Should Subway Tiles Be Matte Or Gloss?

Marble-patterned subway tiles under wooden cabinetry, complemented by rustic décor

Deciding between a matte or gloss finish for your subway tiles is a key decision for your dream kitchen. Both offer classic design styles, but their finishes significantly impact the overall feel of your space. Matte finishes, with their light-absorbing texture, foster a warm and inviting atmosphere. Glossy tiles, on the other hand, reflect light, making your kitchen appear brighter and more spacious. This guide will help you explore these options and discover which finish aligns with your vision, ultimately transforming your kitchen into a space that seamlessly blends beauty and functionality.


Sleek matte black subway tiles with a fluid, reflective surface


Understanding Subway Tile Finishes

Subway tiles, those iconic rectangular beauties gracing kitchens and bathrooms for over a century, offer a surprising depth of character beyond their simple form. The magic lies in the finish, a subtle detail that transforms these tiles from workhorses to captivating design elements. 

A Brief History of Subway Tiles

Contrary to popular belief, subway tiles weren't born in subways! Their origin story takes us back to late 19th century New York City, where glazed ceramic tiles adorned the walls of the bustling underground railway system. Easy to clean, durable, and aesthetically pleasing, these tiles quickly gained favor, migrating from the subterranean world to grace kitchens and bathrooms across the nation. Today, subway tiles remain a timeless design choice, their versatility allowing them to seamlessly integrate into a variety of styles.

Matte Finish

Picture a surface that combines the luxurious feel of velvet with the long-lasting durability of porcelain. That's the essence of the matte subway tile. Its unglazed or minimally glazed surface absorbs light, creating a subtle, almost powdery texture. This light-absorbing quality lends a sense of intimacy and warmth to a space. Think of a cozy farmhouse kitchen, where matte white subway tiles compliment exposed brick walls and wood floors, fostering a sense of relaxed elegance. The beauty of matte finishes lies in their ability to showcase the true color of the tile. Unlike their glossy counterparts, they don't rely on light reflection to reveal their vibrancy. This makes them a perfect choice for bold color palettes, allowing the richness of the hue to take center stage.

Gloss Finish

Glossy subway tiles bring light and vibrancy to your kitchen. Their smooth, reflective surface acts like a mirror, bouncing light around the room and making smaller kitchens feel more spacious. Imagine a classic white subway tile backsplash catching the morning sun, instantly brightening the space. Glossy finishes go beyond white too. Bold colors like emerald green or sapphire blue come alive with a sheen, creating a sophisticated focal point with a touch of vintage charm.

Exploring Other Finishes

While matte and gloss reign supreme, the world of subway tile finishes offers a few intriguing alternatives that can add unique character to your kitchen backsplash or bathroom walls. Let's delve into these lesser-known finishes to broaden your design horizons:

Satin Finish

Consider a finish that balances the subtle elegance of matte with the brightness of gloss. That's the magic of satin subway tiles. Their smooth, non-reflective surface offers a subtle sheen that adds a touch of sophistication to your space. Unlike their glossy counterparts, they don't overwhelm with intense light reflection. This makes them a perfect choice for those seeking a hint of glamor without sacrificing the warmth and depth often associated with matte finishes. Satin subway tiles come alive in neutral tones like beige or light gray, creating a timeless and inviting atmosphere.

Textured Finish

For those who crave a touch of the unexpected, textured subway tiles offer a world of exciting possibilities. Unlike their flat counterparts, these tiles feature raised patterns, geometric shapes, or even uneven surfaces. This textural variation adds visual interest and depth to your walls, creating a unique focal point in your kitchen or bathroom. Textured subway tiles are available in a variety of patterns, from classic subway shapes with a linear ripple effect to more contemporary geometric designs. They shine brightest when paired with earthy tones like terracotta or deep green, creating a rustic or industrial vibe. For a bolder statement, consider metallic finishes in textured subway tiles, adding a touch of modern luxury to your space.

Warm-toned, matte subway tiles in a cozy bathroom setting

Crafting Your Vision with Subway Tiles

Subway tiles, with their timeless rectangular form, act as a blank canvas upon which you can paint your dream kitchen. But the magic truly lies in the finish, the subtle detail that breathes life into the design. Here, we explore how the choice between matte and gloss finishes unlocks a world of aesthetic possibilities, allowing you to curate a space that reflects your unique style.

Classic and Sophisticated

For a touch of classic sophistication, look no further than glossy subway tiles. Their smooth, glazed surface reflects light beautifully, creating a sense of grandeur and refined elegance. Picture a traditional farmhouse kitchen filled with warm sunlight. Here, glossy white subway tiles complement shaker-style cabinets and butcher block countertops, exuding a timeless charm. The reflective nature of the tiles bounces light around the room, making the space feel airy and inviting. Glossy finishes also lend themselves perfectly to transitional kitchens, where they bridge the gap between classic and contemporary styles. Think navy blue subway tiles paired with brass hardware and sleek stainless steel appliances, creating a space that feels both sophisticated and modern.

Modern and Sleek

For a kitchen that embodies contemporary chic, matte subway tiles are your secret weapon. Their understated elegance creates a clean and minimalist aesthetic, perfectly suited to modern design sensibilities. Picture a sleek, open-plan kitchen featuring clean lines, bold pops of color, and stainless steel accents. Here, matte black subway tiles create a dramatic backdrop, highlighting the minimalist design elements and adding a touch of sophisticated texture. The light-absorbing quality of matte finishes prevents overwhelming reflections, ensuring the focus remains on the clean lines and bold color choices. This makes them a perfect fit for kitchens featuring statement pieces like brightly colored pendant lights or vibrant artwork.

Warm and Inviting

Craving a kitchen that feels like a warm embrace? Look to matte subway tiles in earthy tones to create a space that exudes rustic charm and invites casual gatherings. Imagine a cozy farmhouse kitchen with exposed brick walls, weathered wood furniture, and a cast iron sink. Here, matte subway tiles in a warm terracotta hue complement the natural textures, creating a sense of grounded comfort. The light-absorbing quality of the matte finish softens the overall look, adding depth and a touch of the hand-crafted. This extends to other earthy tones like sage green or taupe, allowing you to create a kitchen that feels both stylish and undeniably inviting.

Bright and Airy

If your kitchen is on the smaller side or struggles with limited natural light, glossy subway tiles can be your saving grace. Their reflective nature acts like a visual expander, bouncing light around the room and creating an illusion of spaciousness. Picture a galley kitchen with limited windows. Here, glossy white subway tiles on the backsplash and walls work wonders to brighten the space. Light reflects off their surface, making the kitchen feel larger and more open. This functionality extends beyond white tiles. Consider pale blue or soft green gloss finishes to add a touch of personality while still maximizing light reflection, creating a kitchen that feels both bright and airy.


Matte subway tiles with skylights and a woven pendant light


Light and Space Considerations

Light plays a starring role in shaping the atmosphere and functionality of your kitchen. The interplay between natural and artificial light with your chosen subway tile finish can dramatically impact the overall feel of the space. Here's a closer look at how to leverage light to your advantage:

Embracing the Power of Natural Light

Abundant natural light offers a perfect canvas for showcasing the brilliance of glossy subway tiles. Their reflective nature amplifies the existing light, making the kitchen feel bright, airy, and inviting. Imagine a sun-drenched kitchen with large windows. Here, glossy white subway tiles on the backsplash and walls dance with the sunlight, creating a sense of spaciousness and vibrancy. This effect extends beyond white – consider pale pastels or light blues in a glossy finish to add a touch of personality while still maximizing light reflection.

However, natural light can sometimes be a double-edged sword. If your kitchen receives harsh afternoon sunlight, matte subway tiles can be your knight in shining armor. Their light-absorbing quality helps to balance out the intensity, creating a more calming and subdued atmosphere. Think of a south-facing kitchen with large windows. Here, matte subway tiles in a cool gray tone can temper the harsh sunlight, preventing glare and creating a more comfortable space for cooking and gathering.

Understanding Artificial Illumination

Natural light may not always be the star of the show. Artificial lighting plays a crucial role in setting the mood and functionality of your kitchen after dark. The type of bulbs you choose can significantly impact the appearance of your subway tiles. Warm incandescent bulbs cast a soft, yellowish glow that complements matte finishes beautifully. In a kitchen with matte charcoal subway tiles, warm lighting creates a cozy and intimate atmosphere.

On the other hand, cool LED bulbs emit a brighter, whiter light that enhances the reflective properties of glossy tiles. Imagine a kitchen with glossy white subway tiles illuminated by cool LED downlights. The light reflects beautifully off the tiles, maximizing brightness and creating a clean, modern aesthetic. Experimenting with different bulb types allows you to fine-tune the mood and ensure your subway tile choice continues to shine, even after dark.

Maximizing Space with Light Reflection

For those blessed with compact kitchens, glossy subway tiles can be your secret weapon in the battle against a cramped feeling. Their light-reflective nature creates an illusion of spaciousness, visually expanding the room. Think of a galley kitchen with limited square footage. Glossy white subway tiles on the backsplash and extending partially up the walls can work wonders. Light bounces off the tiles, making the kitchen feel larger and more open. This space-maximizing effect isn't limited to white – consider pale blues or light greens in a glossy finish to add a touch of personality while maintaining the illusion of a more expansive space.


Glossy subway tiles reflect soft light and gold faucet details


Upkeep of Subway Tiles

The allure of a beautiful kitchen extends beyond aesthetics - functionality and ease of maintenance are equally important. When it comes to ceramic and porcelain subway tiles, the chosen finish can significantly impact your cleaning routine and the overall upkeep of your backsplash. This section equips you with the essential cleaning routines to keep your tiles and grout looking fresh and beautiful for years to come.

Important Note: Cleaning recommendations in this guide are intended for ceramic and porcelain subway tiles only. Other subway tile materials, such as natural stone, may require different cleaning procedures and solutions. Always consult the manufacturer's instructions for proper care of your specific tiles.

Conquering Grime

Subway tiles, with their smooth surfaces and durable nature, are a dream come true for busy households. Yet, even the most low-maintenance materials require a touch of TLC. Here's a breakdown of how both matte and gloss finishes fare in the battle against grime and stains:


Glossy Tiles

For those who value a low-maintenance approach, glossy subway tiles are your valiant warriors. Their smooth, glazed surface acts as a shield against dirt and grime. Spills and splatters tend to bead up on the surface, making them easy to wipe away with a damp cloth and a mild cleaning solution. Their reflective nature also makes them less prone to showing water spots and fingerprints, a welcome benefit for busy kitchens. Think of a family kitchen with glossy white subway tiles. A quick wipe-down after meals keeps the backsplash looking pristine, minimizing the cleaning burden and allowing you to spend more time creating culinary masterpieces.

Matte Tiles

While matte subway tiles may require a bit more effort in the cleaning department, their ability to hide minor imperfections shouldn't be overlooked. Their slightly textured surface can sometimes trap dirt and dust, requiring a more thorough cleaning with a gentle scrub brush and a non-abrasive cleaning solution. However, this very texture also works in your favor by camouflaging minor water spots and fingerprints. Imagine a kitchen with matte black subway tiles. Occasional cleaning with a microfiber cloth keeps them looking their best, while the subtle texture helps to conceal everyday wear and tear.

Maintaining the Lines

No matter the tile finish, the grout lines between your subway tiles require special attention. Grout is a porous material susceptible to staining, and its color can be affected by the tile finish. Glossy tiles, with their reflective nature, can sometimes make grout stains appear more prominent. Opting for a darker grout color with glossy tiles can help minimize this effect. For both finishes, regularly cleaning the grout with a diluted vinegar solution and a soft brush helps prevent staining and keeps your backsplash looking fresh. Sealing the grout, especially for lighter colors, can offer an additional layer of protection against staining and make cleaning even easier.

Important Note: While a diluted vinegar solution is a common recommendation for cleaning grout, it's always best to consult the manufacturer's cleaning recommendations for your specific grout product. Some grouts may have different cleaning requirements or may not react well to vinegar.

Ensuring Lasting Beauty

Both matte and gloss subway tiles, when properly cared for, can offer lasting beauty for years to come. Their glazed or unglazed surfaces are highly resistant to scratches and fading, ensuring your backsplash retains its original charm for a long time. Regular cleaning with gentle solutions and avoiding harsh chemicals will further extend their lifespan. Ultimately, the choice between matte and gloss for long-term wear comes down to personal preference and cleaning habits. If a low-maintenance approach is a priority, glossy tiles might be the better choice. However, if you're comfortable with a slightly more involved cleaning routine, the beauty and subtle texture of matte tiles can be a rewarding option.


Modern kitchen with matte subway tiles and wooden accents


Subway Tiles with Other Elements

Subway tiles, while seemingly simple, act as the conductor in the orchestra of your kitchen design. Their finish plays a crucial role in harmonizing with other key elements like cabinets, countertops, and the backsplash height itself. Here's a guide to ensure your subway tiles create a cohesive and visually stunning space:


The color and finish of your cabinets significantly influence the ideal subway tile finish. Light-colored cabinets, like white or light gray, offer a beautiful canvas for both matte and gloss tiles. In this scenario, the choice becomes more about the desired aesthetic. Glossy white subway tiles paired with light cabinets create a clean and airy feel, perfect for modern kitchens. Conversely, matte white subway tiles with light cabinets offer a touch of warmth and texture, ideal for farmhouse or transitional styles.

Darker cabinets, however, can benefit greatly from the brightness that glossy subway tiles offer. Imagine a kitchen with rich wood cabinets. Glossy white subway tiles on the backsplash act as a visual counterpoint, preventing the space from feeling too heavy. This brightening effect extends beyond white – consider pale pastels or light blues in a glossy finish to add a touch of personality while maintaining a sense of openness.


The material and pattern of your countertops play a vital role in the symphony of your kitchen design. Glossy subway tiles create a natural pairing with sleek and reflective countertops like marble or quartz. Their combined reflectiveness creates a sense of luxury and expands the perceived size of the space. Think of a modern kitchen with white quartz countertops. Here, glossy white subway tiles complement the countertop beautifully, creating a seamless and visually unified space.

On the other hand, matte subway tiles can act as a calming presence when paired with busy countertops featuring patterns or textures. Imagine a kitchen with granite countertops featuring a bold pattern. Here, matte subway tiles in a neutral tone like beige or gray provide a sense of balance, preventing the countertop from overwhelming the space. This ability to harmonize extends beyond neutral tones. Consider deep green or navy blue matte subway tiles to create a bold statement backsplash that complements a patterned countertop while maintaining a sense of visual coherence.

Backsplash Height

The height of your backsplash can also influence the ideal subway tile finish in a few key ways. Let's explore this interplay between backsplash dimension and tile finish to help you make the most informed decision for your space.

Tall Backsplash

Glossy subway tiles truly come into their own when paired with a higher backsplash that extends beyond the stovetop. This expansive canvas provides ample surface area for light to bounce and reflect, ensuring the entire backsplash area is evenly illuminated. This creates a brighter and more spacious feel, especially beneficial for kitchens with limited natural light. Imagine a kitchen with a tall backsplash reaching the underside of the cabinets, adorned with glossy white subway tiles. Sunlight streams through the window, reflecting beautifully off the tiles and creating a sense of openness throughout the space.

Standard Backsplash

For a standard backsplash height that rests behind the countertop, the choice between matte and gloss finishes becomes more about personal preference and the overall aesthetic you wish to achieve. Both finishes can create a stunning visual focal point, depending on your design goals. Glossy subway tiles can still add a touch of light and vibrancy, while matte finishes offer a sense of warmth and grounded sophistication.

The Art of Proportion

Beyond light reflection, backsplash height also plays a role in visual balance. In kitchens with high ceilings, a taller backsplash with glossy tiles can help ground the space and create a sense of proportion. Conversely, in a smaller kitchen with a low ceiling, a standard backsplash height with matte charcoal subway tiles can prevent the space from feeling visually overwhelmed. Ultimately, the ideal backsplash height and tile finish combination should complement the overall scale and architectural features of your kitchen.

Herringbone-patterned marble subway tiles with a minimalist vase

Informed Decisions

While the world of subway tile finishes offers a captivating array of possibilities, the ultimate decision rests on your personal preferences and vision for your kitchen. Here, we explore the importance of self-discovery and provide a practical tip to ensure your chosen finish becomes the perfect harmony note in the symphony of your dream kitchen.

Embracing Your Design Desires

Throughout this guide, we've delved into the technical aspects and visual effects of matte and gloss subway tiles. However, the most important factor is how these finishes make you feel. Do you crave a space bathed in the warm glow of matte tiles, whispering a tale of rustic charm? Or perhaps the sleek sophistication of glossy tiles, reflecting light and exuding a touch of timeless elegance, resonates more deeply with your design sensibilities?

Close your eyes and picture yourself in your dream kitchen. Imagine the atmosphere you wish to create - a warm and inviting space for family gatherings, a modern and minimalist haven for culinary experimentation, or perhaps a classic and elegant backdrop for your culinary masterpieces. The finish you choose for your subway tiles should seamlessly integrate with this vision, reflecting your personality and enhancing the overall mood you desire.

Seeing is Believing

The world of design thrives on visual storytelling. Armed with the knowledge gleaned from this guide, take the next step towards your dream kitchen. Order samples of both matte and gloss subway tiles in the colors you're considering. Hold them up to your cabinets, lay them against your countertop material, and most importantly, bathe them in the natural and artificial light of your kitchen space. This tactile experience will allow you to witness firsthand how the finishes interact with your chosen materials and lighting, ensuring your final decision is not just informed, but truly inspiring.


The journey to your dream kitchen doesn't have a single, predetermined path. When it comes to choosing between matte and gloss subway tiles, there's no absolute "right" answer. Instead, the ideal finish lies at the intersection of your personal desires, the unique character of your space, and the practical considerations that ensure lasting beauty and functionality. Ultimately, the true magic lies in how your chosen subway tile finish complements the other elements in your kitchen. Imagine the interplay between the tiles and your cabinets, countertops, and backsplash height. By carefully considering these factors, you can transform your kitchen into a cohesive and visually stunning space, a place where function and beauty dance in perfect harmony. 

Ready to see how your chosen finish will look in your kitchen? Explore our AR technology to visualize matte and gloss subway tiles in your own space, and take the next step towards creating your dream kitchen.

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