The Best Way to Clean Oil-Based Paint off Paintbrushes (2023)

In This Post

  • Oil and Water Don’t Mix
  • Why This Matters
  • What You Can Use
    • Solvents
    • Oil
  • The Best Way to Clean Oil-Based Paint off Paintbrushes
    • With a Solvent
    • With Oil

Thanks to my miniature misadventures (I’d trademark that if I could), I’ve learned that I should always prime wood before I paint it. And, I’ve learned that I should avoid oil-based paints when I can. That’s mostly because they smell and they’re a pain to clean up.

Unfortunately, the primer I’m currently working through (because I was not paying attention when I bought it (yes, file this under newbie mistakes!) is oil-based. And, given how little of it I use when I do prime, it’s going to take me a loooong time to use it all up. The easy money is on the paint going bad or drying up before I ever finish it off.

That means I’m going to have to get used to working with oil-based paint. Well, really just oil-based primer. And, that means I’ve got to find the best way to clean oil-based paint off my paintbrushes so I don’t destroy them.

Oil and Water Don’t Mix

You can’t use plain old soap — even dish soap — and water to wash a paintbrush covered in oil-based paint. You probably knew that either from experience or reading the label on the paint can. But did you ever think about why?

If you’re like me, you like to cook. And, if you don’t like to cook, you’re still like me in that you probably like to eat (or, at least, know you have to eat). And, of course, you also know you should eat your vegetables.

Pro tip: to make veggies a little more tolerable, chop them up and sprinkle them with some olive oil and salt, toss them in the oven until they are tender. This makes them edible even to those who hate vegetables.

And, if you’re like me, you hate to clean up. In fact, you might suck at it (like me!). But, again, it’s got to happen.

So, you’re cleaning up the pan you used to roast the veggies, and there’s olive oil still on it. Even if you use parchment paper to line your pan (which I highly recommend), the olive oil is going to end up on the pan. No big deal. Oil is slippery and should clean right up.

Except it doesn’t. When you rinse the pan in the water, it beads up and kind of rolls off the oil. You might think that’s because oil is, well, oily, and that’s what oil does, helps things like roll off of it.

But, there’s a far more scientific explanation for this. The short answer is water molecules have polar molecules, and oil molecules have nonpolar molecules. Polar molecules play nice with other polar molecules but don’t play well with nonpolar molecules and vice versa. That’s why it’s easy to dissolve sugar in water — they’re both made of polar molecules. And it’s also why oil and water don’t mix! They are made of opposite molecules.

If you’ve ever poured oil into water (or vice versa), you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t done it before, you can do that right now. Or check out the pictures. TLDR: the oil floats on the water! From the top down view you can see the large bubbles.


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So, to get the pan clean, you add some soap to the water, and that gets your pan clean. Again, the scientific answer is the soap breaks up the big oil beads into smaller beads, which can then mix with the water. How? Soap molecules have two different ends, One loves water, the other hates it. The hate it ends sticks to the oil, the loves it end sticks to the water and surrounds the oil creating a bubble that gets washed off.

For fun, here’s what happened when I added soap to the oil and water. As you can see, the soap kind of obliterated the oil. Also, it’s kind of hard to see the small bubbles the soap turned the oil into, but they are there.

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Great, but Why Does This Matter?

OK. Cool. So, why can’t you use soap and water to clean the oil-based paint off your brush?

Well, you can, it’s just not great for the bristles. Think about it. When you wash, say your hands or the dirty pan, all the surface area is exposed, so it’s easy to create the “washing off” action. There’s no place for the oil to hide. In a bristle brush, that’s not the case.

Here’s a picture of my hand and a bristle brush.

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As you can see, all of my hand is exposed. But those inside bristles are harder to clean thoroughly because of how they’re arranged in the brush.

There are so many places for the paint to hide!

While it is possible to use just soap and water (and a brush cleaner), honestly, that’s not the best way to clean oil-based paint off anything. You’re going to spend a lot more time cleaning than had you started with something designed to clean oil-based paints.

What You Can Use (And Why They Work)

Science lesson over! Let’s talk about what to use and the best way to clean oil-based paint off your brushes. And, by that I mean, technique. Because when it comes to painting, technique is everything (maybe. I’m not a painter, so I don’t know).


Probably the most effective product to clean oil based paint off brushes (and other things, I suppose), is solvents. Specifically, paint thinner or mineral spirits. You can also use turpentine. However, if you’re using shellac, you’ll need denatured alcohol or ammonia.

The good part about these solvents is that they work. They will get the oil-based paint out of your brush every single time. The bad part about these solvents is that they smell, can be kind of dangerous (flame on, anyone?) and they aren’t so fantastic for the environment (as in, you can’t rinse this stuff down the drain or toss it in the trash).


The definition of a paint thinner is that it’s a solvent. The technical definition of a solvent is “able to dissolve other substances.” OK, then.

But, if you’ve ever checked out the ingredient label on paint thinner or mineral spirits, you might find some interesting information. Here’s a picture of the bottle of mineral spirits I’ve got:


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On the ingredients list (and I use that term loosely), you’ll see “Contains Petroleum Distillates.”

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Petroleum Distillates. Hmmm. What are those?

Get this. They’re solvents made from crude oil.

While I don’t recommend going out and buying a barrel of crude oil for your oil-based painting needs, it does tell me that oil can act as a solvent for oil-based paint.

For the record, I scoured the internet to try to find out why this is the case, but couldn’t find an answer. If you know why oil will break down oil, please chime in in the comments. But, because I’m going to have to draw my own conclusions, I’m going to go with “magic” and move on.

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So, if that’s the case, can you use plain old oil (like vegetable oil) to clean up oil-based paint on paintbrushes, and everywhere else?


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I know because I’ve done it. And, you can use it to get the paint off your hands, too. I do not know if it will get paint out of your clothing. But, really, you shouldn’t be painting in your Sunday best, anyway. I mean, if you want to, OK. I won’t judge you, but wear a smock!

Actually, you can use any kind of oil. Baby oil, cottonseed oil, sesame seed oil. Whatever you’ve got, it will work. Because oil is a solvent, and magic makes it work!

(Video) How to Clean Oil Paint Brushes

OK. Not magic. But science that I can’t explain.

I will say from experience, though, that it is slower than using mineral spirits or paint thinner. So, using oil will require patience and, perhaps, some extra scrubbing on your part. And, remember, the paint is still oil-based paint, so that probably shouldn’t go down your drain. But, if you want a safer, less-hazardous way to clean up your brushes, I say oil is the way to go.

That said, when I’m finished rinsing the brushes in vegetable oil, I follow with soap and water. They seem OK, but don’t look fantastic when I’m done. That’s what led me to research the best way to clean oil-based paint out of paintbrushes. It turns out that while vegetable oil is fine for cleaning, my technique needs a bit of work.

The Best Way to Clean Oil-Based Paint off Paintbrushes

The best way to clean oil-based paint of your brushes is the one that works best for you. Hokey, I know, but true. If solvents are your thing, great, just be careful. If oil is what you want, fine. Go for it.

Just know that no matter how you decide to clean your brushes, it’s going to take more than a quick rinse in whatever you use. Cleaning up your brushes takes a fair amount of patience, time, and elbow grease.

With a solvent

Going the solvent route? Cool. Follow these steps to get your brushes back in shape.

1. Pick the right place

Always, always, always (I can’t stress this enough), if you use a solvent to clean your brushes, do so in a well-ventilated space. Outdoors is best, but if that’s not possible, make sure there’s plenty of air-flow wherever you work.

2. Gather your supplies

Get everything you need before you start cleaning. Trust me. There’s nothing worse than having an open bottle of mineral spirits or paint thinner and realizing you need a container or paper towels or something.

You’ll need a non-plastic container and your solvent of choice. Have paper towels nearby and wear chemical resistant gloves. The solvent will eat through the wrong kind (which is also why you want a non-plastic container).

Pour just enough solvent into the container to cover the brush bristles. Something tall and narrow is better than wide and flat in this case (like a jar and not a bowl). You’ll use less and cover more.

3. Dip and swirl

Take your paintbrush and dip it in the jar. Feel free to let it sit in the solvent for a few seconds. Then, spin the brush inside the container for about 10 seconds using your hand (or roll it between both your hands). After the 10 seconds is up, take the brush out of the jar and work the solvent into the bristles, trying to get out as much paint as possible.

4. Rinse and repeat

Rinse the brush in some clean water and test and see if all the paint is out. If you blot a paper towel to the brush, and it comes clean, you can move on to the next step. If there’s still paint in the brush, repeat the process with clean solvent until it’s clean.

5. Flick, clean, and rinse

When all the paint is out of the bristles, flick the paintbrush onto newspaper to get the remaining solvent out of the brush. Clean the brush in warm, soapy water, but only for about a minute to get everything nice and clean without messing up your brushes. Then allow them to air dry.

(Video) How to Clean Oil Paint Brushes - with ALL White Spirit Recycled!

If you want to take the extra step of combing your paintbrush, you can. This can help get any dried paint you might have missed out of the brush and help you reshape the bristles. You can find a paintbrush combing tool at the hardware store, or use a cat brush (since it’s doubtful you’re using it on the cat!).

6. Use caution

So, it’s easy to think you can do this over the sink. After all, you’re just rinsing the stuff down the drain, and that’s fine, right?

Well, it’s not. For starters, solvents are a fire hazard because they only need to heat to 104 degrees Fahrenheit to ignite. That alone should be reason enough for you to say “no way” to the drain.

It’s also why you can’t toss it in your garbage can and send it to the landfill. I’m not going to give you another science lesson, but let’s just say that not properly disposing of this stuff can result in spontaneous combustion. For real.

Whether you used old rags or paper towels, make sure you lay them out flat to dry before you toss them in the trash. Ideally, you can lay them outside for a few days. When those are dry, take the rags, the used solvent, and anything covered in it to a local hazardous waste facility. Not sure where your closest one is? The EPA has a list of all the state agencies that handle this stuff.

With oil

If solvents aren’t your thing, use regular old oil instead. Baby oil, vegetable oil, massage oil (I’m guessing) will all work. Just follow the same steps above to get the brushes clean.

However, just because you’re using plain old oil doesn’t mean you can rinse it down the drain!

Remember, you’re using oil to clean up the oil-based paints. And, what does oil not mix well with? Water. That means that the regular oil you’re washing down the drain could sit in your pipes and cause problems.

Depending on the oil you use, it might be OK to put everything into the trash. But, it might not. For example, baby oil is not a hazardous waste. And, if you use it to clean your paintbrushes, you can put it in the regular trash. But if you use something like linseed oil, you need to take everything to a hazardous waste dump because of how flammable linseed oil is.

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Next Time, I’ll Pay Attention

Next time I buy paint or primer, I’ll make sure I check the label. These oil-based paints are a pain, and they stink, too. Plus, given that this is just a miniature dollhouse, I don’t know if oil-based paints are necessary. OK. Not “just.” I get it. But it’s not like anyone is going to play with this (I think).

This dollhouse has, however, rolled around in the trunk of my car, which is a whole other story that I may never tell!

What about you? Any advice or misadventures to share around cleaning up oil-based paints? Let me know in the comments!

(Video) How to clean a brush after using oil base paint/primer!


The Best Way to Clean Oil-Based Paint off Paintbrushes? ›

For oil-based paints, stains and varnishes, soak the bristles in a cup of mineral spirits or paint thinner in a well-ventilated space for a few minutes. Swirl the bristles through the solution and then remove and lay the brush flat on a rag.

How do you clean oil-based paint off paint brushes? ›

For oil-based paints, stains and varnishes, soak the bristles in a cup of mineral spirits or paint thinner in a well-ventilated space for a few minutes. Swirl the bristles through the solution and then remove and lay the brush flat on a rag.

How do you remove oil-based paint? ›

Steps to Clean
  1. Scrape up excess paint.
  2. Using a clean white cloth, blot up as much paint as possible.
  3. Using a clean white cloth, blot the stain with turpentine. ...
  4. Keep applying turpentine to the stain, tamping and blotting until the paint is removed.
  5. Sponge the stain with waterless hand cleaner.

How do you clean oil-based paint brushes without paint thinner? ›

Take your bar of soap and, with lukewarm water, lather up your brush. Use your fingers to gently work the soap into the brush, and then rinse thoroughly. Repeat this step until your brush is clear of any residual oil.

What is the best paint brush cleaner for oil-based paint? ›

​Solvents, such as turpentine, paint thinner, and mineral spirits, are the most common brush cleaners for oil painters. All three options are incredibly effective, but they do have toxic properties. When using solvents to clean brushes, be sure to do so in a well-ventilated area.

Does rubbing alcohol remove oil paint from brushes? ›

Rubbing alcohol is a powerful solvent that can easily clean away a layer of oil paint.

How do you clean oil paint without solvents? ›

Use regular DISH SOAP!! It has the ability to be gentle on your paint brushes while removing the sticky, slick paint behind. Fill a small cup or jar with regular (non-foaming) dish soap so it is slightly deeper than the head of your brush. Mix your brush in the soap, coating as many bristles as possible.

Will vinegar clean oil-based paint brushes? ›

Most people use oils or solvents to clean their oil paintbrushes. Vinegar is best used for the softening of dried paint on brushes. To do this, soak your brush in vinegar for about an hour, then leave your brush in a saucepan of simmering vinegar for a few extra minutes. Rinse before use.

What is a good substitute for paint brush cleaner? ›

Use drying oils such as linseed, safflower, walnut or poppy oil to clean brushes during the painting session. This is because the oil used to clean the brush will inevitably get into the painting and needs to dry like normal paint and mediums to form stable paint layers.

What are the best brush cleaner oils? ›

Some options of the best oil brush cleaners are turpentine, linseed oil, artist soap bars, safflower oil and walnut oil just to name a few. The oil options are a lot softer on your bristles and assist in protecting them for longer use.

Does acetone clean oil paint brushes? ›

Do not use lacquer thinner, shellac remover or acetone to clean brushes. These solvents can dissolve the glues, which hold the brush hairs in place.

Does isopropyl alcohol remove oil? ›

Yes, it does. It actually dissolves a wide range of compounds that are oil based. Oils are easily dissolved by degreasing agents such as IPA that can penetrate and break down oils, easily removing them from the surfaces you are cleaning.

Is rubbing alcohol bad for paint brushes? ›

RUBBING ALCOHOL: You can use rubbing alcohol to remove dried on acrylic paint. However, this can dry out the brush hairs and you'll need to finish the cleaning job with the bar of moisturizing soap as mentioned above.

Can I clean oil paint brushes with Dawn? ›

You might be surprised, but Dawn dish soap is actually the BEST for removing oil paint from your brushes. Pour a quarter size amount of soap in your palm, take your dirty brush and scrub into the soap in circular motions. Press and scrub really hard. Rinse your brush, and repeat until the soap suds are clear.

What is the best bar soap to clean oil paint brushes? ›

Dish soap does a pretty good job on brushes but I recommend you purchase a bar of Ivory soap which will last you longer. Be careful what you buy. Ivory soap is probably the best one. If you want to get a liquid soap, you can get something like Murphy's oil.

Can Murphy's oil soap be used to clean oil paint brushes? ›

Grab Murphy's Oil soap for your dry paintbrushes.

Think getting the paint off your brush you left out overnight is impossible? Think again! Combine equal parts Murphy's Oil soap and warm water in a cup. Then, place your dried brush into the mixture for 30 minutes and watch the magic happen.

What is an alternative solvent for oil paint? ›

So what do you use if you want to avoid solvents? Water and soap, for example works well. Dishwashing liquid and water, also works well. Or else use painting oil (linseed, walnut) to clean out the paint, after which you wash the brush with water and soap to remove the oil.

What chemicals remove oil paint? ›

Chemical Solutions

All over the globe, Ammonia and Acetone are the two widely used chemicals to remove paint from the metal surface.

Will WD 40 remove oil-based paint? ›

Irrespective of how stubborn they are, if you want to remove paint stains from your floor, WD-40 Multi Use Product gets the work done in a few minutes. All you need is a can of WD-40 and you will have a sparkling clean floor at your disposal.

What is the best liquid to remove oil? ›

You can remove oil stains from clothes using vinegar. Simply soak your garments in a mix of equal parts vinegar and equal parts warm water, then gently scrub the fabric against each other to remove as much of the oil stain as you can. Finally, launder the clothes as usual.

What is the difference between paint thinner and mineral spirits? ›

“Paint Thinner” is mineral spirits, but in a less refined form. It contains other types of solvents, which makes it a lot smellier and more volatile. Mineral spirits are not as stinky. The Cons: Paint thinners have very strong fumes and should be used in well-ventilated areas.


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