Colored Concrete vs Stained Concrete: Differences, Which is Better?

concrete

The term ”Stained Concrete” is a general one that refers to concrete that has been stained with special dyes to produce color. 

Colored concrete is also known as exposed aggregate, anonymous concrete, and exposed color concrete. 

Concrete is an inexpensive material used for all kinds of construction. Some people choose to color their concrete instead of staining it. There are considerable differences between these two processes. 

Therefore, you must decide which process will best serve your needs before you hire a contractor or tackle the job yourself.

Differences between Colored Concrete and Stained Concrete

Colored concrete is often mistaken for stained concrete. While they are extremely similar, the two have some very distinct differences that set them apart from one another.

Concrete Stain

stained concrete

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Stained concrete is done after all of your project’s regular work has been completed. It will typically require an acid wash to open up the pores on the substrate (cement) creating a natural etching process for color to be absorbed into. 

Various stains will give you different colors; there are thousands to choose from including earth tones, metal tones (copper, bronze, etc.) gray shades, and shades of blue. 

Once the stain is applied either with a sprayer or by hand brush, it can then be sealed with an acrylic sealer or wax depending on what look you are going for. 

Stained concrete is achieved by adding pigments to the concrete mix prior to pouring. The most common type of stain uses water-soluble dyes that are absorbed into the surface of the cement. 

When these dyes are mixed with the cement, they create pockets on the surface of the slab that is invisible when wet but can be seen easily once dry. 

These pockets hold pigment and sealer in place, producing considerably more vibrant colors than can be achieved using concrete paint.

Concrete stains are most commonly used on interior floors, but they can also be applied to driveways and patios. 

Stained concrete is usually more expensive than colored concrete because it is time-consuming to apply and requires the application of acid etch before the dye is added to the mixture. 

The etch helps bring out brighter colors in the stained surface by opening up pores that might otherwise fill with dirt or sealer.

Specialty coatings like penetrating silicate, which adds grit to encourage traction without adding color, can be sprayed onto stained surfaces for additional safety if necessary. 

When properly sealed with a topcoat, even this type of stain is very resistant to staining or discoloration from oil, grease, or mildew.

Concrete Color

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Colored concrete, also known as acid-stained or chemical staining, is a more permanent solution and requires a lot more time put into the project. 

Instead of waiting weeks to months for your stains to dry you will have a matter of days until your concrete turns the color desired. 

The process begins with an acid etch which will open up the pores on the cement allowing it to “grab” onto the colored pigments used in the final step. 

The colorants are made from nothing but pure pigment and water-soluble salts which will allow them to bond permanently to your substrate (concrete). 

Unlike stained concrete, color in the form of dry pigments is simply sprinkled onto wet cement and then worked into the surface with a broom. Like stains, pigments come in an array of colors and add a layer of protection to the cement. 

However, because there is no mixture applied to the surface prior to application, it takes only minutes to apply pigment while stain can take days or even weeks depending on conditions such as humidity and temperature. 

Also unlike stains that only work well on interior floors due to their delicate nature, pigmented concrete can be used anywhere including driveways and patios.

As with other types of coloring agents, though, you should choose your pigment carefully according to the application and the desired result. 

It is important to understand that, because there is no mixture applied to the surface before application, there will be variations in color throughout the slab due to differences in density and porosity. 

These variations, known as flow marks, should not be seen as imperfections but rather as a testament to the hand-crafted nature of each piece.

Depending on what look you want, different colors will be applied using either sprayers or hand brushes after they sit for a few hours. Once the color is on, it can be sealed with an acrylic sealer or wax depending on what look you are going for.

How a Concrete is Made

The procedure used to make standard concrete is very simple in most cases. Water and Portland cement form solid particles known as “creme,” which are made up of about 95 percent water. 

Aggregate materials such as sand and gravel make up the other five percent. After water, cement and aggregate are poured into a concrete mixer, they are mixed with additives such as coloring pigment or fly ash (which is used to reduce air pollution when transporting concrete by truck). 

When it’s in the form of “paste,” coloring pigment is added to the mix. Fly ash can actually be added directly in dry form and mixed until it dissolves completely in the wet paste before adding the aggregate materials. 

The consistency of paste must be right for proper placement and compaction of standard concrete, but it cannot be considered just right because any color that was originally in fly ash will not show through once the mixture is complete.

Adding Color Pigment

If you’re interested in adding pigment to your concrete, you can simply purchase a ready-to-use coloring agent from a supplier. 

This product is very easy to use and will not interfere with the standard concrete process in a mobile mixer truck. However, it may be helpful for you to know that there are many other ways to add color. 

First, ask one of our experts today about adding other materials such as dyes or paints directly into your concrete mix before you pour your foundation. 

If this doesn’t work for your project because of something like size limitations, we may suggest adding coloring agents directly into water instead of mixing them with Portland cement and aggregate while making the creme. 

The type of coloring material added along with water should affect how long your newly colored concrete mixture will take to set up, so you’ll need to let us know how much time is available for making this type of concrete.

Different Types of Pigments 

There are three main types of pigments: hydraulic cement pigments, mineral pigments, and silicate minerals. The type you choose depends on your needs and budget.

Hydraulic cement pigments

Hydraulic cement pigments include natural stone dusts such as marble, granite, or slate which can increase durability by up to 10% if used correctly. 

Unlike other types of pigment, they must be pre-blended with a binder such as latex or acrylic and used in conjunction with water to create a paste that binds the mineral particles. 

To achieve the best results, you will need to use more pigment than is recommended on most concrete coloring charts which can drive up your cost per square foot.

Mineral pigments 

Mineral pigments are composed of natural minerals and aggregates such as iron oxide and titanium dioxide. They can be blended with latex or acrylic binders in much the same way as hydraulic cement pigments but without increased durability. 

Mineral pigments tend to produce more muted colors than other types of pigment, however, so they might not be suitable for projects that require brighter colors than what is produced using dye stains alone.

Silicate minerals

Silicate minerals are man-made aggregates composed of sand and pigments. The binding agent, in this case, is silica, which comes from crushed quartz or flint. 

Silicate minerals produce more vibrant colors than other types of pigment because they contain purer pigments but tend to be the most expensive type of colorant. 

They are also suitable for exterior surfaces whereas mineral-based pigments are not.

Advantages & Disadvantages

Like stains, dry pigments offer many advantages over both paint and colored concrete including low VOC levels, ease of application (no need for etching), no need for water, no chalking or peeling, high durability, and very little maintenance required once complete. 

However, there are some disadvantages as well.

Pigments are considerably more expensive than paint, as much as two or three times the price. This is due to the increased quantities needed to achieve a certain color and the greater care required in the application. 

They also have a shorter shelf life than paint which means they need to be purchased close to when you plan on using them rather than months or even years beforehand. 

The pigment can also become dusty during the application, especially when dry, so it’s important that both equipment and surrounding areas are clean before work begins.

In addition, pigments have been known to fade when exposed to direct sunlight over time making them unsuitable for driveways and other high traffic areas. 

In order to combat this problem, some experts suggest applying a top coat of acrylic or epoxy to protect the color.

Comparison chart

Acid stainWater-based stainConcrete dyeIntegral colorDry-Shake Color Hardener
Color options availableLimited to earth tones and soft blue-greensNearly unlimited; different colors can be mixed to create custom huesNearly unlimited; colors can be mixed or dilutedLimited to earth tones and pastel shadesComes in a wider array of hues than integral color, but tones are more muted than dyes or water-based stains
Can be used indoors and outdoorsYesYesCheck with the manufacturer. Not all dyes are UV-resistant.YesYes
Can be applied to new or existing concreteYesYesYesNoYes
Can be applied to cement-based overlaysYesYesYesNoYes
Ease of application and cleanupPoor
After application, the surface must be scrubbed to remove stain residue and to neutralize the acid.
Good
No neutralization or rinsing is required; application tools can be cleaned with soap and water.
Good
No need to clean the slab after application; dye particles are very fine and absorbed into the surface.
N/APoor
Must be hand broadcast, and can be labor-intensive and messy to work with.
Application tool requirementsA low-pressure sprayer, or brushes or sponges for detail work. All tools must be acid-resistant, with no metal components.A low-pressure sprayer, roller, brush, or spongeA low-pressure sprayer, roller, brush, or spongeN/AA bull float, to work the hardener into the surface
PerformanceExcellent
Because they penetrate the concrete surface, most acid- and water-based stains have excellent UV stability and wear resistance.
Excellent
Because they penetrate the concrete surface, most acid- and water-based stains have excellent UV stability and wear resistance.
Good
Some dyes are not recommended for exterior use because they can fade when exposed to direct sunlight.
Excellent
The color goes through the entire slab and will not wear away.
Excellent
Improves the strength and density of the concrete surface; also UV resistance.
Are safety precautions required?Yes
May contain corrosive components that can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation. Wear impervious gloves and boots, eye protection, and a facemask to prevent inhalation.
No
Water-based stains typically have a low VOC content and are safe to apply without concern for odors or toxic fumes.
Yes, if solvent-based
Solvent-based dyes are flammable and can produce hazardous vapors. For projects in occupied spaces or where ventilation is poor, use a water-based dye.
NoYes
The airborne powder can be harmful to breathe. Wear a respirator or facemask when working with these products.

Most people who attempt coloring their concrete do so because they believe it will save them money and time. While this has some truth to it, there are still more factors to take into consideration than just those two things. 

For starters, only certain strains are supposed to be used on colored concrete – you wouldn’t want to use an acid wash stain over your dyed concrete as the result would not turn out well. 

This means if you were considering staining after the fact anyway, you may as well go for regular stained concrete which would look much better in most cases. 

Along with that, colored concrete is often more expensive than stained concrete as it requires many extra steps to complete which increases the cost of having this work done.

Conclusion

Stained concrete is a much better choice for those who want color and texture. This is without completely changing the look of their existing cement. 

If you are looking for a long-term solution and absolutely want or need colored concrete then it may be right up your alley.