Yes, turpentine is toxic to humans when too much is inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin.
So, why do oil painters still use it?
Below, you’ll find out why painters use it, the alternatives, and the pros and cons of popping the lid on this smelly solvent in your studio.
Why Do Painters Use Turpentine?
Many painters use turpentine to dissolve oil paints, clean paint brushes, or improve the paint’s flow. Another helpful trait is its ability to dissolve damar varnish and mastic.
In small amounts, it’s a valuable tool, but turpentine poisoning is a real concern if handled incorrectly.
Research has revealed overexposure can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea/vomiting, severe pain if in contact with eyes, skin irritation, loss of consciousness, and death (with extreme prolonged exposure).
Despite the dangers, it’s possible to use turps safely, which you’ll learn more about below.
You can buy this chemical in various forms and levels of purity, but which should you use for oil painting?
Most artists today thin their oil paints with pure distilled gum turpentine, which is a liquid extract of sap from pine trees. You can buy a bottle at your local art store or online.
How To Safely Use Turpentine With Oil Paints And Dispose Of It
You can paint outdoors to be extra safe, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate, make sure your studio is properly ventilated and keep fresh air flowing.
Keep your solvent away from your eyes, nose, and mouth, and ALWAYS close the lid when you’re not using it. An easy way to make sure those fumes are under locks is with a leak-proof brush cleaner.
Keep in mind it’s highly flammable, and turp-soaked rags have been known to spontaneously catch on fire, so never toss them in the garbage. Instead, lay them flat in a cool, dry space away from people and pets to let the chemical evaporate. Once dry, they’re safe to dispose of.
What about the liquid in your brush container? You can also let it evaporate until there’s a ½ inch or less of debris at the bottom. Then put it in a sealed container and dispose of it. If there’s more than a half inch, it must be taken to a hazardous waste facility.
Although it’s an effective solvent, not all painters have enough clean air flowing through their studio to use it. If you’re leery of it, there are other solvents you can use to thin oil paint. These three alternatives don’t come from pine trees, and two aren’t considered toxic.
Odorless Mineral Spirits
Odorless mineral spirits (OMS) are made with distilled petroleum and have a less offensive scent but are still toxic if inhaled. With a less deductible smell, wafting fumes can easily go unnoticed. To use it safely, ensure your studio has access to fresh air.
If you’re choosing between mineral spirits and turps, the difference in dry time and appearance are also worth noting. Mineral spirits dry slower than gum turps and can leave a petroleum residue behind.
They also can’t break down mastic or damar varnish, but if you’re not using natural resins, odorless mineral spirits are an effective and more affordable choice.
Oil of Lavender Spike
Oil of lavender spike has been used to thin oil paint since the Renaissance and is extracted from flowers. It’s a great non-toxic option that doesn’t streak, dries quickly, and can be inhaled without harming you (It’s also used for aromatherapy). Plus, it adds a fresh flowery scent to your studio.
Oil of lavender spike is also strong enough to dissolve natural resins and does so without destroying the paint’s body like turps or mineral spirits do. So why isn’t it used more often? Oil of lavender spike can be a spendy option compared to others, and many artists simply opt for cheaper varieties or aren’t aware of the benefits.
If you’re looking for all of the benefits of gum turpentine without the harsh scent or toxins, you may have just met your new best friend.
Citrus solvent is yet another alternative that isn’t considered toxic, but if you’re using natural resins, you’ll need a stronger option. This liquid dissolves oil paints well but doesn’t break down natural resins. Although it’s free of the toxins you’ll find in turps or mineral spirits, it can still irritate your skin, so use it with caution.
Clean Your Brushes Without Turpentine
To avoid using unpleasant solvents in your studio, you can instead clean brushes with one of the following. Remember if you choose one of these oils to thin your paint, it will take days for the entire surface area to dry, whereas turps and mineral spirits take less than 24 hours.
- Brush soap like Masters Brush Cleaner
- Linseed oil
- Safflower oil
- Walnut oil
- Poppy oil
- Citrus solvent
- Oil of lavender spike
I personally prefer using linseed oil in my home studio and just washing my brushes with a dot of dish soap once the bristles are paint free.
Frequently Asked Questions
Turpentine is a solvent formed from distilled tree sap, generally from pine trees.
Is Turpentine A Toxin?
Turpentine is a known toxin when inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin.
What Makes Turpentine Toxic?
Turpentine is toxic because of the hydrocarbons in it that dissolve fats. The lungs, heart, and Central Nervous system are affected the most when it enters the body.
Is It Ok To Get Turpentine On Skin?
Turpentine should be washed from the skin promptly if touched, according to the CDC.
Can You Pour Gum Turpentine Down The Drain?
No, do not pour gum turpentine down the drain. It doesn’t mix with water and is considered toxic.
Proceed With Caution As You Create
We know turpentine oil is toxic when used improperly, but in general, you’re safe if you follow the precautions mentioned above.
If you choose this solvent, it’s important to keep fresh air flowing and avoid bodily contact as best you can. The oil is a great tool to have on hand, but if you can’t find a way to use it safely you’re not doomed as an oil painter!
You can always use linseed, walnut, poppy, lavender spike, or safflower oil to thin paints or clean your brushes, and none of them releases toxic fumes like turps and mineral spirits do.
Need extra help deciding what you need to get started? This free beginner’s oil painting training will walk you through what oil painting supplies you need and three exercises to get you started.