Newbie painter here. I have been given a lot of paint cans, but most of the labels are obscured. I am trying to figure out if each can is oil-based or latex (for the purposes of cleaning the paintbrushes afterwards, as each type requires a different cleaning solution). I am told that the rancid smelling cans are the oil-based paints. Is this a hard-and-fast rule?

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    That sounds like a flakey rule to me. When I open up old left over latex paint cans I find that I could sometimes describe the smell as rancid too. Beware that left over paint can be chancy for use.
    – Michael Karas
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 12:16
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    Agree on both counts: I've experienced plenty of rancid smelling latex paint and old paint can give poor results. Find a local paint recycling/disposal operation. Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 13:37

1 Answer 1


Normally, latex paint is water soluble while oil paint isn't, so trying to dissolve a drop of paint in water should give you an indication. Don't put water in the paint bucket; if it turns out to be oil base you'll ruin it.

  • Hi Nienna, after putting a drop of water in the can, what am I looking for? I don't really know what water soluble means.
    – Kyle
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 16:59
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    Don't put water in the can; if it's oil based you'll ruin the paint. Put a drop of paint in a (disposable) container filled with water. If the paint dissolves at all, it's latex or other water base paint. If it stays a drop and/or floats on the surface of the water, it's probably oil base.
    – SiljeLB
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 17:41

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