Types of Painting Chemicals and the Purpose They Serve

A stack of metal containers used for paint chemicals.

There are a lot of different chemicals and formulas in the paint department other than paint. Here’s a quick guide to what they are and how you use them.

TIP: Doityourself’s painting consultant Pam Estabrooke, of ProTect Painters, reminds you, “Proper storage of used and unused product is very important. Do not store used rags in a closed container. Soak them in a bucket of water overnight. Consult local environmental regulations for disposal or recycling options for used product.”


This is a fast acting thinner, cleaner and remover for resins, inks, adhesives, and contact cement. Also used for thinning and cleaning fiberglass. A heavy degreaser, it can be used as a metal cleaner prior to painting.


Alcohol is available in denatured, wood isopropyl or methanol form. Wood and methanol alcohols are extremely toxic and are not recommended for do-it-yourselfers. Denatured alcohol, a safer substance, is used for thinning, and for cleaning shellac and pigmented shellac primer. It is excellent for removing grease and oil spots, fingerprints, and other smudges.

Brush and Roller Cleaner

Safer to use and with less odor than paint thinner, this formula restores hard brushes, and washes away oil and latex paints as well as varnish. It reduces cleaning effort and helps applicators last longer. Most formulations won’t harm either natural or nylon bristle brushes, but they can harm synthetic bristles. Synthetic brushes should be cleaned according to the manufacturer’s instructions. It can also be used to remove paint from your hands.


Available in water or solvent-based formulations, deglosser prepares slick surfaces before painting, and assists paint and varnish in bonding to old finishes.


Available in solid, liquid, and aerosol form. Degreaser is used to remove dirt, oil, and grease from basement and garage floors, driveways, patios, and sidewalks. Some formulations are made for concrete only and should not be used on blacktop surfaces.

Lacquer Thinner

Available in many grades and degrees of solvency and in several speeds of evaporation, lacquer thinner is an excellent cleaner for brushes and spray guns where lacquer has been used. Since it leaves no residue, lacquer thinner does not require cleaned brushes to be washed with soap and water. However, it is a highly flammable solvent that should be used with extreme caution.

Methyl Ethyl Ketone

This has solvent characteristics and strengths similar to acetone but is water soluble. Fast evaporating clear and colorless, it is primarily used to thin lacquers and vinyl acetate and vinyl chloride copolymers.

Mineral Spirits

Also known as paint thinner, this petroleum distillate solvent is frequently used in the manufacturing and thinning of oil-based paints. Odorless mineral spirits have been refined to remove some odorous components. It is excellent as a paint thinner and for cleaning brushes or rollers after painting.

Naphtha (VM & P)

This fast evaporating, clear, colorless solvent is used primarily to thin oil paints, varnishes, and enamels for spray applications where mineral spirits drying time is too slow.

Paint and Varnish Removers

These are formulated to dissolve or soften old finishes for easy removal on metal, masonry, wood, and fiberglass surfaces. It is available in gel, semi-paste, aerosol, and spray-on formulas, depending on the type of paint removal project. Some formulations contain methylene chloride as the primary solvent, but due to health concerns, “safe” non-meth strippers are available that are non-toxic and non-flammable.

While non-meth strippers are safer to use, they take longer to act and are more expensive than their meth counterparts. However, they stay active longer, which means they can remove more paint layers in a single application. Some strippers change color to signal completion of the process, and some removers are formulated so that no after wash or neutralizing is required.

Rust Remover

This solution is applied with a stiff brush or aerosol spray and allowed to dry for 12 to 24 hours, depending on humidity (check manufacturer labeling and literature). It cuts through and dissolves rust from metal surfaces to form a metal shield that can be painted. When brushed on, the rust dissolves quickly and in jellied form, it clings well to vertical surfaces. These products are extremely harsh on the skin; protective gloves should be worn.


This high solvency thinner for oil based paint, lacquers, varnish and adhesives is also used to thin certain primers and topcoats. It is soluble in alcohol and insoluble in water. It dries quickly, and is also used to clean tools and equipment.


Turpentine is also used as a paint thinner. It has greater solvency than mineral spirits, causing it to work more quickly. It also has a stronger odor and contains a small amount of resin. It’s derived from tree resin, rather than petroleum.

Wallpaper Removers

A liquid spray-on solution that uses enzymes to break down the paste and destroy its adhesive strength, wallpaper removers are also available in a water-based gel formulations that can be applied with a brush or roller.

Xylol (Xylene)

A medium-evaporating, clear, colorless aromatic hydrocarbon solvent for thinning varnishes and rubber.

This guide is helping you to understand the types of painting chemicals and the purposes they serve. This is important since they can be essential to your next DIY project.

Pam Estabrooke, district manager of ProTect Painters, contributed to this article.