What Color Should Your Engine Oil Be?

As an example when it comes to motor oil we are generally told based on the oil we use how many miles or months can elapse before our next oil change. The truth is factors can arise that may degrade our engine oil more quickly which may hasten the need for an oil change.

This is why we need to have a better idea of what our engine oil should look like, how we can check it and when we should really get an oil change. In this article we will do just that and explain in more detail what the different stages of motor oil look like.

Why Do We Need Oil Changes?

We will start out by simply explaining why it is important to keep good quality fresh oil in our cars. The simplest answer is that this engine oil lubricates the moving parts of our engines. This ensures smooth performance, minimal friction between parts and helps to keep the engine from overheating.

When oil is fresh it does its job very well but as time goes by and the more it is used it starts to collect dirt and debris from the internal combustion processes. It will also be changed somewhat by the heat of the engine.

In practical terms as oil gets older it is less effective at its job and does not lubricate the engine as well as it used to. Upon visual inspection you will see that oil changes color as it becomes more used. It will reach a point and color at which it must be changed or else it may allow damage to occur to your engine.

How to Check Your Oil's Color

The process to check your oil's color is really quite simple and you should have everything you need in the car already unless you lose something along the way. This is a simple test which can also tell you if your oil level is getting too low as well as discolored.

Park the Car

Checking the oil is easy but you do want to make sure of a few things first before you start. If you have been driving and just parked, give the engine a few minutes to cool down. If the engine is hot the oil will be as well so you will not want to be opening the oil reservoir cap until it is cooled down.

With the engine cool make sure you are parked on a flat even surface and that your handbrake is applied. This is for basic safety because although you are not getting under the car you will be working in front of it and if it were to roll forward it could seriously injure you.

Locate the Dipstick

Open the hood of your car and make sure you set in place any stand that is used to hold it open if you hope to avoid a headache. The dipstick should be pretty obvious as it usually has a yellow handle or will literally be labeled “Engine Oil.”

If you are having trouble locating it in your car check your owner's manual for a diagram of the engine bay. It should tell you exactly where to look and if it is not there, then you may have to get a new one. As they can be detachable there is a chance it could be lost at some point especially in older cars.

Once you locate the dipstick, retrieve it and make sure to have a rag or paper towel to make sure it is clean of oil.

Insert the Dipstick

Insert the dipstick into the oil reservoir, you may need to check your manual to locate this and you will need to unscrew the cap. Another reminder, if the engine is hot when you take the cap off you risk a pressurized blowback of hot engine oil.

Make sure the dipstick goes all the way to the bottom of the oil reservoir basically as far as it will go.

Retrieve the Dipstick

You will now pull the dipstick back out and using a rag or paper towel to catch any drips you can now look at the oil on the tip of the dipstick. Don’t wipe it off yet. The color of the oil will tell you what state it is in and the measurement marks along the dipstick will tell you how much oil you have.

Using your visual inspection you should now know if you need fresh oil and potentially if you are low on oil. A very low oil level may also indicate a leak so be aware of this in case of an unrelated issue.

What Do Engine Oil Colors Mean?

In this section we will explain some of the engine oil colors you may see if you check your dipstick. This will hopefully help you know if you need to perform an oil change or if there is a problem beyond oil quality that needs to be resolved.

It should be noted that diesel engine oil ages differently so for the purposes of this article we are talking about gas powered engines not diesel.


This is your default color, brand new motor oil will always start out amber and will change from there as it gets older and more used. Ideally the longer the oil stays a similar color to when it was new the better. So essentially shades of amber mean that your engine oil is still good and you do not need a change just yet.

Dark Brown/Black

As oil gets older not only does it get darker in color but it also gets thicker. If you have a dark brown color or black that looks thicker than new motor oil then you likely need an oil change sooner rather than later.

A dark color is not always bad however because if the oil is still thin but just darker you likely still have some life in the oil left. The darkening is caused by dirt from the engine and this builds up gradually. The oil will also get thicker because of heat and the dirt.


You never want to see this color when it comes to your engine oil because it is a very bad thing. A frothy and milky looking oil is likely contaminated with engine coolant which probably means your head gasket has blown.

If you start to get white smoke from your exhaust and engine overheating issues you might want to check your oil in case it is showing signs of being milky in color. If this is the case you will need repairs straight away because continuing to drive may destroy your engine.

It is worth noting that water contamination may also cause this issue but it is rarer. If it is a little water in the system it may not be as dire but always check into the head gasket possibility first.


You may notice a rust color in your engine oil especially in older cars. The first thing you should make sure of is that the dipstick itself is not the cause of the rust color. This can easily happen but if its metal is still uncorroded you may have an issue.

Automatic transmission fluid can sometimes leak into the oil system and this can cause a rust color. If this is the case you will want to get this issue checked out quickly. As a rule of thumb nothing but oil should be in the oil system.

How Often Should You Change Oil?

Years ago before synthetic oils and the technology we have today oil changes were suggested after 3000 miles of use. Things have changed with advancements and although the minimum in some cases remains 3000 miles there is a lot more leeway than before.

On average 3000 – 5000 miles is the range within which most modern day basic engine oils should be changed. Extended life oils can last for much longer, some even as long as 15000 miles. It all depends on the engine oil that you can use in your car.

If your vehicle uses standard engine oil it will need more frequent changes. However vehicles that can use synthetic oils can get a longer life out of their oil but it is more expensive. Ideally if your car can take a synthetic blend you get a longer life for a cheaper price point.

The time between oil changes depends on your car, how old it is and the oil that you use. Always refer to your owner's manual to find out which oil you should be using.


The color of our engine oil can tell us if we need an oil change and may also alert us to potential engine issues. It is easy to check our engine oil color and at the same time we can also see how much oil we have in the system.

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