The Difference Between Synthetic and Regular Oil

We all know that oil protects our engine, and that we should change it often, but what type do you use in your car? And why do some automakers recommend synthetic while others use regular lubricants?

Regular and mineral oil are the same thing. It is made by digging up the liquified remains of ancient critters, refining the sludge into usable liquid, and then mixing it with special additives to make it flow better in your engine.

Synthetics are made by humans using special chemical formulas that mimic the lubricating properties of dead dinosaur liquid. Synthetic looks the same as mineral, and unless you have super-human sense of touch, feels the same too. The difference is that it is purer, and more stable.

Where a mineral oil is made up of lots of little particles that are more or less the same size and density, human-made stuff is nearly 100-percent uniform, with far fewer contaminants. If you looked at the two under a microscope it would be easy to spot the mineral oil.

Advantages of Mineral Oil

The only true benefit of mineral lubricant is price. It can be as little as half the cost of comparable synthetics, which makes them the better option for high-mileage vehicles or lower value vehicles.

Mineral oils also stand up better under cold weather storage than synthetics and synthetic blends, but this difference is small and growing smaller as technology improves.

Advantages of Synthetic Lubricants

Synthetics last longer, maintain their viscosity longer, and provide more consistent performance than regular oil, especially at higher temperatures and speeds. That’s why these are preferred for high-performance engines like sports cars or motorcycles.

Even in less extreme conditions, synthetic oils can provide a longer life between changes, which makes them attractive to car makers.

Digging Deeper

Mineral oils also require the use of additives to help it meet the viscosity requirements of your engine. Viscosity is the rate of flow. That’s what those numbers on labels like “10W-50” mean. A 10W-50 regular oil will degrade over time and stop meeting those numbers.

Human-made lubricant maintains its viscosity over its life because it was formulated specifically to meet those numbers. The only thing that causes it to become thicker is contamination, and synthetic oils are also more resistant to contamination. 

Human-made oils leave less deposits in your engine because they’re less volatile.

Synthetic Blends

These days, you can get many of the benefits of lab-made lubricants without the cost. Blended oils use a mineral base with synthetic oil mixed in to improve life and consistency. This is a great option for regular-duty vehicles like your daily driver because you don’t have to pay a premium but still get more even protection for your engine. 

Do You Really Need Synthetic Oil?

A synthetic oil is right for you if you drive a high-performance vehicle, tow often, or live in areas with extreme cold snaps lower than -30 degrees. If your vehicle is your daily ride to work or the grocery store and not much else, mineral variants will more than likely suffice. As mentioned, a blend hits both marks.

No matter if you choose regular or human-made, the most important factor for engine life is regular and consistent fluid changes.

Photo credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

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