Mineral Oil vs. Mineral Spirit – What are the Differences?

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oil poured into a glass

Mineral oil and mineral spirits are widespread in households and DIY workshops. However, if you are not yet familiar with these substances you might be wondering what the differences are.

Mineral oil is a color- and odorless combination of alkanes that can be used as a wood finish, for instance. Mineral spirit, on the other hand, is a smelly petroleum extract that is commonly used as a cleaning agent, among other applications.

Read on to learn more about mineral oil, mineral spirits, their typical uses and differences.

Mineral Oil

Mineral oil is a by-product of petroleum distillate. The oil is colorless, odorless, and a combination of alkanes. It is safe to use in food or areas that come in contact with food (read more on the FDA page) but is commonly used in medicine and as a laxative.

Uses of Mineral Oil

Mineral oil is a versatile product as it can be used for different things around the house. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Finishing wood,
  • Treating dry skin,
  • Relieving constipation,
  • Treating cracked feet,
  • Treating skin irritations, and
  • Other uses.

We are describing the uses in more detail below.


Example of a Mineral Oil.
Find this one and other mineral oils on Amazon.

Mineral Oil as a Wood Finish.

Mineral oil is odorless and non-toxic hence can be used on wooden surfaces. It does not polymerize but penetrates the wood. It provides protection against humidity and mold and, to some extent, against tear and wear.

As a food-safe wood finish, it does not impose any health hazards. Thus, you can easily apply it on wood surfaces in the kitchen (e.g. cutting surfaces) or on dining tables. Additionally, it is a suitable finish for wooden toys since babies tend to insert toys in their mouths.

It is typically applied in at least 2 coats with sanding before and after the application as well as between coats (source).

Treating Dry Skin

Mineral oil has properties that prevent loss of moisture from the skin. If you suffer dry skin due to various reasons, mineral oil can be an excellent skin remedy. The oil can assist your skin to be healthy and soft.

Relieving Constipation

It can be used to prepare an enema or laxative. If your stool is stuck, it plays a vital role in assisting the propulsion of the stool. It plays a critical role in lubricating your bowels and ensuring your stool has moisture. The oil helps the stool to move smoothly. It can be an adequate remedy for people who are suffering from hemorrhoids and anal fissures as it ensures the stool does not cause tearing on your mucosa.

Treating Cracked Feet

The cracked foot is a problem in a large percent of the population. Finding an adequate remedy is hectic. However, mineral oil has proved to be an effective cure for cracked feet. You can apply the oil gently on your feet every night. After a few weeks of using the oil, the results will be incredible.

Treating Skin Irritations and Diseases

Mineral oil is also used to treat skin problems. If you consider using mineral oil in this context, seek medical advice and make sure that you understand the correct application and potential side effects. Refer to WebMD’s overview of medical mineral oil uses and related considerations.

Such uses may include (non-exhaustive list):

  • Treating eczema: It is a condition that manifests by abnormally dry skin that is inflamed and itchy. The disease makes your skin uncomfortable and can result in mild pain. Regular use of the oil on your skin slowly clears the abnormal skin, and you can get an incredibly smooth surface.
  • Treating xerosis. It is another skin disease almost similar to eczema. The oil ensures that the skin retains its moisture and prevents it from drying up.
  • To remove earwax. It is instrumental in assisting in the clearing of the earwax. If you have dislodged earwax, the oil can help in disintegrating it into a smooth compound that can easily flow.

Mineral Spirit

It is a petroleum by-product commonly used as an organic solvent. It is sometimes also referred to as white spirit.

The spirit has a higher molecular weight, unlike the mineral oil. Its ability to dissolve in oily things and evaporate fast makes it efficient in painting (source).


Example of Mineral (White) Spirit.
You can find it on Amazon.

Uses of Mineral Spirit

Many people think of cleaning jobs when they hear ‘mineral spirit’ or ‘white spirit’. However, it is also an alternative to turpentine or off-the-shelf chemicals as paint thinner.

Mineral Spirit as a Cleaning Agent

This includes but is not limited to:

  • Used as a cleansing and degreasing agent. The spirit has properties that eradicate oil on surfaces. Thus, most people use it in machinery and various automobile cleansing.
  • Eliminate grime and dirt. It is a practical element to wash grime and dirt from various metallic equipment.
  • Cleaning of paintbrushes. It has properties that eradicate heavy oils, paints and polyurethane on the paintbrushes.

Thinning Paint

  • Thinning oil-based paint and oil-based varnishes. Even commercial paint thinners tend to be made of derivates of mineral spirit.
  • In the painting industry, it can be used to rectify any errors in the paintwork.

Mineral Oil vs. Mineral Spirits – The Differences

Regardless of them both being petroleum extracts, they have different uses and properties.

The mineral spirit has generally higher molecular weight compared to the mineral oil. It tends to be smelly and may even impose health risks.

Significant differences include:

Uses

The mineral oil is often used for finishing wood, in particular around the kitchen and children’s room. It is a versatile and food-safe oil with various other uses in a household, e.g. to treat skin surfaces and can be consumed orally as an enema. The oil is safe for human consumption.

On the other hand, the mineral spirit has main uses as cleansing and degreasing agent or as a paint thinner. It should not be consumed or applied on skin – it is not food-safe by any means and can even be hazardous!

Irritation to Humans and Food Safety

The mineral oil is quite safe as it is suitable for its use on humans. It can have side effects though.

Mineral oil is approved by the FDA to be food-safe and can be obtained from various pharmacies and groceries. It is used as a finishing product on butcher blocks and salad bowls.

Mineral spirit is not food safe and it can even be dangerous to health. It has a kerosene odor that leads to irritation on the nasal mucosa.

Conclusion

Mineral oil and mineral spirit share the same precursor and may even sound similar but they are very different. As a DIYer, you can use mineral oil as a food-safe penetrating wood finish and mineral spirit as a cleaning agent or paint thinner.

Both products also have several other uses in a household. However, make sure you don’t mix them up, so ideally store them in different places. This is because the side effects of accidentally using mineral spirit instead of mineral oil could be hazardous to health.

We hope that you’ve found this comparison useful. You might also be interested in 10 Tips for Wood Finishing and our Ultimate Guide to Oils for Finishing Wood where we introduce alternatives to mineral oil.

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