6 Alternatives To Popcorn Ceilings (Pick These!)

Photo: Ted McGrath / Flickr / CC BY NC SA 2.0

Asbestos was a popular component of many construction materials until the late 1970s when it was banned because of its associated health problems.

The spray-on popcorn ceiling was one such material, popular from the 1950s, until the 1990s, long after the banning of asbestos. Its popularity was because of its fireproofing, heat and sound insulation properties, and ability to conceal ceiling imperfections.

Professional removal of asbestos popcorn ceiling ranges from $3-$8/sq. ft. with labor costing $15-$50/hr. Additionally, budgeting for the safe disposal of asbestos and a replacement textured surface finish can cost up to $5/sq. ft. 

Typically, for an average room, you can spend $900-$3,000 overall.

However, not all popcorn ceilings contain asbestos, so have a professional asbestos survey done before you start removing it.

When you’re sure there’s no asbestos present, you can safely continue with the project. Otherwise, hire a professional asbestos contractor to remove it for you. 

Here’s a YouTube video showing how to remove an asbestos-free popcorn ceiling. It will help show what’s involved in the job.

When you’ve removed the popcorn surface, there are several alternatives you can use to get your ceilings looking good once again.

Read on for more information.

Popcorn Ceiling Alternatives & Options

There are several safer alternatives to popcorn ceilings that are much more attractive and need less maintenance, as popcorn surfaces tend to discolor and require frequent cleaning and repainting.

Furthermore, if you have asbestos-laced popcorn ceilings, you can safely cover and seal them if they’re not severely damaged.

Popular textures include:

1. Skim Coat 

Skimming over popcorn is a very user-friendly option and is usually suitable for a DIYer. The smooth ceiling texture is simple but has a stylish, elegant finish without the problem of maintenance.

This finish has been very popular over the past few years because it allows a wide variety of paint finishes.

You can use smooth or textured paint or a woodchip paper finish that gives a popcorn appearance without the associated health hazards. But, if you want to keep the surface smooth, it will remain dust free for a very long time.

Smooth ceilings also have the appearance of being higher than they are. This appearance makes the room seem light and airy without being overbearing, especially if you choose pale colored paint.

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In contrast, when choosing a textured paint or deeper color, the ceiling will appear lower, and the room will seem smaller.

Overall, a smooth texture with light finishes is simple, elegant, and coordinates with almost everything. Typically, skim coat over popcorn costs around $1-$2/sq.ft.

2. Drywall

Smoothing the ceiling with drywall creates a seamless finish and hides any damage to the ceiling structure. You can paint directly onto the drywall with smooth or textured paint.

Alternatively, giving the surface a skim coat of plaster gives a hard and long-lasting surface to decorate.

Painting drywall or skimmed drywall has the same advantages as painting over a skim coat, with the added benefit that you won’t have any popcorn showing through.

However, use a thin drywall sheet (around a quarter inch) and suitable fixings to provide a secure covering.

Smoothing over with drywall costs about $1-$2.50/sq. ft. And if you skim the drywall, you should add an extra $1-$2/sq. ft.

3. Knockdown  

A knockdown finish involves removing the top layer of the popcorn to expose the underlying surface. Then, seal and paint the surface.

Next, drag the paint across the surface with a brush or trowel. When complete, the light-textured covering hides imperfections in the ceiling’s surface.

Typically, knockdown texture costs $1-$2/sq.ft, plus the cost of removing the popcorn’s top layer.

4. Santa Fe 

Santa Fe texture is popular in the southwest and possibly comes from the designs popular in adobe-style dwellings of New Mexico and Central America. It appears as two separate layers, with the bottom layer showing through in random patches.

You can also use this without removing the underlying surface but give a skim coat over the popcorn. This method is very popular with DIYers.

A Santa Fe textured finish typically costs $1-$1.50/sq. ft. plus any preparation time.

5. Other Ceiling Textures

There are other simple ways to cover the popcorn ceiling or its underlying surface after the popcorn’s removal.

  • You can use heavy-duty paper fiber, lining paper, or woodchip wallpaper on the ceiling. Not only will this hide the underlying popcorn, but the adhesive will also seal in crumbling or dusty popcorn. Just remember to fill holes and cracks with a proprietary decorating filler.
  • Use textured paint to hide and seal the popcorn surface. However, depending on the popcorn’s surface finish, you might have to lay a primer or sealer onto the popcorn to ensure good adhesion.

The cost of these two decorating methods will vary depending on the amount of preparatory work.

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However, they usually range between $1-$3/sq. ft. plus materials.

6. Decorative Tiles

The final option is to place decorative tiles on top of the popcorn.

This method gives the ceiling an entirely new look and allows you to produce a good quality and professional surface even if you’re not skilled in skimming plaster as needed with the other methods.

All that’s required is to use the tile adhesive recommended by the manufacturer. 

Here’s a good YouTube video showing how to install decorative tiles. Typically, installing these tiles costs $5-$8/sq.ft plus materials and preparation work.

The Cheapest Way to Cover Popcorn Ceilings

The cheapest method of covering popcorn surfaces is skim coat plaster over the popcorn to smooth the texture. But, you need to seal and provide a bonding coat first.

However, deep popcorn textures might still show through. Therefore, many contractors and DIYers fix drywall to completely hide all the popcorn traces and give a smooth foundation for your choice of surface texture.


Why Replace Popcorn Ceilings?

Photo: Laqfoil Ltd. / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY SA 4.0

Popcorn ceilings were popular from the 1950s onwards. However, today’s detailed knowledge of the dangers of asbestos has made popcorn something to remove as quickly as possible, even if your popcorn doesn’t contain the dangerous substance.

In fact, although replacement is the ideal long-term solution, you can often cover the offending surface.

As long as you don’t damage the popcorn or create dust, and always use recognized safety procedures, it should be safe in the short term while considering a long-term alternative.

The following disadvantages of having popcorn ceilings show why you should replace them:

  • Asbestos is likely (but not always) to be present in the popcorn finish. So, after having an asbestos survey, remove crumbling and damaged surfaces by registered professionals.
  • Popcorn ceilings look very outdated, and with asbestos being present, they are off-putting for potential home buyers and hazardous for your family. Therefore, your property’s value will drop, and you’ll get fewer interested buyers.
  • The rough texture traps dirt and cobwebs within its structure.
  • Deep cleaning of the surface is challenging.
  • Professional repairs to the ceiling are time-consuming and very expensive.

Having said this, unless you have a crumbling or severely damaged popcorn ceiling, it’s usually cheaper to leave it in place, seal it to prevent dust escape, and cover it with one of the methods mentioned in this guide.

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Popcorn Ceiling Popularity

Photo: pricklypear_projects / Flickr / CC BY NC ND 2.0

As the general public has a good knowledge of the damage to our health caused by asbestos construction products, prospective real estate purchasers stay well away from popcorn ceilings. It’s regarded as outdated and is often a source of asbestos.

Therefore, its popularity has seriously diminished, and removing it from your house will raise your home’s value and ensure buyers remain interested.

However, we recommend you don’t remove it yourself, as you’re likely to spread asbestos dust throughout the house, potentially harming your family. Instead, contact a locally registered asbestos removal and handling expert who will do the job safely.

This link shows the California Department of Industrial Relations webpage about Asbestos Contractor Registration. Search your state’s website for their equivalent.


Warning: Asbestos Hazards

Asbestos was a natural mineral used in construction products until it was banned in the late 1970s. But, it was still popular and used in domestic and industrial construction until the early 1980s for its fireproofing, heat, and sound insulation properties.

However, we now know that once inhaled, the mineral lodges in the lungs and causes cancer and other asbestos-specific lung diseases.

There are many sources of information online, some reputable and some which you should ignore. So, only research from reputable sources.

The National Library of Medicine holds a case study published by the International Journal of Occupational Environmental Health which is definitely worth a read. The study is about lung cancer caused by asbestos-textured ceilings.

When removing your popcorn ceiling, you must use a safe removal method, and it’s best to use a locally registered asbestos contractor, as they will know your state’s requirements.

However, if you insist on removing the popcorn yourself, take all the required safety precautions.

Asbestos removal and its issues are a national and global problem. The US Environmental Protection Agency handles policy and issues guidelines at a federal level in the USA. However, your state or city will provide a guide detailing the law in your area.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency guide includes information and methods on removing popcorn ceilings yourself.

We recommend, though, that you check with your state and local city government offices for the asbestos laws and regulations applicable in your area, as using a registered asbestos handler and disposal contractor might be compulsory.