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What are the main differences between synthetic and dino oil, and is one always better than the other?

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We need to be careful not to invite a religious debate here. C# vs. Java? Mac vs. Windows? Etc. This is also far from the type of question an expert might ask. –  Jay Bazuzi Mar 12 '11 at 3:32
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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

A full synthetic oil, as the name states, is "synthesized". By that, they mean it is made in a lab, it is a manufactured product.

Organic (Dino) oil is a product of nature.

So the big difference is the environment in which the oil is made in.

The main selling point on synthetic over organic is because it is manufactured, it is made in a controlled environment. That means far less impurities and a more consistent product.

Organic oil will be influenced by what it was made from, what was in the ground where it was extracted from, etc.

Another way to think about it is synthetic is an additive process. They start with nothing and add in the components they want until they get the end product.

Organic oil is a reductive process, they start with an unrefined product and filter out all the stuff they don't want until they have what they want left.

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+1 thanks this is informative. Is one preferred over the other generally? –  alex Mar 11 '11 at 6:12
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That is a big huge debate full of myths, half truths, obscure references, etc. All things being even, most people will agree synthetic because of the less impurities and consistent product. But there are a whole lot of disagreements on if it is ok in older vehicles, vehicles that have lived their lives on organic. Then you'll get into whose brand is better as they all use different formulas and additives. –  ManiacZX Mar 11 '11 at 6:19
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Wikipedia has a great page on Synthetic Oils, specifically their performance.

Pros:

  • Better high and low temperature performance. They act more like a thinner oil at lower temperatures and like a thicker oil at higher temperatures, without the disadvantages of multiviscosity oils like 10W40. Especially useful when initially starting.
  • Reduced problems with sludge, breaking-down, particularly in very high temperatures like in the turbo.
  • Better lubrication properties.
  • Extended change intervals.

Cons:

  • Higher cost.
  • Too slippery for properly seating parts during initial break-in.

It's not a case of one being unconditionally better than the other, for automobile applications. For example:

  • Rotary engines such as in the Mazda RX series of vehicles should not run synthetic oil.
  • Some vehicles come from the factory with synthetic oils, recommend using traditional "dino oil" for the initial break-in.
  • There is debate about whether using synthetic oil in a car that has run regular oil for a long time is a good thing. The theory is that synthetic oils can clean out sludge and varnish that has built up. This sludge can dry up seals, and then when cleaned out leaks can develop in an engine that otherwise would have been tight.
  • While synthetic oils are better in many regards, it may be that the average automotive applications aren't demanding enough to take advantage of them.
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To me, it's pretty simple. Don't have an oil cooler? Planning on getting every last mile out of the engine? Consider a synthetic. –  Mark Johnson May 21 '12 at 3:41
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