Knowing the type of paint you’re using or removing will determine every step you take. Oil-based paints can cover moisture well, and they last for a while. On the other hand, latex-based paint dries quickly and holds a vibrant color. But how are you supposed to tell what kind of paint it is?

If you want to know how to tell if the paint is oil or latex-based, dip a cotton ball in acetone and dab the paint in a small area. Look at the cotton swab to see if any paint was removed. If it was, it’s latex; If it wasn’t removed, you’re dealing with oil-based paint.

Throughout this article, you’ll also learn the following details about these two paints:

  • Step-by-step instructions to determine what kind of paint it is
  • Various differences between oil and latex paint
  • Several benefits of both paints

How to Determine What Kind of Paint It Is

Dip a Cotton Swab in Acetone

The best way to know if a painted surface is latex-based or oil-based is to start with a cotton ball and acetone. Acetone naturally removes latex, so it’s an excellent way to know what you’re dealing with right away.

It’s important to make sure that the cotton isn’t contaminated with anything else, including water, since it can tamper with the results. Simply dip a fresh cotton ball in the acetone solution and head onto the next step.

Rub It Against the Paint

Rub the acetone-soaked cotton ball on the painted surface in circular motions. Make sure you focus on a small area because you don’t want to strip the whole area. Simply rub the cotton ball against the paint, hold it in place for about 10 to 15 seconds, and you’re good to head to the final step below.

Note: If you see that the paint is pulling off with the cotton ball, don’t keep rubbing it. Weakened, old paint can become fragile and flake, even if it’s oil-based. You’ll have to sand and repaint the surface if it gets too messy.

Check the Results

Finally, check the results of the cotton ball. If there’s paint on the cotton, then you’re dealing with latex-based paint. Latex is made out of rubber, which solidifies and is removed quite easily with acetone. You don’t have to press for too long to know what you’re dealing with right away.

Water-based paint will also show up on the cotton ball. You can paint right over water-based and latex-paint. Use a primer if the new paint calls for it, then add two layers of paint. Use a stain-preventing primer, such as KILZ Original Multisurface Stain-Blocking Primer, to cover stained wood.

Oil-based paints won’t strip off with acetone. They are designed to withstand it (as well as many other harsh chemicals). Thus, you’ll have to sand it off completely before you start adding new paint (if that’s your intention).

The Difference Between Oil and Latex Paint

Oil and latex paint are two of the most popular choices around, but they’re very different from one another. It’s essential that you know what type of paint you’re using before you dive into the next project.

Knowing the differences will allow you to choose which one is best for you. Below, you’ll find a list of the pros and cons of latex and oil-based paint.

Pros of Oil-Based Paint

  • Oil-based paint can hold onto wet surfaces (and dry surfaces, for that matter) much better than any other type of paint. Since oil and water don’t mix, this type of paint or primer can achieve a tight seal without allowing raw wood tannins or water to leak through the topcoat.
  • Oil-based paint has certain exclusive colors, such as Prussian Blue and Zinc White, that you can’t find in water-based or latex-based paints. These two colors are shiny and beautiful, so you’ll have to get oil-based paint and primer if you intend to use them.
  • Oil-based paint looks smooth and glossy, which is an attractive feature for most modern homes. If you’re after the brand-new appearance, then there’s nothing better than oil-based paint. It looks wonderful, feels smooth to the touch, and doesn’t show signs of age for a long time.
  • Speaking of which, this type of paint tends to withstand rain, wind, snow, and other harsh weather patterns much better than any other paint. The claim mentioned earlier of oil not mixing with water means that raindrops pour right off the side of the painted surface rather than penetrate the wood.
  • Oil paints are much thicker, and they can take a beating. If you’re painting an area with heavy foot traffic, you’ll love the longevity and durability of oil-based paint. Spills and other accidents that would normally cause stains won’t be a problem to clean within minutes.

Cons of Oil-Based Paint

  • Oil-based paint requires a primer. It won’t absorb or hold onto the surface without a primer, so you’ll have to spend a bit more.
  • It takes up to a couple of weeks for oil-based paint to dry completely. Best case scenario, it would be a few days before it’s dry to the touch.

Pros of Latex-Based Paint

  • Latex paint is flexible, making it ideal for painted surfaces that are moved around. If you’re worried about cracks and rips showing up, you’ll definitely want to consider using a latex-based paint. It’s also quite thinner, making it much easier for you to work with when you’re painting wood.
  • Latex-based paint only takes about one to two hours to dry, which is significantly faster than oil-based paint. You can paint the surface and complete it with a second coat within a single afternoon project.
  • You don’t need to use a primer when you’re working with latex-based paint. It can be applied directly to a wood surface without having to block out the stains. That being said, using an oil-based primer underneath a latex paint is one of the best combinations that you can use.
  • Latex-based paint doesn’t have too much of an odor once it dries. If you’re painting a small enclosed room, oil-based primer and paint can become overwhelming rather quickly. If you’re trying to air it out quicker, use a few floor fans and open up all of the surrounding doors and windows.
  • Latex is a non-toxic paint, so it won’t cause irritation and/or burning. If you’re worried about children or pets being sensitive to a type of paint, then latex is the way to go. Note: Some people have a latex allergy, which is worth looking into prior to making a decision.

Cons of Latex-Based Paint

  • Latex paint can be stained much easier than oil paint if you don’t treat it. You’ll have to clean it more often as well.
  • It’s not as durable when it comes to outdoor use in humid environments. Latex wicks moisture, but it’ll start to puddle or stain eventually.


Latex-based and oil-based paints are very common in residential and commercial painting projects. One is not better than the other overall, but they each have a wrong and a right time to use them. With the knowledge that you’ve learned from this article, you’ll be able to pick the correct paint every time.

Remember that you can test the type of paint that you’re dealing with by dabbing it with an acetone-soaked cotton ball. If the paint comes off, it’s made with a water or latex base. If it doesn’t, then you’re working with oil-based paint.

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