What’s the Difference? Mineral Spirits vs Paint Thinner
Brush up on the differences between these two oft-confused solvents before tackling your next painting to-do.
You might have found the perfect color, but what about the right consistency? Paint’s thickness—or, rather, thinness—is key to a perfect application. Whether you need to thin oil-based paint to pour into a spray gun or to brush on thin and even coats, mineral spirits and paint thinners are liquids up to the task. Plus, they come in handy at the end of a paint job when removing this paint from brushes or rollers.
To clarify, paint thinner is simply an overall term for any solvent that is used to thin paint or to remove paint from brushes, rollers, and other painting tools. Examples of paint thinners include turpentine, acetone, naphtha, toluene, and, of course, mineral spirits. For purposes of this article, “paint thinner” refers to any of the aforementioned paint thinners that are not purely mineral spirits. As you will see, mineral spirits stand apart from many other paint thinners in terms of its toxicity and ease of handling.
Mineral Spirits vs. Paint Thinner: Know the Difference
While, again, mineral spirits are simply a type of paint thinner, mineral spirits paint thinner has characteristics that distinguish it from other products such as turpentine or acetone. Learn about their differences.
What is Mineral Spirits?
Mineral spirits is a heavily refined distillation of petroleum that is used to thin oil-based paints and to clean brushes and rollers.
- Mineral spirits are less toxic than other paint thinners.
- In general, mineral spirits are less smelly than alternative products, and an odorless version is available, as well.
- Paint thinned with mineral spirits dries to a smoother, more even finish.
- Mineral spirits is often more expensive than alternative paint thinners.
- Mineral spirits are not suitable for use with latex paint.
- While not as abrasive as some cleaners, mineral spirits are a mild irritant.
What is Paint Thinner?
Paint thinners are solvents used to thin oil-based paint and to clean brushes and other painting tools. Turpentine is distilled from the resin of trees, mainly pine. Acetone is an organic chemical, while naphtha is a hydrocarbon mixture.
- Non-mineral spirits paint thinners tend to be cheaper than mineral spirits.
- Paint thinners such as turpentine have stronger solvency than mineral spirits
- Turpentine will remove dried paint, whereas mineral spirits removes only wet paint
- Paint thinners have very strong fumes and should be used in well-ventilated areas.
- Many paint thinners are highly flammable.
- It can be a hassle to properly dispose of paint thinners.
Paint Thinner vs. Mineral Spirits: Which is Better?
In general, many DIYers find mineral spirits easier to work with than some of the other paint thinners, which can be quite hazardous and irritating.
Mineral spirits are less toxic.
Mineral spirits are heavily refined during production to reduce toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulfur. In the case of odor-free mineral spirits, which are readily available in home centers, these toxic compounds have been completely eliminated! These solvents allow homeowners with kids or pets to rest easy, knowing they aren’t introducing as many harmful pollutants into the home during paint projects. Many other paint thinners, on the other hand, are minimally refined during production, resulting in a solvent that retains most of its original toxic VOCs like toluene and benzene.
Mineral spirits are less smelly.
While mineral spirits and other paint thinners all emit an unpleasant kerosene-like odor due to the VOCs they contain, the lower VOC content in mineral spirits means its odor is less potent (or nonexistent in the case of odor-free mineral spirits). Meanwhile, other paint thinners come with a more noxious odor that takes a while to air out. Smelly or not, do-it-yourselfers should wear a respirator and work in a well-ventilated area when handling any solvent since fumes can negatively affect respiratory health if inhaled in high enough concentrations.
Paint thinner is cheaper.
A gallon of mineral spirits goes for $10 on average, and odor-free mineral spirits costs on the order of $15 per gallon—nearly double the cost of many paint thinners at $8 per gallon. Mineral spirits require extra energy to purify and achieve a more refined content, accounting for its higher average cost. Meanwhile, the less labor-intensive production process for other paint thinners turns out a less-refined composition at a lower cost. Now that cost differential may seem significant at first blush, but it’s minimal in the scheme of things. Cleaning paint brushes or thinning paint for a furniture refresh typically requires no more than four to six ounces of solvent, so you shouldn’t need to purchase either any type of paint thinner in bulk amounts or very frequently. So, the higher cost of odor-free mineral spirits may be worth it if optimal indoor air quality is a priority for you.
Mineral spirits are more effective.
Any type of paint thinner can be used to dissolve paint from brushes or rollers (simply soak the painting utensil directly in the solvent*) or to thin overly viscous paint (mix directly into the paint in the ratio of one part solvent per three parts paint). But here, too, mineral spirits is more desirable. It boasts a slower rate of evaporation, and paint thinned with mineral spirits dries into a slightly smoother, more level coat on surfaces than paint thinned with faster-evaporating paint thinner.
* Keep in mind that, regardless of which solvent is used, the paint should still be fresh or wet when these solvents are applied for cleaning purposes; the effect of both diminishes once the paint has dried on a brush or roller.
Mineral spirits are a more versatile all-around cleaner.
The purity and low toxicity of mineral spirits allow it to expand its role well beyond a small paint job. Mineral spirits can be used to remove paint as well as oils, tar, or gunk from larger surface areas such as garden shears and saws, metal and wood worktops, and even concrete floors. While paint thinner, too, can be applied to metal, wood, or concrete without damaging it, its higher toxicity and its emission of more noxious fumes make it unsuitable for use as a cleaner for large surface areas—best to save it for spot treatments.
Neither is suitable for latex paint applications.
All paint thinners are solvent-based (not water-based) and therefore intended for use only with oil-based paints. Using either to thin or clean off water-based latex paint might separate the paint pigment from the paint solvents during a thinning application or fail to dissolve it from utensils during a cleaning application. When thinning or cleaning tools covered in latex paint, you should instead use plain water or a specially formulated latex-based paint thinner (e.g. Thin-X Latex Paint Thinner).
FAQ About Mineral Spirits vs. Paint Thinner
Are acetone and mineral spirits the same?
These two substances are not the same. Mineral spirits is distilled, purified petroleum, whereas acetone is an organic compound—a ketone found naturally occurring in plants, trees, and even our own bodies.
Can I use paint thinner instead of mineral spirits?
You can use any form of paint thinner to reduce the viscosity of paint or remove paint from painting implements. Mineral spirits are generally less toxic, but other paint removers might have been paint-removing abilities.
Can I pour mineral spirits down the drain?
No. Doing so can damage the water supply or the earth if you’re on a septic tank. Dispose of mineral spirits as you would paint: Find a local disposal center specifically set up to properly handle these products.
Will mineral spirits remove latex paint?
Mineral spirits and other paint thinners are typically used for cleaning up oil-based paints, because these paint types are not water-soluble. If you have wet latex paint on your brush, you can just use soapy water to clean it.