The canvas drop cloth is the type you’ll see professional painters use. It’s heavy enough to be ideal for both inside and outside work and is very resilient; it won’t tear if you stand on it. The canvas is absorbent so any paint that’s spilled doesn’t present a danger if you step in it. Unlike other options, you can re-use a canvas drop cloth endless times which makes it a very green option.
The initial cost of a canvas drop cloth can be quite high but if you’re going to do a great deal of painting, it does eventually pay for itself. The paint cleans up easily from the surface and the drop cloth can just be folded up and stored until it’s next needed.
The most common type of drop cloth is plastic. You can buy them at all hardware stores and paint stores. They’re cheap and if you’re careful with them, they can be used several times before you throw them away, thus making them the least expensive option. This is especially true if you have a lot to cover with drop cloths such as floors and furniture within a room.
On the downside, if you’re going to use a plastic drop cloth outside, you need to weigh it down to avoid it blowing away with the wind. Additionally, there’s no absorbency in a plastic drop cloth so any paint will simply pool on it. Step in a pool and you can easily slip. This also means you’d need to undertake a clean-up of the drop cloth once painting is over to avoid dripping while it's being put away.
If all you want is a disposable drop cloth, you can opt for paper. The cost is minimal but it’s far less versatile than other materials. A paper drop cloth can only be used once, after which it needs to be thrown away. It absorbs paint but unless it’s particularly thick, you risk the paint leaking through, especially with a spill.
A paper drop cloth should only be used indoors. Even when weighed down, it simply doesn’t have enough mass to work effectively out of doors.
You can buy a drop cloth that’s made of paper/poly which combines the qualities of both plastic and paper. It can absorb paint without leaking and you won’t slip on it. The drop cloth costs more than either paper or plastic but it’s cheaper than canvas, although not as hardwearing. It still needs to be weighed down when used outside. Although intended to be a more useful type of hybrid drop cloth, it’s not an effective substitute for the more traditional canvas drop cloth.