Water Activated vs Peel and Stick Wallpaper: What's the Difference?

You might have noticed there are many "temporary wallpaper" options, but they don't all seem the same. Some say "peel and stick" while others need sponges and water, and still others require glue! What's going on here?! Let's try to clear things up.

Peel and stick wallpaper is relatively new to the interior design world, and is the easiest type of wallpaper to remove. It's also the easiest to apply, requiring virtually no prep work or clean up. 

Water activated wallpaper is simply a variation of traditional wallpaper — it removes the step of adding glue. The wallpaper is pre-pasted on the back. The paste is in a dried form, so you must soak the paste in water before it can become sticky. This type of wallpaper is generally easier to remove than traditional paste wallpaper.

Here we'll cover the basics for both water-activated and peel & stick wallpaper:

  • Tools Needed
  • How to Install
  • Removal Process
  • Pros & Cons

MUSE in-house designer Becky applying Ocean Park Damask, a peel & stick wallpaper.

Tools Needed

For water activated wallpaper you typically need:

  1. Tape measure
  2. Smoothing blade and spare blades
  3. Knife or sharp blade
  4. Sponge or large soaking tub
  5. Level (optional)
  6. Painter's tape
  7. Drop cloth
  8. Rag to dry finished wall
  9. A straight edge for perfect trimming (optional)
For peel and stick wallpaper you typically need:
  1. Tape measure
  2. Sharp blade to trim excess paper
  3. Level (optional)
  4. A dry cloth to clean your surface
  5. A soft-edged squeegee to smooth air bubbles (provided by MUSE)
  6. A straight edge for perfect trimming (optional)


For water activated wallpaper:

    Get it wet. Things are going to be wet, so be sure to place a drop cloth on your floor before you start. Water activated temporary wallpaper has glue pre-pasted to the back of the wallpaper panel. To activate the glue you'll need to soak the back of the wallpaper panel in water. You can do this with either a very wet sponge, or by laying the panel in a large tub of water. Be sure to follow the specific manufacturer's directions on this step.

    "Booking" the wallpaper. Once the back of the panel is completely wet (no dry spots!), then you'll need to "book" the wallpaper panel. This means laying the panel face down on the floor, then gently folding the panel over on itself in order to completely cover the backing. Bring each end to the center of the panel. However, do NOT make any sharp creases to the panel. Let the panel fold over without making any firm creases. 

    Activate the adhesive. Let the wallpaper sit for about five minutes to activate the adhesive.

    Start applying. Unfold the top part of the panel and begin applying to the top, left of the wall. Use a level to ensure the panel is applied straight. Keep the bottom section folded to keep the adhesive moist.

    Secure the panel and finish applying. The wallpaper panel may slip down the wall, so use a piece of painter's tape to secure it to the top of the wall until the adhesive dries. Once you get midway down the panel, unfold the bottom half and finish applying the panel with a damp sponge. You want to be sure to work quickly and keep the panel wet while you're applying. Remove air bubbles as you go with the smoothing blade. 

    Apply additional panels. To apply the subsequent panels, repeat the same steps above. You may have to overlap the edges of the panels by 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch, depending on the brand you use, in order to get a perfect seam match.  

    Dry and trim. Let the wallpaper dry completely (3-5 hours). Then trim off the excess paper with a sharp blade. A straight edge makes for a super clean cut. 

    Clean. Wipe down the wallpapered wall with a damp sponge to remove excess adhesive, then dry off with a cloth. You're done!

    For peel and stick wallpaper:

      Peel and stick wallpaper is like a sticker. It's different from water activated wallpaper — you don't want to get it wet during application. It has a paper backing that you peel off to reveal the adhesive side. 

      Dust off your wall. Use a clean, dry cloth to remove any dust or residue on your wall.

      Peel. Beginning with your first panel, peel about 6-10 inches of backing from the panel. It's helpful to fold the paper backing down with a firm crease so it doesn't get in your way. Don't, however, crease the patterned wallpaper. Just the paper backing.

      Stick! Start applying the panel to the top, left side of your wall. Use a level to make sure it's nice and level if you're in doubt. 

      Trim. You can trim off any excess by running a sharp blade along the crease of the wall. It's good to use a straight edge for a clean, professional-looking cut. 

      Apply the next panel. Simply repeat the steps above, and place the next panel side by side with no overlap for one seamless design. Use the soft edged squeegee to put the panel firmly into corners and edges. You can also smooth down the panel with your hand. 

      Japanese Waves peel & stick installation project.


      For water activated wallpaper:

        Use a very wet sponge to soak the wallpaper. You'll need to get the glue nice and wet to dissolve the adhesive. Once you have the wallpaper soaking and the water is dissolving the adhesive, you can begin to peel off the wallpaper. You'll have some remaining glue on the wall, which can be washed away with additional water and elbow grease. 

        For peel and stick wallpaper:

          Simply pull up a corner of the panel, and gently peel off! That's it. :)

          What's the verdict?

          More traditional-minded installers prefer water activated wallpaper because it's similar to the paste wallpaper they know and love. However, DIYers rejoice in the ease of peel and stick wallpaper. 

          Water activated wallpaper Pros and Cons:

          • You can sort of push the wallpaper around on the wall before the adhesive dries to slide into the correct position for seam matching
          • Some people prefer overlapping the seams to seam match the panels
          • Messier to apply because of soaking and keeping adhesive moist
          • You'll see the bumps of overlapping panel edges
          • Soak time and dry time are a must
          • You must work quickly to avoid the wallpaper glue drying out
          • You'll likely have some residual glue after removal

          Peel and Stick wallpaper Pros and Cons:

          • Mess-free application
          • No need to rush, so you can walk away and take breaks at any time (or get interrupted by the kids)
          • Can reposition as many times as needed to get the perfect seam match
          • Abutting the panels means no bumps from overlapping
          • Clean peel-off, with no residue after removal
          • Doesn't slide on the wall, which professional installers typically prefer
          • If the sticky sides of the wallpaper accidentally fold in on themselves, it can partially remove the adhesive 

          In short, go with water activated wallpaper if you're experienced applying traditional paste wallpaper but want to skip the step of adding paste.

          Go with peel and stick wallpaper if you're inexperienced with wallpaper and want fewer application steps and a lot less mess. 

          To see peel & stick wallpaper offered by MUSE, check out our full collection here.