How Much “Synthetic” Is In My Oil?

Unlike food and drug companies, which must disclose the ingredients in their products, lubricant manufactures aren’t held to the same mandate, which can cause confusion if you’re shopping for synthetic motor oil. Store shelves are lined with oils described as “full synthetic,” “semi-synthetic,” “synthetic” and even “100% synthetic.”

When you crack the cap on those bottles, what are you really getting?

A basic understanding of the different base oils available and a few rules of thumb help you cut through the clutter and make a more informed synthetic-motor-oil purchase.

Crude oil composition

Crude oil and refining are at the core of manufacturing the base oils used in motor oil. Crude oil is composed of roughly 98 percent hydrocarbons (atoms of hydrogen and carbon bonded together), which come in hundreds of different combinations. The remainder includes compounds like sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, metals and salts.

Refining crude into base oils

Crude oil refineries work much like a whiskey still. The crude is heated to distill or separate hydrocarbons into cuts, which include propane, gasoline, diesel and base oils used to make lubricants.

Base oils can undergo additional levels of chemical processing that remove impurities and arrange the hydrocarbon structures. The type of chemical process can affect the cost and quality of the base oil.

API base oil groups

The American Petroleum Institute (API) base oil classification is divided into five groups and is based on the paraffin and sulfur content and degree of saturation of the oil. The degree of saturation has nothing to do with water; rather it indicates the level of carbon molecules completely saturated with hydrogen bonds. Greater saturation equates to greater uniformity and stability.

Group I

Group I base oils are the least refined of all the mineral-oil groups. They’re usually a mix of different hydrocarbon chains with reduced saturation and uniformity. While some automotive oils use these stocks, they’re generally used in less-demanding applications.

Group II

Group II base oils are common in mineral-based (conventional) motor oils. They offer fair-to-good performance in the areas of volatility, oxidation stability, wear protection and flash/fire point. They have only fair performance in areas such as pour point and cold-crank viscosity.

Group III

Group III base oils consist of reconstructed molecules that offer improved performance in a wide range of areas, as well as increased saturation and molecular uniformity and stability. These synthesized materials can be used in the production of synthetic and semi-synthetic lubricants.

Group IV

Group IV base oils are made from polyalphaolefins (PAO), which are chemically engineered, synthesized (synthetic) base oils. PAOs offer excellent stability, molecular uniformity and improved performance.

Group V

Group V base oils are also chemically engineered stocks that do not fall into any of the categories previously mentioned. Typical examples of group V stocks are esters, polyglycols and silicone. As with group IV stocks, group V stocks tend to offer performance advantages over groups I – III. An example of a mineral-based group V exception is white oil, a very pure lubricant used in industries ranging from cosmetics to food processing.

How much “synthetic” is in your oil?

Although there are no ingredients listed on motor oils, there are a few indicators that can be used to interpret the amount and quality of the synthetic base oil in the bottle.

  1. Synthetic blends (semi-synthetics) are just that – only partly synthetic, and the percentage of synthetic content can vary.
  2. While it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, manufacturers are open to greater scrutiny when they quantify a claim. Looking for claims like “100% synthetic” vs “full synthetic” or “synthetic” are an indicator that you’re likely getting more of the good stuff.
  3. Visit the manufacturer’s website and look at the product data sheet or technical data sheet for its oils. In this document, look for “Typical Physical Characteristics” or “Typical Technical Properties.” This section provides a high-level peek into the base oils used in the formulation. There are two numbers to pay attention to:
    1. Viscosity Index: Oils with a higher number include a better synthetic base oil that provides more protection to critical components over a wide temperature range by maintaining fluid thickness and the necessary fluid barrier between parts.
    2. Pour Point: measures the oil’s fluidity at cold temperatures and refers to the lowest temperature at which oil maintains its ability to flow. Lower numbers are likely to indicate a better synthetic base oil.

A word of caution

While base oils are a fundamental element in formulating motor oil and determining its synthetic content, they’re only part of the picture. Additives make up the other part of the equation, and the quality and concentration of additives have a significant affect on the oil’s ability to protect.

In essence, look for an oil that offers good overall protection, not just one that’s formulated with a specific type of base oil. A good way to identify a high-quality synthetic is to look for quantifiable performance claims. For example, we advertise AMSOIL Signature Series Synthetic Motor Oil‘s excellent wear protection, as proven in a real-world test. It offers 75 percent more engine protection against horsepower loss and wear than required by a leading industry standard.*

There’s nothing confusing about that.

*As required by a leading industry standard. Based on independent testing of AMSOIL Signature Series 5W-30, in ASTM D7320 as required by API SN specification.


  1. Typically, extended drain diesel oil saves between 51% and 64% over other famous synthetics like Mobile Delvac. Doing the math of 3X OEM drain interval it comes out to 64% Savings. However, if you add it periodic oil analysis between extended drain intervals, the savings reduces to about 51%. So i ask, when you spend twice as much for the AMSOIL oil, but save 64% over every Delvac oil change, the break even point is quite attractive.

  2. So, from reading the article on what to avoid, I’m looking at a bottle of Amsoil “Synthetic” ATV-UTV 5W-50 motor oil and it doesn’t say “100% Synthetic” on it.

    Does that mean it’s just a Class III or lower oil and how can I determine exactly what it is?

    1. Hi Al,

      It’s 100% synthetic. That terminology will be added to the label to clear up any confusion.



    2. Actually, if you look at the SDS for all the Signature Series oils that claim to be 100% synthetic, you will see that they are in fact a blend NOT 100% synthetic….and not by quite a margin. When I discovered this recently, I was pretty upset. AMSOIL made changes in their formulation without notification to its customers. It took a Dealer to bring this to my attention.

  3. J’ai mis AMSOIL huile boites vitesses et différentiel TORSEN dans ma MX-5 2012 et ca tourne tout doux !

  4. Is your Signature Series 0W-20 a PAO based oil? I’ve never bought AMSOIL and was thinking about switching over to it for my trucks and motorcycle but just reading through the answers in this comments section is really convincing me to stay away.

    1. Hi Mark,

      Like every other oil company, our formulations are proprietary. We use a full range of base oils, including PAOs. However, as pointed out in the post, base oils are only part of the final formulation; additive quality and amount play a big role, too. We hope you’ll give AMSOIL a try, but if you’re happy with your current motor oil, great – keep using it.



    2. I’m considering Amsoil 0W20 for my 2014 LT Z71 flex fuel 5.3 L engine. I have I life time power train warranty. What Amsoil do you recommend so that I stay with in the warranty of Chevy.

    3. Hi Charles,

      AMSOIL synthetic motor oil won’t void your new-vehicle warranty. For that engine, Signature Series Synthetic Motor Oil is a great choice.



    4. Try Redline oil. It has a class 5 base oil ester and is much better than AMSOIL, which is just a PAO base stock instead of the higher quality ester base oil of Redline. I have tried both and liked Redline much better.

  5. I’ve been buying Amsoil for years. Actually just ordered more today. Why won’t you just tell us if the signature series is PAO Grade 3 or 4??
    I’m not asking for your secret sauce, just what your base is.
    I’m guessing 3 since you don’t say or it’s because based on the market, you switch back and forth from one to the other.

    1. Hi Nate,

      We use a combination of different synthetic base oils that, when combined with our additives, enable us to create lubricants that provide protection that exceeds industry and original equipment manufacturer standards. The exact components and proportions vary depending upon several factors, including additive technology, product family and application. The lubricant business is hyper-competitive, and divulging specific details about our formulations would give our competitors an advantage. Plus, at the end of the day, product performance is what matters most, not specific base oils or additives.

      Thanks for reading.

  6. This is a good article but it’s made purposefully ambiguous. It tells all the benefits of “true” synthetic oils yet they never mention how much synthetic is in theirs. I like amsoil especially their 2 stroke products but as the title suggests how much synthetic in there in my oil

  7. If you have the API label you got good oil. American Petroleum Institute. Use the weight oil what your manual says. 0/20 5/20 10/30 what ever the manual says.

    1. Some good oils are gooder than others. Just having the same API classification does not make all oils equal. API classification is a minimum classification not a maximum classification.

  8. I want to know just 1 thing. Is amsoil MCV 20w50 a PAO oil? Is it the same formula that I used 15 years ago?

    1. Hi Allan,

      I can’t tell you what’s in AMSOIL 20W-50 Synthetic V-Twin Motorcycle Oil. But I can tell you that we’ve updated the formula in the past 15 years. In fact, we continually test, retest and tweak our lubricant formulations to improve them.

      Thanks for reading.

    2. If they won’t answer this very straight-forward question, it’s not. All the double talk coming from them, from your simple question, is indication enough for me.

  9. Other brands starting to state their oil mixture in MSDS or SDS which consumer would be able to see Cas. No. and information about mixture to see what they really get to in that bottle.

    Why aren’t Amsoil do the same? All consumer know what they get is from the word from salesperson.

  10. I tried running it in my 2011 F150 5.0 and it burned 3 qts in 4000 miles. Any idea why? It doesn’t burn Mobil 1. I know and believe in Amsoil..

    1. Hello Charlie,

      Oil consumption can result from many different things, including fuel dilution, overfilling of the crankcase and a plugged/stuck PCV valve. The best way to determine an oil’s resistance to oil consumption is to look at its performance in the NOACK Volatility Test, which tests a lubricant’s evaporation loss in high-temperature service. The NOACK ratings of AMSOIL synthetic lubricants are often exceptional. You can find the NOACK ratings of our motor oils on their respective data bulletins at If you have more questions related to oil consumption in the 2011 F150, please call AMSOIL Technical Services at (715) 399-TECH (8324).

  11. Great article but for some reason they failed to mention the extended drain intervals that the Signature Series offers. That’s what has saved me time and money!

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