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If you have been shopping for an air filter replacement for your vehicle, you may have run across some that offer improved performance and others that offer more affordable price tags. What is the real difference between the different types of air filters? Is one better than another?

The 3 most common filter elements you will find at your local parts store are:

  •  Paper
  •  Cotton
  •  Foam    

Let’s check how each performs in your car and which one will work best for your vehicle.


Paper: For Affordable and Reliable Performance

The engine or cabin air filter that came with your car is most likely a paper filter. Since your filter should be changed every 12,000 to 30,000 miles, it is made to be as affordable as possible. The woven wood pulp provides good airflow while reducing the amount of dust and debris that can get into your engine and gum up the works.

Paper auto filters are relatively inexpensive and made to be thrown out after each use.


Reuse a Gauze or Cotton Filter to Save Money on the Long Haul

If you are a do-it-yourself person, perhaps you would like to save a few extra dollars and work to protect the environment. Some cotton or gauze auto air filter replacements are designed to be cleaned, oiled, and reinstalled every 5,000 miles. High-mileage vehicles like long-haul trucks or ones that work in a dusty environment benefit from using the cotton filters since you can keep reusing them until the element becomes worn out or damaged. In performance vehicle applications, the air filter is designed to be cleaned and then coated with a special oil that increases the filter’s ability to capture more debris.

A cotton filter will cost about twice the price as the paper filter, but the buyer will make that back after the first few times the filter is cleaned and reused. Better yet, this type of filter could last the lifetime of your vehicle with proper maintenance. That’s up to 150,000 miles!


Foam Adds Extra Protection in Dusty Environments

Finally, you may find a foam filter or filter wrap in the automotive filter replacement section of your local parts store. These are the least popular kind of filter as the foam doesn’t offer the same trapping ability as paper, and it can restrict airflow. Foam is also the least environmentally friendly type of element. You will often find foam filters on farm and lawn equipment. In many of these applications, the foam portion is coated with a special oil that increases the filter’s ability to remove debris. If you live in a very dusty area, your service center may suggest adding a foam filter wrap to your standard paper filter to help reduce the amount of debris in your engine.

Ultimately, most drivers looking to care for their daily driver will be happy with the cost and performance of a paper air filter. For improved long-haul performance or for extreme conditions, you may wish to invest in a reusable cotton or foam air filter replacement.

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