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Penetrating vs. Topical Sealer: Which Is the Right Concrete Sealer for You?

August 17th, 2023 | 4 min. read

By Sarah Etler

Find out how topical and penetrating concrete sealers stack up against each other and when to use one over the other.

Although getting new concrete is sometimes the best move for your property, avoiding the headache, extra costs, and major time commitment that comes with concrete replacement is the goal for most people.

Among a few other maintenance practices, cleaning and sealing your concrete with a high-quality sealer is one of the best things you can do to keep the concrete you have in good shape and avoid the need for premature concrete replacement.

But before jumping in and sealing your concrete, you have to first decide: with what? 

Penetrating and topical concrete sealers are the two main options you have for protecting and preserving your concrete, and they are quite different from each other.

Regardless of the one you choose, it’s important to learn what makes topical and penetrating sealers different and weigh the pros and cons of each.

And this article will help you do just that. First, we’ll walk you through how each sealer works, then talk about their pros and cons, and finally, explain the best use cases for each.

What Is Penetrating Sealer?

Penetrating concrete sealer is usually sprayed onto the surface where it then absorbs into the concrete’s pores. From within the slab, it undergoes a chemical reaction with the minerals in the concrete that creates a hydrophobic barrier against water, salts, mold, oil, and more.

Penetrating sealer is invisible after drying, so it does not change the appearance or texture of the concrete surface. 

Penetrating Sealer Strengths and Weaknesses

Penetrating Sealer Strengths

  • High Level of Protection

Penetrating sealer undergoes a chemical reaction with the concrete that turns the surface hydrophobic, preventing damage-causing agents from being absorbed into the slab.

  • Lasts a Long Time

The protective benefits of penetrating sealer could last between 5-25 years, depending on the specific sealer you use and where you apply it.

  • Cost-Effective

Penetrating sealer is often more cost-effective upfront than a topical sealer, but because it has to be reapplied less frequently, it can end up saving you even more money over time.

  • Doesn’t Change the Tread or Surface Grip

Penetrating sealer doesn’t change the surface tread or texture, so the grip your concrete had before sealing will stay the same and won’t become slippery.

  • Works Well With Concrete Caulk

Because penetrating sealers don’t sit on top of the concrete or caulk, it allows the concrete to expand and contract naturally without constricting or pulling up on the caulking.

  • Can Be Cleaned

Cleaning any built-up surface grime by lightly pressure washing the concrete won’t damage your penetrating sealer.

Penetrating Sealer Weaknesses 

  • Doesn’t Cover Up Stains

Because penetrating sealer dries down to be invisible, it won’t cover up any residual stains or discoloration. Any stains left in the concrete will be locked in with a penetrating sealer.

  • Not DIY-Friendly

Penetrating sealer takes more skill to apply and troubleshoot, and it's hard to find at big box stores. It’s also easy to overdo it and end up with a leftover hue on the surface.

  • Hard to Know When to Reapply

Because it's tricky to know whether or not the penetrating sealer is still working, it is usually better to have a professional test various areas around the concrete before reapplying.

What Is Topical Concrete Sealer?

Topical concrete sealers are usually applied with a brush or roller and sit on top of the concrete surface. They form a protective film against oils, moisture, UV rays, and more. 

Topical concrete sealers are usually glossy and smooth, but there are additives available to change the tread and sheen level, and even tint them a different color.

Topical Sealer Strengths and Weaknesses

Topical Sealer Strengths

  • Covers Up Stains

Depending on the tint and sheen of the sealer, it can be quite hard to see any staining underneath.

  • Customizable Look

You have lots of options when it comes to the tint and sheen of your topical sealer, making it easy to achieve your desired look.

  • Easier DIY Alternative

You don’t have to be a professional to get a good-looking application of topical sealer.

Topical Sealer Weaknesses

  • Has to Be Reapplied Frequently

Topical sealers require more maintenance and have to be reapplied in as little as 1-3 years.

  • Can Make Concrete Slippery

Topical sealers cover the concrete’s natural texture and tread, which can lead to slippery surfaces when wet. 

  • Hard to Get an Even Surface

Potential roller marks, bubbling, and strong odors are some of the drawbacks when applying a topical sealer.

  • Prone to Patchy Spots and Discoloration

Topical sealers will likely separate from areas where the concrete is chipping, flaking, or spalling, which can create patchy spots. They are also prone to discoloring quickly with exposure to the sun and weather.

  • Doesn’t Play Nicely With Concrete Caulk

If a topical sealer is applied on top of concrete caulk, it can pull up on the caulking during the drying process or with the natural expansion and contraction of the concrete.

When to Choose Penetrating vs. Topical Concrete Sealer

In order to find a concrete sealer that best fits your needs, this section will talk through some of the best use cases for both topical and penetrating sealers.

When to Choose Penetrating Sealer

Penetrating sealers are good for…

  • Places where you want to maintain the same concrete surface appearance and texture
  • Around pools and areas exposed to water to avoid slip hazards
  • A low-maintenance option that doesn’t require frequent reapplication

When to Choose Topical Concrete Sealer

Topical sealers are good for…

  • Areas where you want to enhance or change the concrete’s look
  • If your concrete has stains that can’t be removed with a thorough cleaning
  • Being able to seal the concrete yourself without hiring a professional

Topical sealers are not good for…

  • Pool decks or other areas where water can create slipping hazards

Your Next Steps

At the end of the day, whether you choose a topical sealer or a penetrating sealer, your concrete will be protected and preserved, helping to keep it around as long as possible. 

And now that you’ve learned more about both types of sealers, you should have an idea of which will work better for the specific goals you have for your concrete.

Although here at A-1 we only apply penetrating sealers, we know that topical sealers may better meet your individual needs, so we recommend that you continue researching to find out more about each before making a final decision.

Learn more about sealers in general with these resources:

If you’ve decided to go with a penetrating sealer, you can use the link below to request a free onsite inspection and cost estimate for your concrete cleaning and sealing needs:

Click Here to Find Your Nearest Location and Receive a FREE Estimate

Sarah Etler

Sarah Etler joined A-1 Concrete Leveling after receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Northern Kentucky University. As A-1's Content Marketing Manager, she works closely with industry experts to produce content that will best answer questions related to concrete repair and maintenance practices. Sarah loves living a life full of discovery and is excited every day to see what new things she can learn and share with those around her.