We get a ton of questions from customers trying to understand the differences between mineral oil and pure tung oil, so we’ve created a post to answer them all. Whether you’re looking for a quick rundown, trying to decide which product to buy or just want to understand fact vs myth, we’ve got you covered.
What Is Mineral Oil?
Mineral oil is made from petroleum that has been processed to remove impurities and create a lighter, more refined product.
You may see it referred to as “white oil” or even “liquid paraffin” (written in ingredient lists as “paraffinum liquidum” or variations such as “paraffinum perliquidum” and “paraffinum subliquidum,” depending on viscosity).
It’s also fairly nonreactive, a plus for those with allergies or skin sensitivities, and is temperature stable so it won’t spoil if you leave it in a hot garage.
Types of Mineral Oil
There are several grades of mineral oil designated according to how distilled they are and, therefore, how many contaminants such as benzene, sulfur, vanadium and lead have been removed. The two most common are food grade and pharmaceutical grade, both of which are refined until they become odorless and tasteless — though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re toxin-free.
Products that contain Mineral Oil
You’ll often find mineral oil in makeup and other personal care products — even some baby oils are just mineral oil with perfumes added in. It’s also used in:
- Food packaging
- Defoaming agents
- Hair products
- Protective coatings
- Animal feed
- Furniture polish
- Stainless steel cleaners
- Air fresheners
- Car engine and machinery oils
- Brake fluid
- Horticultural sprays
What Are the Downsides?
Note that not all mineral oil is refined. Some versions are “crude,” meaning they contain impurities that may compromise quality, longevity or even safety. Technical-grade mineral oils are used as mechanical lubricants and have been linked to increased cancer risk. In fact, the World Health Organization has designated untreated or mildly treated oils as Group 1 carcinogens and placed highly refined mineral oil in the Group 3 category. Group 1 products definitely cause cancer, while Group 3 are possibly carcinogenic, but more testing/study is required.
On top of all that, even food-grade mineral oil can cause problems ranging from diarrhea to skin inflammation to toxicity.
Mineral oil is also far from environmentally friendly because it’s derived from petroleum, a decidedly nonrenewable source, and can take decades to biodegrade. Though mineral oil may be an effective way to keep your butcher’s block or wooden utensils from warping and cracking, it’s also a pollutant that can harm everything from plants to wildlife.
What Is Pure Tung Oil?
Pure Tung oil, also called China wood oil, comes from the seed of the tung tree. The seed has been called a nut but it’s technically a seed . Since pure tung oil comes from a seed, this negates the nut allergy possibility . However we will call it a nut as most old references do . The nuts are pressed to extract the oil, which in turn is used as a finishing agent to make everything from boats to cutting boards resistant to water, food stains and other types of wear and tear.
Far from a new discovery, pure tung oil dates back centuries; the first references appeared around 500 BC in writings by the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Back then, it was used to waterproof ships.
The Benefits of Pure Tung Oil
DIYers like pure tung oil for many reasons:
- It’s quick-drying, shortening the time between starting work and realizing your results.
- It dries to an attractive matte finish, perfect for on-trend rustic and antique looks.
- It hardens as it cures without completely losing flexibility.
- It won’t mold or go rancid, meaning it lasts longer so you can take care of more projects with a single purchase.
- It won’t darken or yellow and change the aesthetic of your surface*.
- It’s food-safe, ensuring you can buff it into your prized wooden salad bowl with total confidence.
- It works on wood as well as stone, brick, concrete and even some types of metal.
- It gives off absolutely no volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
- It’s FDA-approved for surfaces that come into contact with food.
**You can also get dark raw tung oil which contains a natural resin that gives wood grain depth and creates an aged effect that looks lovely on antiques.
Uses for This Type of Finishing Agent
Just like Chinese boatmen centuries ago, modern-day woodworkers, carpenters and crafters use pure tung oil to protect wood surfaces, as well as other materials. Thanks to its hard yet flexible, quick-drying nature, tung oil is a popular finish for decks, cabinets, floors, furniture, musical instruments, toys, cutting boards, butcher’s blocks and countertops.
The Bottom Line
Though mineral oil is readily available and sounds earthy or even healthy, in reality, it’s not the ideal product for most situations — especially projects conducted in or around the home. Why take the same stuff used to lube up motors to treat the most commonly utilized surfaces in your kitchen?
Every time you eat a peach or tomato cut up on an oil-treated cutting board, you’re eating a little bit of that oil. Protect yourself and your family while protecting your favorite surfaces and choose pure tung oil for all your DIY needs. Your insides — and your beautifully finished wooden spoons and cheese boards — will thank you.