Mineral Spirits vs Paint Thinner: Which One Is Best?

Each has its pros and cons.

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If you’ve ever worked with oil-based paints or stain, you know just what a mess it can be to clean brushes and painting tools. Or maybe you’ve tried applying oil paint through a sprayer, in which case you’ve probably encountered a need to thin it so it flows better and applies evenly to the surface you’re painting. In either of those situations, you’ll need some paint thinner. But what kind exactly?

Mineral spirits are a popular choice with a lot of painters because the smell is less overpowering, making it safer to use indoors.

Paint thinner and mineral spirits are both solvents used to clean and thin paint, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, there are differences, including odor and cost, between mineral spirits and the broader category of paint thinners.

This brief run-down will help you decide what’s best for your next painting project.

What Is Paint Thinner?

For starters, paint thinner is a general term for any kind of solvent that’s used to alter the consistency of paint or clean it up. Mineral spirits one specific kind of paint thinner, and that list also includes well-known solvents like acetone, turpentine, etc.

There are also paint thinners for latex paints, which includes water, since that can be used to clean them up while the paint is still wet. Water-based paints are much easier to clean than oil-based paints, which is a big reason they’ve become more popular with DIYers over the years.

Usually, when people refer to paint thinner, they’re talking about the various products used to thin and clean oil paints and lacquers. Some thinners, turpentine in particular, are especially powerful for cleaning up stains, sticky residues and dried paint from various types of surfaces. Just remember a little goes a long with with paint thinner.

Pros

  • Cheaper than mineral spirits, usually $5-10 per gallon
  • Some thinners are more powerful solvents, like turpentine
  • Wider array of uses

Cons

  • Strong fumes that can be dangerous
  • Highly flammable
  • Can damage surfaces if you use too much

What Are Mineral Spirits?

Mineral spirits are a more refined paint thinner distilled from petroleum. The main benefit is that the odor isn’t as strong because it doesn’t contain other chemical additives, like benzene. However, because they’re refined, they aren’t as powerful as other kind of paint thinner.

You can also get odorless mineral spirits. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been removed entirely, which eliminates the most dangerous fumes. However, there can still be some smell, similar to kerosene. The lack of a strong odor makes it better for indoor use.

Mineral spirits that aren’t labeled as odorless can still have some VOCs, albeit at reduced levels compared to other thinners. In that case, you’ll need to take additional precautions and be aware of the risks posed by the fumes.

Pros

  • Milder smell
  • Can be used inside
  • Creates a smoother, more even finish

Cons

  • More expensive than other thinners
  • Flammable
  • Less powerful

Using Mineral Spirits and Paint Thinners Safely

Because both products have similar risks associated with them, certain safety precautions apply for whichever one you’re using.

To start, they’re both flammable, so it’s important to take safety precautions when using them and storing them. Remember to keep open flames away from them and keep it away from heat sources.

Mineral spirits and paint thinners are considered hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency. Remember to dispose of them properly, usually by taking them to your local hazardous waste disposal center.

Don’t ingest them and keep them away from children.

Ryan Van Bibber
Ryan Van Bibber, the executive editor for Family Handyman, is a career journalist with more than two decades of experience in the industry. He's been DIY'ing since he was a kid, learning from his father who was a carpenter and general contractor. Ryan has a natural curiousity to learn how things work and how to make them work better. That spirit has guided his career his own DIY journey as a homeowner. He specializes in the areas of painting, sustainability, and basic home maintenance. Through his career, Ryan covered the NFL for more than a decade, edited award-winning features, worked as a senior editor at Outside magazine as well as writing and editing buying guides and product reviews for national publications.