Been wondering what exactly is the difference between conventional and synthetic oils? This question can be a tricky one to work, but thankfully, we’ve done the heavy lifting for you! Read on to find out about these two types of oils and their primary differences.

But before we really get into which type of oil between the conventional and synthetics is right for your application and the different performance benefits of each, it’s really important to understand how each type is made and how that affects the actual performance of the oil itself.

The Primary Differences – Conventional vs Synthetic Oil

We’ll start with conventional oil. Conventional oil is basically a crude oil from out of the ground, that is then refined. It’s basically just a mineral-based oil, while the synthetic goes to a lab, where it is resynthesized by lab technicians. These lab technicians take the molecules, separate them and make them more uniform.

In the middle, you have semi-synthetic, whereby you take a conventional oil and add some element of synthetic to it, usually may be up to a 30% makeup of synthetic oil to the conventional oil. Those are basically the three types of oil and how they’re created.

Determining Oil Viscosity

As far as viscosities, you’ll see ratings on all of your all your different bottles of oil. Viscosity is a rating of the oil’s flow and how well it flows against resistance.

For example, a 10 W 30 is a multi-viscosity oil; this is what it means when you see two different numbers on the bottle. This has two different viscosity ratings – one on the low end, with the W. The W, stands for winter, designated for colder temperatures, and then on higher temperatures, which are denoted as over 100 degrees Celsius. That secondary number would show how it flows above 100 degrees Celsius operating temperatures.

Oil Additives

In addition to the different viscosity weights, manufacturers also have different additives that they put into their oils; for example, for different detergents. You might get a clean engine formula, an additive that is supposed to reduce contaminants and slugging in conventional oil.

Another example is synthetics that have a zinc-enhanced formula. It’s important to note that if you have a flat tappet camshaft set up, you’ve got to have some element of zinc in your oil. Back in the day, oils were sold with the zinc in there as standard. This added zinc for flat tappet applications was implemented to prevent metal-to-metal contact on certain components.

The Ins & Outs Of Conventional vs Synthetic Oil

Now, let’s move onto the different advantages of each type of oil, starting with conventional oil. The biggest advantage of this type of oil is cost. Conventional oil typically has the lowest cost of the three different types, although synthetic is catching up price-wise; the margin between the two is getting smaller and smaller.

An important thing to note about conventional type oils is that if you’re running conventional oil in your car and you have been doing so for some time, you’re probably just fine with it. As long as you keep up with the correct intervals of changing to 3000 miles, and you’re very meticulous about this, there is no reason to change, and it’s probably your best bet.

However, there is a lot to be said for synthetics, especially in performance application and heavier-duty uses. You can’t really go wrong with the synthetics, outside of the negligible price increase over the conventional.

And it’s important to note too that you probably aren’t going have to change your oil as often with this type of oil. You’re more than likely going to recoup some of that extra money that you might have to spend on the oil, as compared to the conventional; again, that makes it a little bit more cost-effective.

Next, we’ll go through some of the advantages of synthetic oil. We can start by taking a look back at how it’s made. As we said before, it goes through a resynthesizing process that makes the molecules in that oil a bit more uniform.

It won’t break down under heat as much either, there aren’t as many contaminants, and you don’t have to worry about sludging as you might in a conventional oil if you don’t change it as often as you should. It’s also a thinner oil, great for winter time as it’s not as thick, making it good for startups on cold winter mornings.

Because it’s a little bit thinner and more slippery than conventional oil, it’s got good fuel economy, with not as much resistance as the engine rotates. For this very same reason you may experience slight power gains; it’s debatable, but you if you have a heavy-duty application towing, and you’re getting on the gas a little bit more often than you were on a daily driver, synthetics are probably the way to go.

Oils that are a combination of the two tend to be a little bit less expensive than full synthetics, however, and they offer a little bit more protection than you would get in conventional oil. You might not have to change it quite as often either, so understandably, you get a little bit of the best of both worlds.

One thing we feel we shouldn’t leave out is that with the conventional oil, you might notice that engine braking oils are always typically conventional style oil.

So why is that? Conventional oils bond a little bit more to new engine parts than synthetic.

If you think about the two types of oils, conventional is more of a bonding property, that kind of bathes the new parts in the oil, whereas synthetic is more of a ball-bearing type action, where it puts a film between the moving parts (axis, ball bearings, etc.) and makes the parts roll-off against one another.

This bonding getting into those new parts is great for breaking in a new engine, although you should keep in mind you need to make sure that zinc phosphate is put in there, too.

A Few Extra Tips

There are also a couple of other common-sense tips that we wanted to point out.

Again, as we mentioned before, if you’re using conventional oil and it’s been working for you, could probably stick to it, as long as you change regularly enough – you just have to make sure to keep up with that.

You can’t really go wrong stepping up with a synthetic, as there’s really no disadvantage to doing so, but if you’re looking to save a few bucks minimally, you can stick with the conventional.

Always consult with your owner’s manual and also consider your climate if you live in an area where wintertime is particularly harsh and it gets really cold.

Make sure you look at the lower end of your oil and consider a 5W, 10W or whatever on the lower end of that multi-viscosity rating to make sure you have those easier start-ups in the winter.

One other thing – if you’re going to go out now and search for conventional versus synthetic transmission fluids, you’ve probably saved yourself most of the trouble, as a lot of these principles we’ve touched on apply to your transmission fluids.

The same rule applies here – if you’ve been using conventional fluids, you can stick to them. The advantage again is that the transmission fluids for conventional are a little bit less than the synthetic.

On the synthetic side, it acts very much the same way – it resists sludging, it is more uniform on a molecular structure, so it won’t break down under high temperatures and you may not have to change it quite as often, as there are fewer contaminants in the synthetic transmission fluids.

How to Choose – Conventional vs Synthetic Oil

But like we said, consult your owners’ manual on how often you should change your transmission fluid – we definitely don’t want to steer you away from doing your due diligence there. But to summarize – the same principles for motor oil apply to transmission fluid when you talking about conventional versus synthetics.

There are notable differences between conventional, synthetic and mixed oils, but hopefully, we’ve cleared up any questions you may have had. Let us know if there’s anything else you’d like to know and we’ll sure to find you a solution as quick as possible!

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