Dashboards have a unique ability to evoke instant anxiety whenever they pop on. Among the most worrying symbols on the dashboard is the engine oil symbol. What does it mean and why does it come on? We are going to take a comprehensive look at the engine oil symbol and its meanings, so you can troubleshoot the issues when they arise quickly.

What Does The Engine Oil Symbol On My Dashboard Mean? header image

What Does the Engine Oil Symbol Look Like?

The engine oil light is in the shape of an oil can or—for those who like fantasy—a genie’s lamp. A shame that, when it comes on, you just can’t rub it and wish for car problems to disappear! As with any warning light on the dashboard, the engine oil symbol is designed to grab your attention. When it is flashing, you will want to check your engine oil levels immediately. If the light is solid, it could mean other things. Furthermore, you may see the engine oil light in one of two colors—orange or yellow.

How Does an Engine Oil Light Work?

Part of decoding the mystery of what the light means comes down to knowing how it operates. The oil light symbol on your vehicle’s dashboard serves as a critical component of your car’s warning system, designed to alert you to potential issues with your engine’s oil pressure. The operation of the oil light symbol involves a combination of sensors, wiring, and the vehicle’s electronic control unit (ECU).

Here’s how it works:

  1. Oil Pressure Sensor: Inside your engine, there’s a component called the oil pressure sensor. This sensor is often near the engine’s oil pump or another oil passage. It’s responsible for monitoring the oil pressure within the engine.
  2. Sensor Activation: The oil pressure sensor continually measures the oil pressure while the engine is running. If the sensor detects that the oil pressure has fallen below a predetermined threshold, it sends an electrical signal to the vehicle’s ECU.
  3. ECU Response: The ECU, which is essentially the “brain” of your vehicle’s electronic systems, receives the signal from the oil pressure sensor. If the oil pressure is indeed too low, the ECU activates the oil light symbol on your dashboard.
  4. Dashboard Illumination: Once the ECU triggers the oil light symbol, it illuminates on your dashboard. This is often accompanied by a red color, signifying a critical issue that requires your attention.

What Does the Engine Oil Symbol on the Dashboard Mean?

The engine oil symbol lighting up is akin to a conversation between your car and you, communicating that there might be an issue. If you see it, there could be several things happening, including:

Scheduled Maintenance

If the engine oil symbol on the dashboard is orange, you can breathe a sigh of relief. This is a sign that your car’s scheduled oil maintenance is coming up. Keep in mind that not all vehicles will have an orange engine oil light; it depends on your car’s make and model.

Viscosity Problems

Engine oil has a viscosity or thickness that enables it to lubricate the moving parts of an engine without becoming too thin. Yet, the older engine oil gets, the thinner it becomes. High temperatures can also lead to thinner oil. Should the oil get too thin, you run the risk of engine components not being lubricated well enough, which also leads to low oil pressure.

Low Oil Pressure

A drop in oil pressure is one of the most common reasons for the oil symbol’s illumination. This could occur due to low oil levels caused by leaks, a clogged oil filter, or other issues affecting oil circulation.

Contaminated Engine Oil

Over time, engine oil accumulates debris and pollutants as it runs through the motor. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, you want the engine oil to pick this stuff up. However, if the buildup becomes too thick, it can obstruct the flow of oil through the engine (increasing the oil pressure), thus triggering the oil light, even if the oil level is adequate.

Oil Leak

A leak in your vehicle’s oil system can cause a decrease in oil levels, leading to reduced oil pressure and the activation of the oil symbol.

Oil Pump Problem

The oil pump is responsible for circulating oil through the engine. If the pump fails or isn’t functioning optimally, it can result in inadequate oil pressure, triggering the oil symbol.

Cold Weather Start-Up

During cold weather conditions, engine oil might be thicker, leading to slightly lower oil pressure when you start the engine. This could cause the oil light to briefly illuminate until the oil warms up and reaches optimal pressure.

Driving on Steep Inclines or Declines

Here is an issue you may not see often but should know about. During extreme driving conditions such as steep uphill climbs or downhill descents, the oil can temporarily shift away from the oil pressure sensor due to the angle of the vehicle. This might cause a momentary drop in oil pressure and illuminate the oil symbol. However, if the light goes off once the vehicle levels out, it’s generally not a cause for concern.

Faulty Oil Pressure Sensor

If you know everything else checks out but the light is still on, you may need to think beyond it being an engine issue. Sometimes, the issue isn’t with the oil pressure itself, but rather a malfunctioning oil pressure sensor. This sensor monitors oil pressure and sends signals to the dashboard light. If the sensor fails or sends inaccurate readings, the oil light might erroneously illuminate.

Additionally, while rare, electrical problems in the dashboard system can cause the engine oil light to illuminate even when there isn’t anything wrong.

What To Do When the Engine Oil Light Comes On

So the engine light is shining bright on your dashboard. Now what? The first step is: Don’t panic. By solving the issue now, you are warding off any damages to your vehicle.

Next, follow these steps:

  1. Check Your Oil Level: Begin by referring to your vehicle’s owner’s manual to locate the oil dipstick. After wiping it clean, reinsert and withdraw it to check the oil level. If the level is close to or below the “add” mark, it’s a clear indicator that an oil change is due. However, the oil light can also illuminate due to factors beyond low oil levels, so proceed with further inspection.
  2. Assess Oil Quality: Analyze the appearance of the oil on the dipstick. Clean engine oil should possess a translucent amber hue and a slightly runny consistency. If the oil seems dark, sludgy or emits an unusual odor, it’s time for an oil change to restore optimal lubrication. Remember that the oil light can be triggered by issues other than oil quality, so consider other possibilities.
  3. Inspect for Leaks: If the oil light persists after an oil change, it’s prudent to investigate potential oil leaks. Park your vehicle on a level surface and monitor for oil puddles beneath. If you suspect a leak, have it repaired as soon as you can. However, remember that leaks aren’t the sole culprits behind the oil light, so keep exploring.
  4. Evaluate Oil Pressure and Other Factors: Low oil pressure or excessively high oil pressure can also trigger the oil light. Low pressure might indicate issues with oil circulation, worn-out components, or a faulty oil pressure relief valve. On the other hand, high pressure might stem from a clogged oil filter or a malfunctioning oil pressure relief valve. Additionally, extreme driving conditions, electrical problems, or a combination of issues can also contribute to oil light illumination. A qualified mechanic can perform a comprehensive assessment to identify less apparent causes.
  5. Consider Sensor or Pump Issues: If oil levels and quality are satisfactory, the problem might lie with a malfunctioning oil pressure sensor or a worn-out oil pump. These components are pivotal for maintaining consistent oil pressure, and their malfunction could lead to the oil light coming on.

Hopefully, by checking these things yourself or having a mechanic do it, you should be able to uncover the issue. If you go through the list and the light is still on, the sensor may be the problem.

Should You Drive With a Lit Engine Oil Symbol?

It is not advised that you drive around when the engine oil symbol is illuminated, especially when it is red and flashing. Ignoring this warning could result in severe damage to your engine. Insufficient oil pressure or compromised oil circulation can lead to engine seizing while in operation. Swiftly addressing the issue is crucial to prevent escalating problems that could render your vehicle inoperable. 

When you see the engine oil light on your dashboard, make sure you either stop and follow the instructions for what to do listed above or take your vehicle to an automotive technician.

Final Thoughts on the Engine Oil Light

What does the engine oil light on your dashboard mean? A variety of things. The engine oil symbol is not just a decoration; it means that there is a potential problem with your oil system. Usually, the engine oil light comes on when the oil level is low or the pressure is not normal. Be sure to routinely check your vehicle’s oil levels and do regular changes to keep your engine working optimally.


Hi, I’m Alastair. Welcome to SyntheticOil.me, a website for the best oil recommendations for your vehicle, whether it is a two-door sports car, SUV, hatchback, or tractor. Having grown up on a family farm and working as an engineer, I became interested in just about anything with an engine. I also found that motor oil, despite being essential for internal combustion engines, is overlooked, underestimated, or just misunderstood. There may come a day when motor oil is obsolete as electric vehicles become more and more popular. But until then, you are going to need to know the best type of motor oil for your vehicle. That is why I was inspired to create this website. SyntheticOil.me aims to be the internet’s destination for everything related to motor oil, including news, comparisons, features, and recommendations for vehicles by make and model. All the information you need to keep your treasured vehicles running clean is right here. In particular, I am also obsessed with the upkeep of vehicles in general. That is why you will also find troubleshooting tips for removing oil filters and drain plugs, for example. Consider it the mission of SyntheticOil.me to provide accurate information, as well as insight for automotive professionals and enthusiasts.


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