sandstone pebbles.
If the pebbles in the mosaic matt are granite then these tiles do not need to be sealed, unless you are using a unsealed cementitious grout. In this case the grout would obviously need to be sealed.
If the pebble mosaic tiles are made of sedimentary rock, then they would definitely need to be sealed the same as you would for marble tiles and travertine tiles.
Installing these pebble mosaic tile sheets in the shower can also be a problem if the mesh sheet that the pebbles are mounted on is not rated for use in the shower.
Most of these mosaic pebble tile matts are specifically made for installation on the base of the shower however, I am aware of some cheaper products out there using paper based matts and inferior glues.
Because this is a risk you cannot afford, you should be sure to ask for the specs on any mosaic tile sheet product you intend to buy and install in your shower.
Foam Shower Base Problem
Because these tiles are composed of small pebbles, they share the same disadvantage of all small mosaic tiles when it comes to installing them on a foam shower base.
As I talked about in my shower tiling post, the downward pressure applied from someone walking on larger format tiles is distributed across the entire tile.
On a mosaic tile, this same downward force is focussed on an individual tile or a small group of tiles making the point source pressure extremely high.
This can be a problem with foam shower bases because they can be damaged by point source compression. The cement coated foam shower bases being a possible exception to this rule.
See my Shower Tile Installation post for more info about mosaic tile installation.
Since quartz or “engineered stone” became so popular for kitchen counter tops, there has been an increase in the production of tiles made out of this material for use in the bathroom and shower.
If you have thought about using these quartz tiles in your shower remodel, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Installation of these tiles is very similar to any other natural stone tile and their maintenance is quite similar to that of granite tiles.
Quartz tiles are not quite as hard as natural granite but this difference is not really important when it comes to installing them in the shower. Both quartz and granite are very hard and essentially non porous.
The benefit that quartz tile has over granite is that it’s manufactured under controlled conditions so it’s quartz surface is smooth and uniform. This makes it super easy to clean.
Granite is made from naturally forming quartz crystals, so it has dents and fissures in its surface which can trap dirt and bacteria.
If you decide that you’d like to install any of the porous natural stone tiles that I mentioned earlier, you need to be prepared to seal these tiles regularly if you want them to last long and look beautiful.
That means using a good tile and stone sealer.
There are a lot of them around and I have used about a dozen different brands to seal stone tiles and regular cementitious grout.
The one I have had the best results with is Aqua Mix Sealers Choice Gold. I left a link to buy this product in the Marble and Travertine section above, but it’s also quite easy to find at most home improvement stores.
Shower Base Tile vs Shower Wall Tile
As I said earlier, porcelain tiles are significantly more dense than ceramic tiles. It is for this reason that I believe that porcelain tiles are the best choice for your shower base.
But there are also a few other things you should consider before choosing your shower base tile.
One such consideration is tile size. Depending on your choice of shower bases this could be an important restriction.
Mosaics on the Shower Base
The size of the tile you choose depends on the shower base you installed in your shower remodel.
Schluter and most other foam shower base manufacturers indicate in their instructions that “mosaic tile” installation is not recommended on their shower bases.
They recommend instead that a mortar base shower pan should be installed if you plan to use mosaics for your shower floor tile.
Unfortunately, this is not too helpful to the novice installer because mosaic tile can vary so much in size, but I can tell you that this warning is intended mainly for those planning to install mosaic tile sheets with the small 1″ square tiles attached.
Although they make no attempt to explain themselves, they are recommending this because of the risk of “point source compression”.
This means that the foam base might compress slightly when someone is standing on these tiles because they are too small to adequately distribute the weight. After all, these bases are made out of foam so they are quite easy to damage.
So, if you want to install a tile ready foam shower pan like the Schluter shower tray, I would recommend that you not choose any tile smaller than 4″ square for your shower floor tile.
See my shower waterproofing membrane post for more information about compression risk and other important considerations if you plan to install a mosaic tile shower floor on a tile ready foam shower base.
No Paper Matt Mosaics!
The small mosaic tiles are pretty much always mounted on a matt (or sheet) (usually 1′ x 1′) to allow you to more easily install them and to keep them relatively evenly spaced.
The problem with these mosaic tiles is that the matte is sometimes made of paper and a light duty glue, which basically dissolves when exposed to water. This type of mosaic tile sheet is designed for decorative tiling applications like kitchen backsplash tile.
That means that you should absolutely NEVER install these particular mosaic tile matts in any shower or tub surround.
If you decide to take a chance and install these in your shower, you will inevitably experience tile delaminations as the tiles disconnects from the paper matte and pop off your shower wall or shower base.
You do not need to take this kind of risk because there are plenty of mosaic tile sheets that are designed for showers. These are manufactured with fiber matts and waterproof glue.
Just make sure that you verify the specs with documentation from the manufacturer because tile distributors and retailers often don’t have the knowledge required.
Even the mosaic tiles with fiber matts may not be rated for showers, so it’s always best to make certain of this before you buy.
Large Format Shower Floor Tiles
Tiles larger than 4″ always pose a challenge if you want to install them on any shower pan / base with a standard round drain.
The problem is that the slope is not linear towards the drain….. instead it constantly changes as a tile position changes on the base. This can cause big tile lippage problems with larger tiles.
The 12 x 24 tiles (large format) are a popular choice because they are often used for the main bathroom floor area and many people are intent on maintaining the continuity between the bathroom floor tile and the shower floor tile.
The only way to solve the tile lippage problem in the shower with these large format tiles is to lay them adjacent to each other from the wall towards the drain, tapering the cuts diagonally and smaller as you approach the drain.
This results in eight intersecting flat planes leading to a square drain (see image below). This is the only solution if you insist on a standard left hand drain (LH), right hand (RH), or center drain(CD).
Another solution to the large tile problem is a single slope shower base with a linear drain on one end. This arrangement poses no problems at all to installing larger tiles in your shower.
However, it can cause some issues if you’re planning to install a curbless or barrier free shower due to the large drop in elevation required from the high end of the shower pan, to the drain.
A 5′ long shower will drop in elevation 1-1/4″ from one end to the other, which cannot be accommodated with a standard 5/8″ – 3/4″ subfloor. Custom structure would be required in the floor in order to drop the pan below the top of your floor joists, or you’ll have to jackhammer the slab if it’s a concrete subfloor. Or… you can simply raise the shower pan and create a standard shower with curb.
This is also a more expensive option because linear drains are quite pricy, and you’ll likely have to relocate the shower drain, and possibly restructure your subfloor.
Ceramic or porcelain or stone tiles in your shower? Its not an easy choice because they are all very different products, and there’s a lot of confusion about each of them.
Hopefully I was able to open your eyes to a few new things about these tiles, and give you the knowledge and confidence to choose the best tile for your shower remodel project.
Please let me know what you think of the post in the comments below, and please ask me any question you like about choosing the best shower tile.
Good Luck with your project!
This post is for information purposes only and should NOT be interpreted as professional advice. You should always consult a licensed local contractor before undertaking any remodeling work in your home. Click here for my full Personal / Professional Disclosure.