Colored Concrete Trends: Choosing Between Dyes, Stains & Pigments

Understanding the differences, benefits and pitfalls of each colored concrete application is important in determining which is best for your project.

Prosoco dyed, polished concrete.
Prosoco dyed, polished concrete.
Prosoco

From intricate residential patio work to decorative flooring to multi-hued columns in sports stadiums – plenty of today’s projects require contractors to use colored concrete. But how do you decide whether to use dye, stain or pigment?  

First of all, you’ll need to understand the differences between the three. While the terms are often used interchangeably, dyes, stains and pigments differ significantly from one another.

We spoke with industry experts from Curecrete, Ameripolish and Prosoco about decorative colored concrete trends, common misperceptions, the differences between applications and how to select the right one for the job.

Common Misperception: Confusing Dye with Stain

The terms “dye” and “stain” are often used interchangeably, causing many people to confuse the two products – while they are, in fact, very different.

Ameripolish digital marketing manager Greg Cabot says, “I think the word stain is more broadly used than the word dye. A lot of contractors say the word ‘stain,’ but they're actually referring to what we know as a dye.” He goes on to say, “Stains have been around a lot longer than dyes, so it’s common for people to use the word stain even though they're not necessarily talking about a stain.”

Dyes, Stains and Pigments Defined

In order to determine which colored concrete application is best for your project, you need to understand what they are and how they differ from each other.

Dyes

In many ways, dyes are the simplest type of colored concrete application. They come in a wide range of color options, dry quickly and can be used on existing concrete. Raw dye typically comes in powder form, which can then be dispersed into water or a solvent for application.Decorative concrete flooring with dye by Ameripolish.Decorative concrete flooring with dye by Ameripolish.Ameripolish

Stains

Stains are typically used to tint, shade or change the texture of existing concrete. There are three types of stains: film-forming, acid and penetrating.

Film-forming stains coat or lay on top of a concrete surface in a similar way to paint – but can peel or chip away with exposure to things like heavy foot-traffic and harsh weather conditions.

Penetrating stains are a more permanent solution than film-forming, because they penetrate deeper into the porous concrete surface. Available in a wide range of tints and shades, penetrating stains can even be used to impart boldly colored hues onto concrete (though they are typically still translucent).

Acid stains react chemically with concrete. This results in etching of the surface that creates a marbled, mottled or textured appearance.Stain with Curecrete's RetroPlate polishing system over it.Stain with Curecrete's RetroPlate polishing system over it.Curecrete

Pigments

While dyes and stains are typically in a solution for concrete application – pigments are dry particles of color. For this reason, they can have trouble penetrating hardened concrete surfaces, and must be used when mixing the concrete.Prosoco integral (pigment) color at Skyline College.Prosoco integral (pigment) color at Skyline College.Prosoco

Differences Between Dyes, Stains and Pigments

Cabot says one of the biggest differences between dye and stain is color predictability. “Stains are reactive. It's a chemical that reacts with the concrete itself and produces an unpredictable color. And dyes are just like the dye that’s in your shirt. It's a predictable color. If you select brown, then you're going to get brown. Whereas with stain, you sometimes don't know exactly what the outcome of that product is going to be,” he says.

Vice president of sales for Curecrete Distribution Vernon Talbot echoes this sentiment, saying, “The truth is that dyes are much easier to use and have far more colors to choose from.”

He goes on to explain that stains and dyes both have advantages over pigment. “Acid stains and dyes give us some artistic advantages over integrally colored concrete. We can create designs, logos and more intricate coloring with acid stains or dyes, rather than pigment. Also, on an existing floor, the only way to color the floor is with acid stains or dyes – integral color can only be used on a new concrete pour.”Prosoco dyed, polished concrete.Prosoco dyed, polished concrete.Prosoco

Talbot’s colleague, Curecrete tooling specialist Brak Carman says, “Acid stains are a color reaction. Dyes and pigments are particles of color and are more topical unless mixed into the concrete at time of placement.”

“Acid stains typically require more safety precautions and experience to apply than the film-forming and penetrating stains,” says Prosoco concrete flooring group leader Nick Savage. He continues, saying, “Dyes are easy to use, have a large selection of colors and are nonreactive. They deliver color by penetrating concrete or other porous cementitious surfaces, such as overlays. Dyes are much smaller in particle size than chemical stains, thus allowing for easier penetration and color saturation. Dyes typically come in a liquid dispersion or a powder. They come in water-based or solvent-based options.”

Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Application

Each type of colored concrete application has its primary benefits and pitfalls.

With dyes, the obvious consensus is that they deliver reliable color results and are easy to use. But they can be susceptible to UV light fading.Close-up view of aggregate and acid stain.Close-up view of aggregate and acid stain.

Stains present slightly less predictable color options and require more safety precautions but are much more UV-stable than dyes. Talbot says, “Stains do have one tremendous advantage – UV stability. The dyes will disappear under UV light. While the acid stain may lighten slightly under UV light, it won’t disappear like a dye would.” He adds, “Also, acid stains give a bit of a mottled color, so it looks kind of rustic in my opinion. I like this and find many architects who prefer this mottled look over a consistent color that looks more like paint.”

Pigments must be applied when concrete is being mixed, which limits decorative and timing options – but they offer great depth of color since they are mixed all the way throughout the concrete slab.

Which Application is Most Popular Among Contractors?Decorative concrete flooring with dye by Ameripolish.Decorative concrete flooring with dye by Ameripolish.Ameripolish

When asked which colored concrete application is the most commonly used by contractors, Ameripolish’s Greg Cabot and Curecrete’s Vernon Talbot both said dye was the most popular in their opinions. Talbot says, “To be honest, I see more contractors using dyes, than stains.”

Prosoco’s Nick Savage says, “In my opinion, it really depends on the customer’s expectations and desired aesthetic outcome. Decorative concrete contractors have traditionally gone with reactive acid stains. The variance in colors as well as the UV stability of acid stains are a popular choice for homeowners and smaller decorative finishes. Acid stains generally deliver a mottled appearance.” He added, “Traditional polishing contractors typically opt for a penetrating, translucent dye. Dyes have brought more options to the concrete polisher’s color palette.”

Selecting the Right Color Application for Your Project

Once you understand the differences between dyes, stains and pigments, you should address the following project-related questions:

  • What kinds of results are desired?
  • What conditions will the colored concrete be exposed to once completed?Harley D Atlantic City, NjHarley Davidson in Atlantic City. Flooring is stain with Curecrete's RetroPlate polishing system over it.

If your concrete will be exposed to lots of UV light, you may want to opt for a stain. But if you’re looking for a wide range of color options, dye could be the best way to go. Conversely, if you want to color your concrete while mixing, or want color that goes all the way through the slab – use pigment.

On selecting the best application type, Savage says, “In my opinion, it really depends on the customer’s expectations and desired aesthetic outcome. Decorative concrete contractors have traditionally gone with reactive acid stains. The variance in colors as well as the UV stability of acid stains are a popular choice for homeowners and smaller decorative finishes.”

Talbot explains that dyes offer more color choices and ease of use, and says, “Most of our contractors today use dyes, as opposed to acid stains.” In fact, when referencing Curecrete, he says, “We currently carry and sell dyes. We used to sell acid stains, but when dyes started to take over, we stopped selling the acid stains.” The same is true for Ameripolish. Cabot says Ameripolish offers dyes and pigment products.

However, Talbot also says, “Acid stain etches into the concrete because of the acid used. This can give a much stronger, deeper color than using a dye. But from another angle, the etching of the floor by the acid can make it harder to polish properly, because we are now trying to polish something that is etched, rather than polishing something smooth.”Prosoco dyed, polished concrete.Prosoco dyed, polished concrete.Prosoco

Both Savage and Cabot say the best use for pigments (or even integrally colored dyed concrete) is in overlays, such as logos and stencils. “When you use an integral color in a concrete mix design, it can be really expensive. But it pairs well with overlays because there's not as much material that's being colored.” Savage echoes this, saying, “Integrally colored polishable overlays are increasing in popularity. Customers like the consistent color and results an integrally colored overlay provides.”

Whatever application you choose, you can now achieve a nearly endless variety of decorative colored concrete outcomes. Thanks to the wide selection of products, methods and colors available on today’s market, contractors can craft stunningly artistic results for their customers.


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