What Is The Difference Between An Air Filter And An Element?

Looking for a replacement air filter for your car? You may have come across the terms "air cleaner element" or "air filter element". People use these terms interchangeably. But for the sake of simplicity, let's only use "air cleaner element" in this post.

So what is an air cleaner element, and how is it different from an engine air filter?

The answer is there's no difference. An air cleaner element is exactly the same as an air filter.

Air Cleaner Element Is A Fancy Term For An Engine Air Filter

Engine filter

Image Credit: PaulsTravelPictures

Technically, the term "air cleaner element" pertains only to the filter material. The material may be cotton, paper, a synthetic material, or foam. The term "engine air filter" pertains to the entire part.

But here's the thing: in some cases, an air filter is only the filter media material. Other air filters come with a frame or a rubber seal, but these parts don't do anything but hold the filter in place. So an air filter is often considered only the filter media material.

Like air filters, air cleaner elements come with or without frames or rubber seals. For example, this filter element (for 4Runner, FJ Cruiser, Tacoma, and Tundra models) comes with a plastic frame, but it's marketed as an element.

Contrary to popular belief, air cleaner elements are not components of an air filter. They are complete replacement parts. In other words, you can use "air filter" and "air cleaner element" interchangeably.

What An Air Cleaner Element Does

Like an engine air filter, an air cleaner element purifies the air that comes into the engine. It sits in the cold air collection box and traps a variety of impurities in the air, including:

  • Dirt
  • Dust
  • Bugs

The air goes through the air cleaner element before entering the engine. It's important for the engine to get clean air only. Your engine sucks in a lot of air, so it would get a lot of dust if there's no air cleaner element in place. It's OK for a little bit of dust to make its way into the engine, but large amounts of dust will ruin the engine.

That's why it's important to replace your air cleaner element every 15,000 miles (or more frequently if you live in a dusty area).

OEM filter

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Written by Jason Lancaster