What Is a Brake Pad and How It Works – Everything You Need to Know About Your Brake Pads

While many people drive around every day, there are many things that we don’t know about the cars we drive.

One of the most important and misunderstood parts is the brakes and brake pads which are extremely important.

car brake pads

While many people drive around every day, there are many things that we don’t know about what goes on inside the vehicle.

One part of the car we undeniably must have to work properly are the brakes and brake pads. Although an essential element of the car, the operation of brakes is often misunderstood,

After reading this article, you will understand all the whats and whys about brake pads and how brakes work.

Understanding your car and how it works leads to safer and more responsible driving for everyone.

Through learning the facts, issues, and prevention strategies, you will be ready to face whatever your breaks throw at you.

Key Points: 

  • A brake pad is a component of disc brakes that applies pressure to the rotor to slow down or stop your vehicle.
  • Brake pad materials include semi-metallic, ceramic, and organic brake pads.
  • The consequences of driving with bad brake pads may include brake failure, rotor and caliper damage, and even fire.

What Are Brake Pads?

While many people pay large sums for new brake pads, most don’t know what is being replaced.

To put it simply, brake pads are what your brakes grip onto to stop or slow your car.

These pads utilize friction to bring a halt to your vehicle when gripping onto the disc brake rotors. These pads grip onto the brake rotor and squeeze it until the vehicle stops and slows down to a halt.

While it may seem like a fairly simple process, any loss in grip or contact can be deadly.

Brake pads are made up of metal materials that are designed to be resistant to wearing and stop a car thousands of times before degrading.

Think of brake pads like your hand gripping a frisbee to stop it from flying like a brake rotor is stopped by the pad.

Brake pads come in all shapes and sizes depending on whether you’re on a racetrack or a highway, and vary greatly in function.

Most standard cars or trucks have brakes that are meant for comfortable braking and long-term durability.

I will further explain different brake pad types to help you understand them better. See which one your vehicle has below.

Types of Brake Pads

ceramic brake pads

Depending on your driving style and car type, the brake pads you prefer may vary greatly.

Deciding which type of brake pads you want can also be influenced by a budget which also varies greatly.

To decide which brake pads may be best for you, I will cover some of the best types of brake pads:

Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

The most common brake pads in standard cars are semi-metallic brake pads. They offer traits that make them effective for most cars. 

These pads are composed of either steel, graphite, or copper, and additional friction components to make up the brake pad interior. These brake pads contain around 50% metal on average and utilize friction modifiers to make up the other half for braking. 

While these pads work in most situations, they tend to be louder, wear quickly, and don’t work well when cold.

Ceramic Pads

While still containing some metal, ceramic brake pads are composed of mostly ceramic materials like fibers and friction components. 

Generally found on higher-end cars, ceramic pads last longer and are less noisy than other forms due to their advanced composition. With their advanced composition and effectiveness, ceramic brake pads cost much more than the other variations, but the benefits are significant.

Low-Metallic Non-Asbestos Organic Brake Pads

Like semi-metallic brake pads, organic pads contain less metal at an average of 20% metal per pad. These pads can also contain the same steel or copper elements as the semi-metallic pads to perform similarly. However, these pads brake better and transfer heat much better than the semi-metallic pads, but they still make noise and dust.

Non-Asbestos Organic Brake Pads

These unique non-asbestos pads are composed of fibers, filler material, and high-temperature resins. They are considered organic and can be listed as NAO due to their natural fiber composition. Unlike metallic pads, they are softer and less noisy but break down faster due to the fiber’s weakness.

Why Are Brake Pads Important?

While it may seem obvious why brakes are important, understanding why the pads are important is key.

While getting new brake pads seems like just another expense at the dealership, without them, you could crash. Without brake pads, the heat generated trying to grip the rotor would cause enough heat to cause serious damage.

As cars drive around the day, every stop sign is another wear on the brake pads that makes them less effective.

Despite thinking your car can go without new pads, remaining cautious can save you from serious issues in the future.

How Long Do Brake Pads Last?

While it is hard to determine the exact lifetime of a brake pad, I can only generally estimate it. With such a variety of commuting conditions finding a true lifespan varies from car to car.

On average, most standard brake pads last between 25,000-50,000 miles.

This number is so varied due to the different driving styles and conditions that different drivers face.

For example, someone who commutes every day will have to replace their brake pads much more frequently than someone who works from home.

Driving style and habits such as speeding and heavy braking also have the ability to affect the longevity of your brakes.To ensure you are staying safe on the road, make sure to remember how many miles you have driven on your current and new brakes.

How Do I Know If My Brake Pads Are Worn Out?

With an understanding of how brake pads work and wear, knowing if yours are worn out is very important.

With no perfect indicator determining pad longevity, there are a few factors that indicate your pads need a replacement.By understanding what to look for, you will be able to practice safe driving and safe braking.

Warning Lights

With many modern cars, they will have a feature that can signal when your brake pads need to be changed. The lights may come on earlier or later than the actual life of the brakes, but they should provide accurate data. When getting your brakes checked at the garage make sure that the lights are reset and working to warn you down the road.

Strange Noises

Usually, the first thing that signals worn-out brake pads is hearing any noise when braking. Brake pads are designed to make noise when they get deteriorated to a certain point. If the noise persists for a while, then you should take your car to get the brakes checked and likely replaced. If the noise only happens every now and then, it is probably a result of weather or road conditions that create dust and residue on the brakes.

Visual Brake Pad Wear

Contrary to what a mechanic may tell you, you can check the lifespan of your brakes visually. If you look at your brake housing between your wheels, you can see how much material is left on your brakes. If you see very little material left on your brake pads and you haven’t had a service recently, then get it seen soon.

Grinding Metal

Like hearing screeching from the brakes, hearing grinding metal is even worse. If you can hear a distinctive and low metal scrape, your pads, as weak as your brake rotor, could be damaged. This issue can be much more serious, as having a damaged brake rotor could require a whole new brake system.

What Causes Brake Pads to Wear Quickly?

After discussing the life span and function of brake pads, understanding how they break down can help improve their lifespan.

With many factors improving and worsening the life expectancy of brake pads, driving to save your breaks also saves money.

By resolving the following issues, you will be able to drive better and keep your brake pads longer.

  • Driving style

Breaking speed limits and slamming on brakes is not only a danger to yourself and others but destroys your brakes. Learning to slowly apply the brakes and drive within the speed limit will save you trips to the garage and hospital.

  • Lower the weight

If you drive a truck or large car with a heavy cargo load, then your brakes will wear faster. The increased pressure on your brakes trying to stop a vehicle with heavy cargo can seriously decrease the longevity of brake pads. If you generally travel with excess cargo in your truck or car, removing it will save your brakes some strain.

  • Brake fluid

As a result of high miles or aggressive driving, the hydraulic fluid that controls your breaks can accumulate bubbles with time. If your brake fluid is low or contaminated, it can impact the effectiveness and usability of your brakes. By getting your brake fluid flushed or changed every 30,000 miles, you can ensure safe braking for many miles.

How Long Can You Drive with Bad Brake Pads?

Once you confirm that your brake pads are in bad shape – replace them immediately! To figure out where your brake pad needs changing, refer to previously described signs.

Choosing to go without a brake change can cause several consequences that end up causing damage or an accident. While it may save some money from the replacement, it could cost you your life if you let it go too far.

By understanding the issues that arise with bad brakes you can realize what’s at stake by forgoing the change.

Rotor Damage

With the brake pads and rotors being in constant connection, ensuring that one does not damage the other is essential. As your brake pads wear, the rotor will become damaged due to the metal-to-metal contact from thin pads. 

With significant rotor damage, you could need new rotors and brake pads, which can cost thousands if not addressed quickly. 

Signs that there is contact between metal and metal are fairly recognizable by the annoying sound of metal scraping together. 

Not all brake rotors wear at the same rate, so you could ask your mechanic about your specific brake rotors.

Caliper Damage

Alongside the issue of damaging your rotors and brake pads, the calipers that hold them are also prone to damage. Brake calipers send the signal from your brake pedal to your brakes and control braking system intensity when applying pressure.

Not taking your car to a garage with issues in braking and strange sounds, your calipers could be failing. 

Another common sign that is also breezed off is leaking brake fluid which can just often be misinterpreted as water. Generally, one caliper is damaged and can have noticeable effects on driving, so if you notice imbalances, seek help.

Brake Failure

The worst fear of many drivers – total brake failure – can occur suddenly and end in a crash or even worse. Depending on the condition of your pads, calipers, and rotors, brake failure can occur when any one of them fails. 

Reacting at the moment is hard, but if you don’t have abs, pump the brakes to build up the fluid. Failure usually results from fluid loss, and the cause comes from a leak that could have been prevented with service. Going down the gear and using the handbrake is all you can do to prevent an accident if your brakes fail.


Unlikely but deadly, a car’s brakes can spontaneously catch fire if excessive braking is used or pads are misaligned. 

Generally seen on high-performance vehicles, like race cars, a brake system can catch fire if you are aggressively braking with worn brake pads. The wear on brakes used aggressively occurs more quickly and often results in more serious consequences than lightly used brakes. 

Even if the brakes don’t fully catch on fire, exposure to high heat can seriously damage the internal components. Fire can also be caused if excessive debris is stuck between your brake pads and rotors.

With many car drivers not having much knowledge about cars, understanding brakes is not common knowledge.

However, with just a little reading and research, understanding everything about your brakes and brake pads can be simple.

With many car drivers not having much understanding about cars, understanding brakes is not common knowledge.

However, with just a little reading and research, understanding everything about your brakes and brake pads can be simple.


With brakes often being overlooked and neglected by most car owners, understanding their importance can save you stress and money.

Understanding what types of brakes you have and how to use them properly will allow you to brake effectively.

Going to the garage and asking a mechanic about your specific car and brakes will provide professional answers and estimates.

In the end, keeping up with your services and driving style will end up saving your brakes and your life.

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