Read the Labels on Motor Oil Before You Buy

Know how to read the labels and what to look for on both the front and back labels of the motor oil you buy, or you may be using product that can cause unsatisfactory performance or damage to your engine. The following are some key items to look for on motor oil labels and to consider before buying.

Responsible Party

REspPartyWhereas there are several important oil related words, numbers and symbols to look for when reading a motor oil label, the first is the party responsible for the product.

The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) and the Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulations requires each package of consumer commodities bear a label on which there is the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor. The label must include address, city, state and zip code. The street address may be omitted if it is listed in a current city or telephone directory. A telephone number, URL, or email alone is NOT permitted.

Consumers are cautioned that, although required by law, this information is not shown on some brands PQIA has found on store shelves. Failing to name the responsible party on the label should raise a red flag as it could be a real challenge for a consumer to contact the responsible party if they have questions about the product, or in the event use of the product results in damage to an engine.

SAE Viscosity Grade

Motor oil labels include important information to determine if the oil is appropriate for use in your vehicle. One very important piece of information is the viscosity grade.

Multi-viscosity (aka multi-grade) motor oils are most commonly recommended for use in vehicles currently on the road. Some of the most common viscosity grades specified for use in passenger cars include 5W-30, 10W-30, 5W-20, and 0W-20. Multi-viscosity motor oils are designated by two numbers separated by a “W” (which indicates the “winter” grade). The first number is indicative of how the oil flows at low temperatures, and the second of how it flows at higher/operating temperatures. This is important since oil naturally thickens when cold and thins when hot.

Whereas the labeling on the bottle of motor oil may suggest the product is a multi-grade, note, if the grade is not preceded by “SAE” and/or there is no “W-” between the first and second number, it may not be a multi-grade. As an example, PQIA finds brands on the shelves with “5-30,” prominently on the front label, while the back label gives a meaningless explanation that “this means the viscosity range from 5 to 30,” with no units of measure stated.

Look to your owner’s manual. It specifies the viscosity grade required for your car’s engine.

API Service Categories

The service rating of passenger car and commercial automotive motor oil is categorized by the American Petroleum Institute (API). Some of these categories are now obsolete and others are active. As shown in the illustration below, engine oils with API SA through SH Service Categories are now obsolete.

While some lubricant manufacturers include a cautionary statement on labels of obsolete motor oils, PQIA cautions that the labels on some obsolete motor oils fail to include such a statement about its limited use, or the fact that it could cause harm to your engine.

Read your owner’s manual and look for the API Service Category on the label.  

American Petroleum Institute (API) Service Symbol “Donut”

The API “Donut” is a symbol licensed by the American Petroleum Institute to help ensure consumers purchase motor oil that meets API’s engine oil standards and that the product is subject to the API’s aftermarket monitoring and enforcement program that ensures licensees adhere to program requirements.

Although motor oils are not required to be licensed or certified by the API, and some motor oils may meet the requirements for current API specifications without such certification, if the “Donut” is not displayed on the label, consumers are relying solely on the trust they have in the motor oil manufacturer. Consumers are again advised to check their vehicle owner’s manual since many car manufacturers recommend motor oil licensed by the American Petroleum Institute.

The API Donut, usually found on the back label, includes the SAE viscosity grade and the API Service Category of the motor oil.

API “Starburst”

The API “Starburst” is another symbol to look for, and is found on the front motor oil label. The presence of this symbol indicates that the motor oil is formulated to meet the most current International Lubricant Specification Advisory Committee (ILSAC) standards which include additional requirements for fuel economy and emission system protection.

Although the “Starburst” is not required on motor oil labels, check your owner’s manual as it may specify use of motor oil bearing the “Starburst” symbol. 


May 1, 2020 was the first day that passenger car engine oils could officially be licensed as ILSAC GF-6/API SP/Resource Conserving.  This is the most current API/ILSAC specification.  The chart below provides an overview of the new specifications and related marks. 

OEM Specific Performance Specifications

Whereas the majority of vehicles currently on the road in the U.S. specify the use of motor oils meeting a specific API Service Category and/or ILSAC standard, some vehicle manufacturers recommend use of lubricants that meet the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) specifications. General Motors, for example, specifies use of authentic, licensed dexos® motor oils. The labels on licensed dexos® motor oils will have one of the two dexos® icons on the front label and an 11-digit license number on the back label. In addition to GM, other OEMs may also have their own specifications, particularity European car manufacturers.

Read your vehicle owner’s manual to see if the manufacturer specifies use of motor oil that meets a particular OEM specification.


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