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Motor Oil Color Chart: A Quick Guide

Close up of a man checking the car engine oil level on the dipstick

Whether you’re changing your own oil or whether you have your vehicle serviced professionally for oil changes, understanding the role that motor oil color plays in the longevity of your oil and the health of your motor is important. What are the major colors of a motor oil color chart, and what do they mean?

Motor oil color charts are typically divided into seven color categories ranging from yellow, gold, orange, red, reddish-brown, brown, and black. Fresh motor oil is a yellow color, and oil that is past its due date is thick, black, and has a dense almost molasses-like viscosity.

Keep reading to learn more about what these different motor oil colors mean for your vehicle, the health of your oil, and what they can tell you about when your vehicle needs an oil change.   

What Is a Motor Oil Chart?

A motor oil color chart is a diagram that utilizes either actual photographs of motor oil or corresponding oil colors to demonstrate what color your motor oil will be at various stages of use, from brand-new out of the container to beyond end-of-life.

This chart can help you simply and quickly compare the state and color of your oil to the oil color chart and determine how far away you are from your next oil change.

How the oil color is depicted may depend on the artistic license taken by the oil chart’s creator. Some motor oil charts tend to run more gold-to-red in hue, whereas others may seem more tan-to-brown in appearance. In addition, different color names may be used, depending on the preferences and perspective of the chart’s creator.

Lubricating oil - how to read the oil dipstick in the car's engine

Why Does Motor Oil Darken?

As oil cycles through the motor and does its job, it inevitably picks up bits of contaminants from the combustion process. You can think of these contaminants as the tiny, burnt bits of grime that collect within the liquid of the motor oil and gradually darken it over time.

Direct injection gasoline engines produce soot as a by-product of the combustion process, and this soot builds up in your motor oil. The darker the color of your oil, the more soot build-up you’re seeing.

Generally, brand-new motor oil ranges from pale yellow to gold in hue and should have a completely clean, pure appearance and a smooth, fluid texture. The longer it gets used the darker, thicker, and gummier it becomes.

How dark the motor oil becomes depends upon how long it’s been cycling through your motor, how often the vehicle is driven, and can even be influenced by additives. For example, some additives meant to help your vehicle run longer and better can prematurely darken motor oil.

So, oil that is darker than expected may not necessarily be a sign of general wear-and-tear but may be a result of adding other chemicals and liquids into your motor.

Brand-New Oil is Yellow

New oil right out of the plastic container is going to be a yellow color, almost the color of melted butter. Some describe this as being “white” in color, but it really does have a touch of golden hue and has a very fluid and easy-to-pour viscosity.

This is the color that fresh, usable oil should be right as you’re filling up your motor with brand-new oil. Be careful of any oil that is marketed or passed off to you as being new, but which looks darker than yellow. It’s likely used oil being re-sold or passed off as brand new.

Familiarizing yourself with the look and clarity of brand-new oil can help you identify fakes, save you money and make sure that new oil is being put into your vehicle at every oil change.

A quick tip? Bring your own brand-new container of preferred motor oil to your next oil change, to make sure you’re getting an absolutely fresh product.

Close up of fresh new car engine motor oil on a dipstick

Mid-Life Oil is Orange to Reddish-Brown

The oil that is still working as it should, will be an orange or amber to reddish-brown color. Some color charts describe these colors as tan, amber, or caramel color.

This means that your car’s engine oil is working as it should, has gotten about halfway through its life span, and doesn’t need to be changed. Make sure that the oil is between the high and low indicators on your dipstick, and you’ll be able to safely drive this car for a while yet.

Close up of car engine motor oil that's mid life reddish brown color on a dipstick isolated against a white background

Old Motor Oil is Brown or Black

What if your motor oil is black in color? This means that it’s reached the end of its life and needs to be changed. You may also notice that brown or black motor oil is thicker than fresh oil and has a slightly molasses-like viscosity.

Brown oil is nearing the end of its life but may not need to be changed out immediately. Remember, additives to your motor oil can also prematurely darken it. So if you’ve added other products to your motor oil, take this into consideration when examining your oil’s color.

Whether to change the brown oil also depends on how often you drive the car. If you use the vehicle less often, it may be safe to wait for an oil change. If the car is driven more often, however, you may want to just go ahead and change the oil now.

Dark brown or black oil indicates that the motor oil has aged to the point that it may no longer be fluid enough to properly lubricate your motor, and this can lead to motor failure, and car damage as well as dangerous levels of heat.

Motor oil needs to be thin enough to get into every part of the motor’s moving parts to protect them from wear and tear. If this protection is compromised, your motor could be severely damaged, or fail.

Oil car engine oil checking the level on the oil dipstick with the oil fluid a black color on a napkin

Milky or Cream-Like Oil Indicates Moisture

In some rare cases, you may discover that your motor oil has a kind of cloudy, milk-like color and is a creamy yellow or whitish in hue. It will look distinctly different from fresh motor oil and will seem to have “curdled” a bit.

This means that moisture has likely crept into your motor oil and compromised the health of the oil. Moisture can get into your oil if you have a broken head gasket, and this problem can lead to major damage and even dangerous situations for your car and for you. 

Get this checked out immediately, and after the problem has been identified and fixed, get your oil changed. Other signs of moisture in the oil may be a pale or white exhaust smoke, and an unexpected, rapid loss of coolant.

Heat and Fuel Can Affect Oil Color

In addition to additives, the heat generated by your motor can prematurely age motor oil. If you have an inefficient motor, an older motor, or a motor that runs especially hot, this can turn your motor oil brown faster than you’d think.

If your vehicle uses diesel fuel, this can also prematurely darken the motor oil, as diesel tends to burn quite a bit dirtier than other fuel types, and these particles will collect rapidly in your motor oil. So, if you drive a diesel, color may not be the best way to determine the health of your oil. A better way to determine this is to simply follow manufacturer recommendations for when to change your oil.

How to Check Your Motor Oil

So, what’s the safest and simplest way to get a look at your car’s motor oil and see what you’re working with? The steps are pretty simple and don’t require much more than a careful eye and a couple of simple items.

  • Park your vehicle on a flat surface and turn the engine off.
  • Allow your vehicle’s motor oil to settle down for about 15 minutes
  • Open your car’s hood and locate the dipstick
  • Put some gloves on, and pull out the dipstick fully from its compartment
  • Use a clean paper towel or cloth to wipe all oil from the dipstick
  • Re-insert the dipstick fully and bring it back out again
  • You should now be able to properly observe the color, level, and viscosity of the motor oil.
  • An indication of the color can also be easily gleaned from the stains left on the clean towel or cloth. This, may, in fact, be an easier way to determine color than examining the oil against the metal dipstick.
  • Return the dipstick to its compartment, shut your hood, and you’re good to go!

This is a simple and easy way to check your motor oil’s color and the true level of oil that you have in your motor and notice any abnormalities in the consistency or texture of the motor oil.

We recommend checking your motor oil at least once a month to ensure that it’s properly filled and looks healthy. Sufficiently full oil should be mid-way between the maximum and minimum lines on the dipstick.

Engine oil dipstick readings over white background

How Long Does Oil Last?

So how long does motor oil last, and when should the oil be changed? The old rule used to be that motor oil needed to be changed every 3,000 miles the vehicle was driven. While that may be true for the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s vehicles, modern machines can generally go longer between oil changes.

A better standard for modern vehicles is to change the motor oil every 5,000 to 7,500 miles. If you’re driving your vehicle 6,000 miles or fewer annually, it should be safe to change the oil once a year. Just keep an eye on your odometer and do monthly oil checks to make sure everything looks healthy.

Other factors like the length of your trips, the kind of oil you use, and the age of your vehicle will also impact how often this needs to be done. If you don’t feel comfortable changing your oil at home, you can always take it to a mechanic (or preferably a dealership), and they’ll complete the process for you.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: Are all motor oils the same color?

A: All motor oils will display the same basic range of color changes as they cycle through your vehicle’s motor and pick up soot.

The initial color of your motor oil may run a bit lighter or deeper, however, depending on the chemistry, motor oil composition, and whether or not the oil contains additives out of the package.

Close up of fresh new car engine motor oil being poured into the engine

Q: What about fully synthetic oil?

A: Fully synthetic oil tends to be naturally lighter than semi-synthetic or natural motor oils and can be a very pale yellow. This is because natural oils and semi-synthetic oils often contain a greater variety of minerals which can deepen the color a bit, to an amber or gold color. Fully synthetic oil may be a bit lighter, but it will still cycle through a full range of colors and wind up black at the end of its life.

Q: What if my oil is red?

A: Red motor oil has simply been exposed to contaminants and possibly additives. The thing to be alert of is the texture of your motor oil, which may indicate a problem if it’s too thick, gummy, or seems to be curdling. When in doubt, consult a mechanic. Generally, though, red motor oil is not something to panic over.  

Conclusion

The motor oil color chart is an easy and visual way to compare your vehicle’s motor oil to a color guide, indicating how new or old your motor oil is. Fresh motor oil is a pale yellow, mid-life motor oil is an orange-to-reddish brown color, motor oil nearing the end of its life is chocolatey brown, and oil that needs to be changed will be black.

Motor oil deepens in color as it cycles through your motor and picks up soot from the combustion process. Any oil that is too old loses its natural viscosity and may no longer protect your motor’s moving parts from wear and tear. Severe damage can result if this happens. This is why changing your oil on time is an important part of keeping your motor healthy, and you safe.

Most modern cars can go 5,000 to 7,500 miles between oil changes, whereas older vehicles will need an oil change every 3,000 miles or so. If you drive your car less than 6,000 miles a year, you should be safe with an annual oil change.

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Motor Hills

Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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