What Is Synthetic Oil?

Technically, it still comes from crude oil.

Even if you’re a complete automotive newbie, as we all once were, you probably have at least a passing understanding of what motor oil is. You probably also realize why it’s important, and know that changing the oil regularly is a vital part of keeping your car running properly.

What you might not be familiar with, however, is synthetic oil and how it differs from conventional motor oil. Synthetic oils are man-made and are typically made from chemical compounds derived from crude oil. That means that, even though they’re made by a person in a lab or factory, synthetic lubricants start out just like everything else.

Is synthetic oil better than traditional lubricants? Can it help preserve your high mileage vehicle and keep it running smoothly for longer? Car Bibles’ editors have the answers and have loitered at our local garages long enough to know a thing or two about synthetic oils.

Let’s get rolling.

What Is Synthetic Oil?

Synthetic oil is a man-made lubricant made from molecularly designed base oils and additives. The oils are nearly always based on some form of crude oil but vary in their exact composition. They usually involve some form of modified petroleum components and other lab-made chemical compounds.

What’s the Point Of Synthetic Oil?

Synthetic oils are engineered to resist breaking down, maintain stability at temperature extremes, and to continue lubrication when temperatures hit the lower end of the spectrum.

Engine oil.
Depositphotos

Is Synthetic Oil Better Than Conventional Oil?

In short, yes, but that’s not to say that there’s nothing wrong with conventional oils. Synthetic oils, while usually based on some of the same building blocks as traditional oil, carry several benefits:

  • More stable and uniform chemically, which reduces friction
  • Additives help clean and protect engines
  • More capable in extreme temperatures
  • Cleaner and more refined than conventional oil

Now, not to trash talk conventional oils, but there are a few weaknesses we should discuss:

  • Conventional oil can’t be broken down to a point where it’s able to disappear like an organic compound. It leaves behind toxic materials that can damage the environment.
  • Conventional oils are much more intensely affected by swings in temperature. When it’s cold, they can thicken to the point that they don’t lubricate as well, and in hot temperatures, the oil can become too thin to be effective as well

Do Synthetic Oils Last Longer Than Conventional Oil?

Synthetic oil is thinner and more temperature resistant than conventional oil, which helps them last longer. Some oils offer service intervals of up to 15,000 miles, which is a year of driving for many people. That stands in stark contrast to the old way of thinking, where oil changes happen every 3,000-5,000 miles. Check your owner’s manual for a manufacturer’s recommendation on how often to change synthetic oil in your car.

What’s The Difference Between Full Synthetic and Synthetic Blend?

Within the realm of synthetic oils, there are two main types: Full synthetic and synthetic blend. As the names imply, the two are different because of their chemical makeups. Full synthetic is the purest form of synthetic oil, but it should be noted that there’s no governing body that dictates how these things are classified. That leaves the process up to the manufacturers, who are free to use the term “full synthetic” as they please.

Synthetic blend oils are less refined than full synthetic oil, but still, carry many of the same benefits. Because of the blend, the level of contaminants and the uneven molecular size of traditional oils are minimized. They’re priced in between conventional and synthetic oils, making them a good alternative to the more expensive synthetic oil and less advanced traditional oil.

Draining oil.
Depositphotos

Car Bibles’ Oil Glossary

Crude Oil

Ultimately, engine oil begins its life as crude oil, which is a naturally occurring petroleum that is made from hydrocarbons and other organic compounds. It’s a fossil fuel, which means it’s basically liquid dinosaurs, and must be pulled out of the ground.

Refine

Refining is the process through which crude oil becomes other petroleum products, such as gasoline and motor oils. Gas is, by far, the most common result of the refining process.

Synthetic

Synthetic means man-made, which in this case refers to oils that are made from highly refined crude oil. There is no universally accepted definition of full synthetic oil, so it has become more of a marketing term than a grade of quality.

Conventional

Conventional oil is distilled from crude oil but has not been refined to the level that synthetic oils have.

Viscosity

Viscosity, when we’re talking about engine oils, refers to the thickness or thinness of an oil and its ability to coat and lubricate the engine’s internal parts. Motor oils carry two viscosity ratings: one that designates the thickness at warm operating temperatures and another that designates the thickness at cold temps.

Your Questions, Our Answers on Synthetic Oil

Q: How Much More Expensive Is Synthetic Oil?

A: This will ultimately come down to the type of vehicle you drive and the amount of oil required to perform an oil change. The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that the average driver will see an increase of about $64 per year when switching to synthetic oil. The organization found that its approved shops charge an average of $38 for a traditional oil change, while a synthetic change costs around $70.

Q: Is Synthetic Oil Better For High Mileage Cars?

A: Yes, in most cases synthetic oil is better for cars with high mileage. Many major oil manufacturers offer a special blend of synthetic oil that contains additives and conditioners that are intended to help prevent leaks and damage in older engines.

Q: What Do The Numbers On My Engine Oil Bottle Mean?

A: The numbers on the outside of your engine oil are there to indicate the viscosity of that oil. Oil that has a 5W-30 rating, for example, tells us that the oil will remain thinner at low temperatures than a 10W-30 oil, as the first number is an indicator of low temperature thickness. The “W” stands for “winter.” The “30” is an indicator of how thick the oil will be once it comes up to temperature.

Q: Can I Switch Back And Forth Between Oils?

A: You can switch back and forth between the two types of oil without damaging the engine. You can even mix the two in a pinch, but you’ll want to keep in mind that mixing conventional oil in with synthetic oil reduces the synthetic’s performance. It’s best to just stick to one or make a permanent switch to the other.

Car Bible’s Favorite Synthetic Oil Related Products

KarZone All Purpose Automotive Funnel
Castrol GTX Magnatec Synthetic Oil
AmazonBasics High Mileage Oil
BlueDriver Bluetooth OBD2 Scanner

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Tony Markovich

Tony MarkovichTony has a thing for pop-up headlights. His first car was a $3,000 1996 Saturn SC2 Coupe, and his current project is a 1970 Opel GT junker. When he's not daydreaming about the Cadillac Sixteen, he's watching the Chicago Bulls go undefeated on TNT. Contact the author here.