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How To Tell If Your Paint Is Latex Or Oil Based

Exterior Painters in Charlotte
Let's determine how to tell if your paint is oil based. Are you considering repainting a room or adding a new layer of paint to your trim? If so, then there is one very important factor that you must take into consideration before starting the project. You have to determine whether the existing coat of paint is oil or latex based. Why is this important? If you intend to add a layer of paint onto an existing coat, you need to match the paint base to achieve a lasting and even finish. Oil-based paint dries at a different rate than latex-based paint. how to tell if paint is oil basedSo let’s say you are covering oil-based paint with a new latex paint layer. The oil-based paint layer becomes wet but will dry slower than the new layer of latex paint. This can cause a lot of problems. First of all, the new latex layer may not adhere properly and run. Secondly, the new layer of paint may start to crack and peel before its time. You can use a latex or oil-based primer on an existing layer of paint, but in many cases, it’s just easier to match paint bases. But how can you tell if the paint you are dealing with is oil or latex-based? There are some simple testing methods that you can employ to find out.

How to Tell if Paint is Oil Based: The Acetone Test

Acetone is not a friend of latex. Acetone essentially dissolves latex on contact. So one way you can find out whether your paint is oil or latex-based is by rubbing a bit of nail polish remover, which is rich in acetone, onto a rag or paper towel and wiping the paint surface with it. If the paint is broken down and rubs off onto your rag or paper towel, you are dealing with latex paint. If it has no effect, you have oil-based paint on your hands. We suggest using nail polish remover as it is a common household item that contains acetone, but any acetone solution would work as well.

How to Tell if Paint is Oil Based: The Alcohol Test

You can also use alcohol to determine whether you have oil or latex-based paint. Start by cleaning the surface of the painted area thoroughly. We suggest using a solution of laundry or cleaning detergent with warm water. Using a towel or rag, work the solution into the surface to clean it. Then wipe off the solution with a clean towel or rag. Once the test area is dry, dip a cotton swab into some rubbing alcohol and then wipe the test area with the swab. If paint comes off onto the cotton swab, you have latex paint. If no paint comes off, it’s oil-based. Keep in mind that you can use these tests for virtually any painted surface, including walls, trim and metal surfaces.

The Benefits of Using Oil Based Paint

Oil-based paint has several benefits over water-based (latex) paint. Some of these benefits include:
  1. Durability: Oil-based paint is more durable and resistant to wear and tear than water-based paint. It can withstand heavy use and can last for years without chipping, fading or cracking.
  2. Adhesion: Oil-based paint adheres well to surfaces, making it an ideal choice for painting woodwork, trim and other surfaces that may require a more durable finish.
  3. Glossiness: Oil-based paint has a higher gloss level than water-based paint, which can give a surface a more polished and professional look.
  4. Drying time: Oil-based paint takes longer to dry than water-based paint, which can be an advantage if you need to make touch-ups or corrections.
  5. Temperature Tolerance: Oil-based paint can be applied in a wider range of temperatures than water-based paint. It can be applied in temperatures as low as 35F.
  6. Better for heavy-use areas: Oil-based paint is best for areas that are subject to heavy use, such as doors, windowsills, and baseboards.
  7. Can be used for different surfaces: Oil-based paint can be used for a variety of surfaces, including wood, metal, and masonry, whereas water-based paint is typically used for walls and ceilings.
It is worth noting that oil-based paint is more difficult to clean up than water-based paint and it has a stronger odor and it's not as environmentally friendly.


In conclusion, determining whether the paint is latex or oil-based is important for choosing the right type of paint for a project and for knowing how to properly clean and maintain the painted surface. One way to tell is to perform the "rag test" by using a clean white rag and a small amount of paint thinner or mineral spirits. The rag test can help you to tell if the paint is oil-based or water-based. Additionally, you can check the paint cans to see if the paint is oil or water-based. Always make sure to take proper safety precautions when working with paint thinner or mineral spirits. If you are still unsure what kind of paint you have, give us a call here (704) 245-9409 at Century Painting. Our painting company in Charlotte would be glad to help you out and service all of your painting needs!
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