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Turpentine (also called spirit of turpentine, oil of turpentine, wood turpentine, gum turpentine) is a fluid obtained by the distillation of resin obtained from trees, mainly pine trees. It is composed of terpenes, mainly the monoterpenes alpha-pinene and beta-pinene. It has a potent odor similar to that of nail polish remover. It is sometimes known colloquially as turps, but this more often refers to turpentine substitute (or mineral turpentine).

The word turpentine is formed (via French and Latin) from the Greek word terebinthine, the name of a species of tree, the terebinth tree, from whose sap the spirit was originally distilled.[1]


1912 postcard

One of the earliest sources was the terebinth or turpentine tree (Pistacia terebinthus), a Mediterranean tree related to the pistachio.

Important pines for turpentine production include:

Industrial uses

The two primary uses of turpentine in industry are as a solvent and as a source of materials for organic synthesis.

As a solvent, turpentine is used for thinning oil-based paints, for producing varnishes, and as a raw material for the chemical industry. Its industrial use as a solvent in industrialized nations has largely been replaced by the much cheaper turpentine substitutes distilled from crude oil.

Canada balsam, also called Canada turpentine or balsam of fir, is a turpentine which is made from the resin of the balsam fir.

Venice turpentine is produced from the Western Larch Larix occidentalis.

Turpentine is also used as a source of raw materials in the synthesis of fragrant chemical compounds. Commercially used camphor, linalool, alpha-terpineol, and geraniol are all usually produced from alpha-pinene and beta-pinene, which are two of the chief chemical components of turpentine. These pinenes are separated and purified by distillation. The mixture of diterpenes and triterpenes that is left as residue after turpentine distillation is sold as rosin.

Turpentine is also added to many cleaning and sanitary products due to its antiseptic properties and its "clean scent".

Medicinal uses

Turpentine has been used medically since ancient times.

  • Applied externally to the affected areas, turpentine is a highly effective treatment for lice.
  • Turpentine can be mixed with animal fat as a primitive chest rub for nasal and throat ailments. Many modern chest rubs still contain some turpentine (e.g., Vicks).
  • Drinking turpentine is extremely dangerous and can be life threatening. In addition, drinking turpentine is not an effective way to induce an abortion[2]


Turpentine is an organic solvent, and thus poses many of the same hazards as do other such substances. Being "natural" does not make it less harmful than artificial solvents. Its vapor can burn the skin and eyes, damage the lungs and respiratory system, as well as the central nervous system when inhaled, and cause renal failure when ingested, among other things. It is highly flammable.


  1. Barnhart R.K. The Barnhart Consise Dictionary of Etymology (New York: Harper Collins, 1995).
  2. [1] Pregnant teen forced to drink turpentine to induce abortion, cops say

External links

See also

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