Paint thinners are used to thin or clean up paints, varnishes, lacquer, stains, polyurethanes, and other paint products. As paint thinners and solvents come in many forms, using the right paint thinner with the right paint product is essential.
Paint products can be divided into two general groups: oil-based and water-based. Be sure to read directions and precautions on both your can of paint and paint thinner. Never use an oil-based paint thinner with a water-based paint product and vice versa.
Types of Paint Thinners
When choosing a paint thinner or brush cleaner, if you are in doubt as to what to use, ask a professional in the paint department of a paint or hardware store. Some types of paint thinners include:
Acetone: Essentially nail polish remover, acetone is a strong solvent that can dissolve super glue, epoxies, and paint on metal surfaces. Care must be taken with acetone, as it can also dissolve surfaces such as paint and furniture finishes.
Alcohol: Denatured alcohol is used for thinning shellac and shellac primer. Unless you are a professional painter, do not use wood and methanol alcohol, as they are extremely toxic.
Lacquer Thinner: Available in varying degrees of solvency, lacquer thinner is used to thin lacquer or clean brushes after using lacquer. Lacquer thinner is highly flammable and should not be used near heat sources.
Mineral Spirits: A petroleum-based solvent and thinner, mineral spirits are virtually odorless and often used in place of turpentine.
Toluene: Naturally occurring in crude oil, toluene is also found in nail polish, adhesives, and rubber. Toluene is used to thin oil-based paint, lacquers, varnishes, and adhesives. Exposure to low levels of toluene may bring on dizziness, fatigue, weakness, and confusion. Exposure to higher levels of toluene can also cause kidney problems, unconsciousness, and even death.
Turpentine: Traditionally derived from pine trees, turpentine is often also derived from crude oil. As it is more solvent than mineral spirits, it works more quickly. Keep away from heat sources, as turpentine is highly flammable.
Safety Tips When Using Paint Thinners
Since petroleum-based paint thinners are toxic, using them with proper precautions is essential. Wear gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, and full-length pants as paint thinners can irritate the skin and cause rashes.
The fumes from paint thinners are toxic and affect the lungs and nervous system when inhaled, especially over a long period of time – so use paint thinners in a well-ventilated area, even using a fan as an extra precaution.
Do not smoke around petroleum-based paint thinners, and do not use or store them near any heat source, such as a water heater or furnace. Store paint thinners well out of the reach of children and pets.
Disposal of Paint Thinners
As paint thinner can pollute soil and water, disposing of it properly is not only critical but a matter of law in most places. Do not clean brushes in the gutter where paint thinners can flow into storm drains and water sources and eventually even into the ocean. Contact your local county waste disposal department for information on how and where to properly dispose of petroleum-based paint thinners.
Green Alternatives to Paint Thinners
If you are concerned about the toxicity of paint thinners, its negative effects on your lungs and nervous system, and its ability to pollute our soil and waterways, don’t worry. There are eco-friendly alternatives to paint thinners now available.
First, choose a paint that is eco-friendly. Read the ingredients and look for natural components such as citrus oil solvents as opposed to petroleum products. Use a low VOC or no VOC (volatile organic compounds) water-based paint, latex paint, or lacquer. Another option is to use natural paints, which are composed of natural materials such as milk protein, minerals, wax, chalk, talc, and others. Some brand name examples are Real Milk Paint, Klean Strip Paint Thinner, Bio-Solv Acetone Replacement, and Next paint thinners, solvents, and cleaners.
Citrus oil thinners, such as BioShield Citrus Thinner, are free of petroleum distillates and yet can thin oil-based paints and clean up brushes afterwards. Interestingly, turpentine that is derived from pine tree resin is recommended as a green alternative as it is made of organic compounds, but bear in mind that turpentine is both toxic and highly flammable.
When you paint, thin paint, or clean brushes you have a choice as to what type of paints and paint thinners you buy and use. Choose wisely. Choose paint products and paint thinners that are not harmful to you or to the planet.