The following is a list of alternatives to paint thinner. Paint thinner usually refers to turpentine, mineral spirits/white spirits or a mix of solvents that can include: methyl ethyl ketone, toluene, xylene, naphtha, glycol ethers, dimethylformamide, ethylbenzene, n-butyl acetate, and butanol.
The alternatives, or substitutes, include non-toxic alternatives, less toxic alternatives, as well as simply household alternatives that you might have around the house – an alternative to something you have to purchase.
Some of these substitutes are cheap and some are even totally natural.
Why do we need paint thinner?
- Thin oil-based paint to make it easier to apply or to extend its life
- Make spray applications of oil paint easier
- Clean up brushes, rollers, and equipment used with oil paints and varnishes
- Wipe up oil paint splatter
- Thin tung oil
- Clean and degrease metal equipment or parts
- Remove graffiti
- Remove tar, asphalt, gum
- Clean up caulking
- For artists working with oil paints – to produce special effects, and to change the way oil paints handles and evaporates
- Use with pastels, encaustic, oil-based colored pencils, letterpress, and sculptural work
Paint thinners are not interchangeable. Be sure to select the right one for the job you need.
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1. Linseed Oil Soap
Linseed oil soap is a solvent-free option. It’s certainly the safest option for cleaning brushes, work surfaces, and clothing used with artist oil paints or linseed oil-based house paint.
What’s in it: Linseed oil, soap.
- Clean brushes used with linseed oil-based paint.
- Remove dried oils, acrylics, watercolors, and other artist paints from brushes if you soak overnight.
- Remove artist’s paints from clothing.
- Clean your hands, floors, and work surfaces after oil painting.
Where to buy: Amazon
Similar: Chelsea Classical Studio Lavender & Olive Oil Soap works in a similar fashion to clean oil paint off brushes. They say the ingredients are olive oil, water, lye, lavender oil, and wax and that it is all-natural. However, their spike lavender oil also says “natural” but it isn’t actually all-natural.
2. 100% Citrus Solvent
Citrus Solvent is an all-natural alternative to harsh paint thinners. It is a clear formula, made from orange peels, used to thin oil paint, clean paint off brushes and equipment, thin tung oil, and for artist oil painting effects.
It can act as a substitute for mineral spirits, methyl ethyl ketone, acetone, toluene, xylene, glycol ethers, and fluorinated or chlorinated organic solvents.
It’s also used to clean and degrease and it’s a food-safe option to mix with tung oil.
Citrus Solvent volatilizes a bit slower than mineral spirits and other harsh solvents, though it can usually act as a replacement for them.
What’s in it:
The product is made of citrus oil that is extracted from orange peels. There is nothing else added other than the 2% water that remains from the steam extraction. Citrus oil is mostly composed of d-limonene.
If you want to review the toxicity see this article.
- Thin paints
- Clean brushes
- Thin tung oil
- Heavy duty degreaser. It’s an alternative to CFC-laden cleaners, engine degreaser (automotive, aircraft, and aerospace industries), tar and asphalt remover, and graffiti remover.
- Artists can use this as a solvent in oil painting. Citrus Solvent does not volatilize as quickly as Odorless Mineral Spirits, so it will give you more working time. The Citrus Solvent is also used to clean brushes and palettes.
3. Odorless Mineral Spirits
Odorless mineral spirits are a petroleum distillate. Compared to regular mineral spirits, the dearomatized varieties have gone through refining to remove the more pungent aromatic compounds.
Not all odorless mineral spirits on the market are the same, The Real Milk Paint brand of Odorless Mineral Spirits is significantly lower in odor than many others. They claim that is because it’s highly filtered and they don’t use benzenes to produce it.
Technically, it has a mild hydrocarbon smell (which will be noticeable to those who are chemically sensitive), but to many people, this really does not have a smell. It is definitely a lot less bothersome than regular mineral spirits. This isn’t totally non-toxic, to review the Toxicity see this post.
This is another all-purpose thinner for cleaning up brushes and accessories, thinning oil-based paints, thinning tung oil, and cleaning sticky oil residue. It is an alternative to turpentine.
What’s in it:
Dearomatized mineral spirits (hydrocarbon solvents in the C10–C13 aliphatic carbon number range) with aromaticity of (<2%), CAS number 68551-17-7.
- Thinning oil paint – for use on small details, for blending purposes, or projects when thicker paint might leave tell-tale brush strokes. To use your Odorless Mineral Spirits as an oil paint thinner, follow the ratio of thinner to paint recommended by the paint manufacturer. Mineral Spirits should be added slowly and mixed in thoroughly to prevent over-thinning.
- Cleaning brushes and other equipment after using oil-based paints and varnishes.
- Thinning tung oil.
- Cleaning or degreasing machinery or other metal parts.
- Dissolving oils to create a fresh surface for painting, varnishing, or similar refinishing work.
- Artists “can use it to clean an oil painting prior to varnishing by gently wiping the surface of the painting with a soft cloth very lightly moistening it. There should be no adverse effects from this procedure if the painting has had at least six months to cure” (Source).
Where to Buy: The Real Milk Paint directly – use code mychemicalfreehouse for 10% off.
Similar: Klean-Strip Green Paint Thinner is a very similar petroleum distillate/mineral spirit called Isopar (CAS number 64742-47-8). Both Isopar and the Odorless Mineral Spirits by The Real Milk Paint Company are dearomatized mineral spirits which are also called odorless mineral spirits. More specifically, they are both hydrocarbons having carbon numbers predominantly in the range of C9 through C16 with less than 2% aromatic constituents.
Klean-Strip functions the same as Odorless Mineral Spirits in terms of thinning, cleaning, and prepping, and “because of the compositional similarities, the substances… have common metabolic pathways and, with a few well characterized exceptions, similar toxicological properties within a defined carbon number range.” (Source)
4. Mix of Citrus Solvent + Mineral Spirits
A solvent that is a mix of the above two options could suit you if citrus oil alone is too fragrant for you but you do want to go with something partially natural and avoid going with 100% mineral spirits.
Eco-House Extra Mild Citrus Thinner is a mix of orange oil and dearomatized mineral spirits, it’s marketed more at artists but really it is a good all-purpose thinner.
What’s in it:
It’s a mix of orange oil (9%) and two different kinds of dearomatized mineral spirits (CAS number 64764-47-8 at 12%, and CAS number 64742-48-9 at 79%).
Toxicity would be a mix of the toxicity ratings listed above under citrus solvent and dearomatized mineral spirits. It’s not totally non-toxic. More info here.
This is an all-purpose paint thinner just like mineral spirits or citrus oil separately. It’s used on oil-based products, varnishes, waxes, resins, gums, and tars.
- For thinning and clean-up of all Eco-House brand oils, resins, varnishes, and waxes.
- Thinning and clean-up of oil-based conventional paint products.
- Cleaning up tars, gums, caulking, etc.
- For artists used in oil painting and pastels, encaustic, blending oil-based colored pencils, letterpress, and sculptural work. It dries slower than turpentine, keeping the paint workable for a longer period of time.
Where to Buy: Walmart online
Similar: BioShield Citrus Thinner is a similar formula. It is also a mix of orange oil (10%) and mineral spirits, in this case, Isopar, one of the dearomatized mineral spirits (CAS number 64742-47-8, assuming at 90% since they list no other ingredients).
It’s marketed for use with BioShield’s natural oil-based products and used in cleaning and degreasing: to dissolve oil stains, grease, tar, gums, waxes, resins, and glues; to clean greasy kitchen stoves, bicycles, resinous woods, crayon marks, machinery, tools, and other equipment. But it’s also used by professional painters and artists to thin oil-based paints and finishes and to clean brushes.
Note: this is not water-based as it says on one listing. It’s solvent-based. Calling it a replacement for petroleum-based mineral spirits in the listings is misleading since it is based on (dearomatized) petroleum mineral spirits. It is a replacement for regular mineral spirits, which are more aromatic.
5. Lavender Spike Oil
Citrus oils are the most common and most affordable of the plant-based natural solvents, and soy solvents are probably the lowest odor plant-based solvent, but spike lavender oil is another natural extract that acts as a solvent.
Just note that spike lavender oil refers to both the natural essential oil of spike lavender and the artist solvents, which appear to be entirely or partially synthetic.
It is a strong, slow drying solvent, with thinning properties similar to turpentine. It is used to thin oil paints as well as varnishes and resins, and as a medium.
It has a fairly strong scent, but it is less offensive than turpentine. This is used primarily by artists, since it’s pricey.
What’s in it:
True spike lavender oil is an essential oil made from the Lavandula latifolia plant. The main constituents of this less common lavender variety are: linalool (27.2–43.1%), 1,8-cineole (28.0–34.9%), camphor (10.8–23.2%), borneol (0.9–3.6%), β-pinene (0.8–2.6%), and (E)-α-bisabolene (0.5–2.3%) (Source).
Note that lavender spike oil that is sold as a solvent for painters does not look to be a 100% natural extract, but it could be a synthetic version of similar components (i.e. synthetic camphor, etc.) or adulterated natural oils.
For the toxicity profile see this post.
Spike Lavender works well as an alternative to thinners like turpentine and odorless mineral spirits for artists:
- It thins oil paints, mediums and varnishes in the same way that odorless mineral spirits would do.
- “Often, a painter will use it to promote a smoother brush stroke. Historically, it has been used in mixtures with pigments such as sienna to “tone” the canvas without actually putting down a layer of paint.”
- “Spike Lavender works quite well to remove a stroke of painton the canvas, correcting a problem on the painting.”
- “Used on its own for wet and thin underpainting, it produces a very smooth matte finish.” (Source)
- To blend colored pencils.
- It can be used to clean oil paint brushes, though it would make a very pricey brush cleaner.
Where to buy:
Edens Garden brand on Amazon is a true spike lavender essential oil. They provide GC/MS reports to customers to ensure each oil’s purity. While this type of real spike lavender oil used to be used by artists back in the day, current advice on using spike lavender oil in artist painting uses the synthetic transparent version as a reference. Please get advice from other artists on using the true essential oil for painting.
Chelsea Classic Studio Lavender Spike Oil Essence is the most popular brand for artists in North America. It does say “natural solvent” and “made from natural extracts”, but that seems misleading to me. An email from Brandon Sokkol to Tad Spurgeon states “ours is not 100% naturally distilled Lavender Latifolia Flowers.” On the other hand, the SDS does say that it is 100% natural extracts (CAS 8016-78-2). The description also states: this thinner for oil paint has been made without the use of heavy chemicals like turpentine, though it’s heavy on terpenes like those found in turpentine. It does smell fairly strong (and like lavender) but it does not smell as strong as spike lavender essential oil.
6. Soy-Based Solvent
Eco-Solve by Natural Earth Paint is a soy-based solvent. It dries slower than mineral spirits or other chemical paint thinners though it is generally a replacement for conventional solvents. It’s marketed at artists.
This is a mild solvent (in terms of odor) compared to the other options out there. It might also be preferred for artists’ effects since it’s lower odor than citrus solvent, and less toxic than mineral spirits. For the full review of toxicity see this post.
What’s in it:
The ingredients are listed as soybean oil and soybean esters. They also say “this product is soy oil that has had the fatty acids removed”; though all ingredients are trade secrets.
It’s possible to make a bio-based solvent distilled from soybean oil called methyl soyate, a methyl ester solvent. I can’t say for sure that that is what this is, but that would be my guess. That could be the soy ester component.
They claim it’s 100% natural and the SDS lists it as biodegradable.
For artists working with oil paints, this helps to remove the paint from brushes, palettes, containers, and work surfaces. It’s excellent for creating washes, under-paintings, glazes, drip effects, etc.
Where to Buy: Amazon
Similar? Sennelier Thinner states it’s bio-solvent based, made from sustainable raw materials such as vegetable oils and grain. I have no idea what that means in terms of what it actually is. Reviews mention it has an oak odor.
Water is the best substance to thin latex-based house paint. Whether you have a can of paint that has thickened over time or you are thinning it in order to put it through a sprayer, just regular room temperature water is what you need.
As for the dilution ratio, be sure to follow the paint manufacturer’s instructions on how much water to add.
For thinning water-based artist’s paints, distilled water is recommended.
Where to Buy: Amazon, the grocery store, or a pharmacy.
White vinegar can be used to thin water-based paint to create a distressed look which you can see photos of and read about here.
For artist’s paints, Kings Framing and Art Gallery recommends that you can use white vinegar to thin oil-based artist’s paint. They recommend you put the paint you want to thin in a bucket and add half the amount of the straight white vinegar into that paint before stirring the mixture thoroughly.
Another use for white vinegar is when cleaning up paint. It can help loosen dried paint splatter. It works best to help clean up fresh paint that is wet or partially dried. You still will need some elbow grease to help clean it up.
Where to buy: Amazon or the grocery store.
9. Linseed Oil
Linseed oil is mostly used to thin artists’ paints.
If you’re using a specialty linseed-oil-based home paint like Allback or Earth+Flax, you can also use pure linseed oil to thin these paints, if necessary.
For regular oil-based paint? I would not use the recipe of lemon oil and linseed oil to thin conventional oil-based house paints. House paints used to be made with a linseed oil base, but today, conventional oil-based house paints are no longer made with linseed oil.
Where to buy: Refined linseed oil for artists from Amazon, linseed oil to mix with Allback paint, buy from Allback.
10. Vegetable Oils
Some vegetable oils like safflower oil are used as paint thinners or paint mediums for artists’ oil paints. Safflower oil dries more slowly compared to linseed oil and yellows less.
There are other plant-based natural oils used in artists painting like walnut oil.
I would not use vegetable oils to thin oil-based conventional house paints, this is not a good idea. (The only exception is using linseed oil to thin linseed oil-based house paints).
11. Denatured Alcohol & Isopropyl Alcohol
Denatured alcohol is ethanol (ethyl alcohol) that has substances added (usually methanol) to it that make it toxic or taste bad.
Denatured alcohol can be used to clean up oil-based and shellac-based paint (or shellac-based sealers) off brushes, tools and equipment. It works on dried paint, including dried latex paint, and dried shellac.
It’s also a solvent to thin shellac, lacquers, resins and inks.
It works as a degreasing agent to remove spots, grease, scuffs and surface soils from hard surfaces, including metal, tile, wood and plastic. It dissolves glue and removes wax.
Isopropyl alcohol is a slightly different type of alcohol than denatured alcohol. It’s commonly found in 70-percent to 99-percent concentrations. (Both alcohol types could be called rubbing alcohol when used as a medical disinfectant).
It can be used to thin some paints. If you’re using an acrylic-lacquer-based hobby paint like Tamiya, Mr Hobby Aqueous, or AK Real Color, then isopropyl alcohol works well when used in a spray application, says a scale modeler.
Some artists also use alcohol to thin their acrylic paints in order to control the mixing and setting of colors in different ways.
Alcohol doesn’t mix with all artist acrylic paints though. You have to do a test and then you can see this immediately, the paint will curdle if they don’t mix.
There are also less-toxic spray paints that use both water and alcohol as a base, which you can review in my posts on non-toxic spray paints.
The fumes of both types of alcohol are not totally non-toxic.
There are some paint company-approved acetone-based paint thinners. Startex paint thinner sold by Sherwin Williams is used with their oil-based paints. The first ingredient is acetone but it includes many other solvents.
Straight acetone (like Sunnyside Acetone or KleanStrip Acetone) is a highly effective thinner and remover for epoxy resins, ink, adhesives, lacquers, polyester resins. It’s not for thinning latex or oil-based paint.
Acetone can be used in paint clean-up of conventional oil-based house paints and water-based latex paints. Acetone can also be used to clean up dried latex paint (acetone is often the only solvent that is strong enough to dissolve paint after it has dried), uncured lacquers, and adhesives. It’s also useful to dissolve many natural and synthetic gums, waxes, oils and dyes.
For artists, it’s mainly used for clean up as well. A few painting websites recommend against using it as a thinner for artist’s paints because acetone dissolves paint. It may accelerate drying time, but it can also dissolve your underpainting and compromise the quality of the oil paint in the process.
Acetone is not a non-toxic alternative.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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