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Switching to Synthetic



We're going to give it to you straight: Yes, you can safely switch to synthetic oil. But it would probably help to know the details about what we're talking about -- specifically why this question would even come up in the first place. And it does -- a lot.

First off, let's talk about what synthetic oil is. To begin with, there's a base oil that does most of the work of lubricating engine parts. It's lab-created, as opposed to being a product of the refining process of mineral oils that are pumped out of the ground. There are also performance additives (in powder form) in many synthetic oils, and a carrier oil to suspend these additives in the mix.

So what's the practical difference between synthetic oils and mineral oils? There's not much difference when you're just looking at two clean puddles of oil, according to Kevin Chinn, a technical advisor at ExxonMobil. "You'd slip on both of them," he says. But the advantage of synthetic oil is that its molecular structure stays more stable with temperature changes and extends the maintenance interval between oil changes.

So why the heck wouldn't you want to switch from mineral oil to synthetic? Keep reading to find out some of the myths and realities of these high-tech oils.

Myths about Synthetic Oils

The most often cited myth concerning synthetic oil is that it will wear down the seals in your engine and cause leaks. That just isn't true. Well, for the most part, anyway.

Like many myths, this one is based in fact. Early synthetics were made of esters, which were harder on seals, especially those made of neoprene. However, synthetic oils have come a long way since the early 1970s, and they're much nicer to delicate seals. But while synthetic oil won't create a leak, it will find one. Its streamlined molecular structure has no mercy for cracked or otherwise marginal seals. The oil and its additives may even clean deposits from the engine, which is good -- unless those deposits are acting like spackle on questionable seals.

Related to this is the myth that if you started with mineral oil in your car, you can't switch to synthetic oil. As long as your engine's seals are in decent shape, you can switch back and forth to your heart's content. You can mix and match, you can use blended synthetic and mineral oil or you can use mineral oil for 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) and synthetic oil for the next 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers). You could even fill your reservoir with five different oils from five different manufacturers, and as long as they're the same weight, it will do your engine no harm, according to David Canitz, technical services manager at Royal Purple.

So let's consider those popular myths busted and move onto the realities of switching to synthetic oil.


Realities of Switching to Synthetic Oils

Since synthetics are created in a lab and contain additives to keep your engine in tip-top shape, they're more expensive than traditional mineral oils. How much more? Try six to 10 times the price, according to Cantiz at Royal Purple.

However, there are ways to get some of the benefits of synthetics without breaking the bank. For those who live in climates with noticeable seasonal changes, you could use a synthetic oil in the winter months when your engine is under the most stress from cold starts, and then switch to a mineral oil in the summer, when its more random molecular structure will remain warm and easy flowing.


For modern cars, mineral oils are good, blended oils are better and synthetic oils are the best. But if you've got a 30-year old car with original seals, the truth is, no oil or additive is going to help much.