What Happens if You Spill Oil on Your Engine? Is It Bad?

Written by

Charles Bolte


Vernon Hoppe 

what happens if you spill oil on your engine

As careful as you might be, sometimes things can get out of control. One moment you are topping up your car’s engine oil, the next, it’s accidentally spilled on the sides and seeping into the components.

So, what happens if you spill oil on your engine? First, don’t panic, as it usually is not a cause for alarm. Continue filling the engine oil and then wipe the accessible spilled oil with a rag or paper towel before deciding whether to wash the engine.

Read on for more tips on what to do and how to clean oil spills in your engine.

Is It Bad to Spill Oil on Your Engine?


Oil spillage can have certain damage to your engine’s finish and paint if left there for a while. Even though it’s not a serious safety issue, you will notice fades on your engine finish.

Furthermore, dirt will soon cover the oil spill due to its stickiness. In the long term, it can lead to clogging up issues.

Furthermore, spilling oil on the engine can be hazardous, especially if the spill volume is huge and soaks the serpentine belt and the areas which heat up, like the manifolds. The oil reaching the manifolds can become a fire risk.

Additionally, spillage can soak in the rubbers and seals, causing them to deteriorate and eventually cause problems in the engine.

Will oil spilled on the engine catch fire?


Spilled engine oil can catch fire, but it is not as easy as it sounds. Here’s a little oil basics to get a clear picture of what it takes before it becomes ignitable.

Motor oil is not considered to be flammable. For a liquid to be classified as flammable, it must ignite at 200℉, but motor oil can catch fire when heated up to 300℉ to 400℉.

Most likely, the oil will not catch fire on its own when some spills on the engine oil. However, as the engine gets hot, you might see white smoke from the bonnet.

This is just the spilled oil on engine smoking because it has become ignitable gas. But, for it to burst into flames at this point, there has to be an open fire or heat of more than 750℉.

So, it won’t catch fire if it doesn’t touch a scorching surface like the catalytic converter or exhaust manifold. It will probably just continue smoking until it entirely evaporates.

Nonetheless, if the smoking persists for prolonged periods, you might want to consult a professional to assess the extent of the oil leak.

What to do after spilling oil on your engine


The immediate thing to do right after spilling our oil is to soak the excess quickly with a thick and absorbent towel.  If you prepare corn starch or cat litter in case of spillage, apply them to the spilled mess.

Now, you need to clean the engine carefully. Check the guide below for more details.

Tips to Clean Spill Oil on Your Engine


When filling the engine and you spill motor oil, avoid leaving it unattended as it will attract dust, making the engine dirty.

Furthermore, it will leave a foul smell after drying up, besides being a fire hazard.

Here are some useful tips to help you safely clean oil spills on engines.

1. Finish topping up the engine oil


Before you clean the motor oil spill in the car, finish what you had started to avoid double work in case the oil spills again. Also, you might get preoccupied with the cleaning and need to remember to fill the oil to the recommended level marked on the dipstick.

Remember, the motor oil controls the engine’s temperature. So, if you don’t put the recommended oil level, the engine’s temperature will increase, raising the chances of the spilled oil burning.

If the spill happened because you don’t use a funnel, consider getting one to be safer.

2. Wipe off the accessible oil


If you have protective gloves, put them on. Then, using paper towels or a clean cotton rug, wipe and absorb all the accessible oil. Some might have seeped into unreachable components, but first, deal with what you can reach.

The electrical components, pulleys, and moving belts should be given extra care. Ensure you don’t miss any oil on them. One of the dangers of oil soaking on the serpentine belt is that it can cause it to slip off the pulleys, leading to losing power steering.

3. Clean the engine


Clean the engine surface with a mild detergent and water solution, carefully avoiding soaking the car components. Douse the stubborn areas with a degreaser spray, as it’s more effective in dissolving oil.

Let it sit for a while to cut through the grease, then wash it away with a pressure washer. Again, be extremely careful to avoid soaking the alternator, wiring, and electrical connectors to prevent damaging them or causing a short circuit.

Let it dry completely.

4. Start the car


Now that you are certain you have dealt with the oil spillage, run the car engine to see how it performs.

You might notice some foul smell or squeals from the belt. This is normal but should stop after a few minutes. The foul smell comes from the oil residue and degreaser heating up, but it should soon clear.

In case smoke comes from the engine, turn it off and have it inspected by a professional.

Frequently Asked Questions


How long does it take for spilled oil to burn off the engine?

The time the spilled oil takes to burn off the engine depends on factors such as the amount of oil spilled and how frequently and far the car moves.

Normally, it will be about 5 minutes to half an hour, depending on the oil amount.

Subsequently, if the car is in motion for extended periods, the engine will get hotter, meaning the oil will burn off faster than if the engine ran for a smaller period.

Does spilled engine oil evaporate?

Yes, with time, it will evaporate because of the heat from the engine. It takes about 3 – 5 days for the oil to evaporate 80%. However, it might attract dust, leaving your engine dirty when it dries up, so it’s best to clean it off.

Tips to properly change oil

It is crucial to change your car’s engine oil after the recommended period in the service manual, but for most engines, it is recommended to change the oil after 5000 – 7500 miles. Here’s how to change your car’s engine oil:

  1. Park on an even ground and jack it up using jack stands, ramps, or a hoist to give you enough working space. DON’T get under your car when it’s standing on floor jacks alone.
  2. Put a drain pan under the engine and use a wrench to unplug the oil drain plug.
  3. Drain all the oil and tighten the drain plug securely with the wrench.
  4. Please take off the old filter and replace it with a new one.
  5. Add the recommended amount of oil to the engine.
  6. Start the car, run the engine for a while, switch it off and confirm the oil level with a dipstick.


Oil spills are a common occurrence and should not worry you much because if well taken care of, there should be a minimum risk of fire.

So the next time you wonder what happens if you spill oil on your engine, follow this guide and clean it up to ensure your engine’s not messy and upholds safety.

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