Mechanic holding a brake pad

Many people wonder if brake pads are the same as brakes, and knowing the difference and how a vehicles’ braking system works can help you ensure proper maintenance for your vehicle.

You’re in the waiting room at the repair shop, thumbing through their stack of last year’s magazines, when the mechanic comes in and delivers the news: you need new brakes. That’s great, you think. Hope this doesn’t cost too much.

But maybe this episode gets you thinking about brakes in general. What, in fact, do mechanics mean when they say you need new brakes? Do they simply mean new brake pads? Or is there more to it than that? And are brake pads the same as brakes?

We’ll get to all that, but here’s the short answer to that last question: no, brake pads are not the same as brakes. When people talk about the brakes on their car, they may be referring to their brake pads – or they may be referencing the complete braking system. ‘Brakes’ is the casual term that encompasses the entire arrangement of components that work in tandem to stop your car when you stomp on the brake pedal.

Because brakes are so crucial to safe driving, it’s worth learning a thing or two about the braking system. We’ll also take a deep dive into brake pads, including the three primary types commonly available, and also discuss brake rotors. Read up and next time you won’t be caught flat-footed at the repair shop.

Braking System 101

Braking system

The braking system is tasked with stopping your car quickly, safely, repeatedly, and reliably. It does this by turning the pressure you apply on the brake pedal into a retarding force at the wheels. There are various components that work in tandem to seamlessly achieve this.1

In most cars, the brake pedal is connected via a mechanical linkage to something known as the master cylinder. When you push down on the brake pedal, the linkage moves a piston residing inside the master cylinder. That piston pushes brake fluid through the brake lines to each individual wheel.

The pressurized brake fluid is driven through the lines until it reaches the brake caliper. The caliper has one job: to squeeze the brake pads. We’ll dive deeper into brake pads in a moment. For now, know that brakes pads are small, flat slabs about a quarter of an inch thick and a few inches long.

The caliper forces the pads to make contact with the rotor, which is the metal disc mounted to the axle just behind the wheel; both the wheel and the rotor rotate at the same speed. The extreme friction from the pads as they bear down on the rotor quickly reduces forward momentum and ultimately stops the car completely.

When you take your foot off the brake pedal, the pressure being exerted on the brake fluid relaxes; that ultimately allows the pads to relax their grip on the rotor. The rotor can then spin freely once again as you begin to accelerate.

We should note that this explanation is for disc brakes; drum brakes operate slightly differently.2 We won’t get into drum brakes here, but if you want more information on the difference between drum shoes and disc brake pads be sure to read this article by Firestone.

Brake Pads 101

Four brake pads

So that’s the braking system in a nutshell. Let’s now turn our attention specifically to brake pads.

As we mentioned, when you apply the brakes the pads are pushed against the rotor; the resulting friction and resistance slow the car down. With every stop, the brake pads, contending with all that heat and friction, wear down just a little bit. Eventually, over thousands of miles, the surface of the brake pads – which were about a quarter-inch thick when new – will wear down completely. As the pads wear down, brake performance degrades.

At some point, there won’t be any pad left at all. When that happens, applying the brake pedal will result in an ear-splitting, metal-on-metal screeching as the caliper comes into contact with the rotor. You’ll want to replace your brake pads well before this has a chance to occur. If you don’t, plan on shopping for new rotors and calipers.3

When it comes time to replace your brake pads, you’ll find there are three different types of brake pads. Each one of these brake pads has its own characteristics.4 We’ve laid out the main differences you should know below:

Synthetic Brake Pads

Synthetic pads are made from a potpourri of organic, non-metal materials. These are the softest pads of the bunch, and that makes them the fastest-wearing. The synthetic material creates lots of brake dust that will dirty your wheels but are fairly quiet during operation.

These pads are the cheapest option, but due to their relative softness, they require more frequent replacement and are also ill-suited for performance driving or even spirited jaunts. Most owners will be happier with one of the two other options profiled here.

Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

Unlike synthetic pads, semi-metallic brake pads use a generous proportion of metal fibers and shavings in the makeup of the pad surface to create a firmer, stronger brake pad. It delivers better braking performance than a synthetic pad but is louder and creates a fair bit of brake dust.

Ceramic Pads

The pad of choice for serious drivers. These pads are made of a special ceramic coating that resists wear and is highly tolerant of heat; its superior ability to withstand heat is why these pads are used in high-performance machines. The ceramic pads also generate little dust and noise during braking.5 However, they are the most expensive option here and might be overkill for daily driving.

Click here to see our recommendations on the best brake pads you can buy.

How Long Do Brake Pads Last?

That depends. Cab drivers in New York City might get 15,000 miles out of a set of pads, while ranchers in wide-open Montana might get 70,000 miles out of the same set. Besides the environment, your driving style is also a major factor in expected pad life. If you constantly slam on the brakes, you’ll wear out your pads faster than if you were to brake more gradually.

How Long Do Rotors Last? Do I Replace Them With My Brake Pads?

Brake rotors have a longer lifespan than brake pads. While pads typically need to be replaced by 50,000 miles under most conditions, rotors may last much longer – maybe 80,000 miles or more. Installing new pads on older rotors is not a big deal.

However, when you start noticing your car seems to pulsate, wobble, or vibrate while braking, odds are your rotors have warped. Warped rotors significantly reduce braking performance (not to mention your confidence in your brakes). Since the brake calipers are already coming off for this repair, you may as well install new brake pads for good measure if you’re replacing your rotors.

Brake fluid should also be flushed and replaced periodically. Exactly how often differs by manufacturer, so check your owner’s manual for the proper interval recommended for your vehicle.

Should I Replace My Brake Pads in Pairs?

Yes, brake pads should be replaced in pairs. Front pads and rotors wear faster than the rears due to the additional weight of the engine, so don’t be alarmed if your front brakes are up for replacement even if the rear brakes appear fine.

Parting Thoughts

We don’t have to explain why having properly functional brakes is crucial to your safety and the safety of others, but it’s worth saying that brakes don’t last forever. Like any other automotive system, they require maintenance, upkeep, and inspection.

Brake pads are just one of the many parts of your braking system, but they are the most important to inspect regularly. If you notice that your car is no longer braking as well as it used to – or you’re hearing a screech with every application of the brakes – you can bet the pads are shot. And if a distinct pulsating accompanies your stopping efforts, expect to replace your rotors as well.

So when your mechanic tells you it’s time for new brakes, he’s probably talking about just the pads – but clarify first. New brake pads cost a lot less than new pads, rotors, lines, and fluid.

Article Sources

Ride Digest uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Fred’s Auto Repair. How Your Brake System Works – and How to Maintain It. Fredsautorepair.com. Published September 10, 2018. Accessed April 20, 2021.
  2. Firestone. What are Brake Shoes and How are They Different from Pads. Firestonecompleteautocare.com. Published June 22, 2020. Accessed April 20, 2021.
  3. Budreau G. How Driving with Bad Brakes Can Cause More Damage to Your Vehicle. Autospecialtyoflafayette.com. Published April 16, 2019. Accessed April 20, 2021.
  4. Fernie M. What Are The Main Types Of Brake Pad, And Which Is Right For You? Carthrottle.com. Accessed April 20, 2021.
  5. Tire Rack. Why Ceramic Brake Pads? Tirerack.com. Accessed April 20, 2021.

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