Why Does My Turtle’s Water Look Oily?

Even if you make it a priority to keep your turtle’s aquarium clean, it’s possible that you’ve noticed an oily sheen collecting on the water’s surface. You might be at a loss as to what caused the oil slick and what you can do to fix it. Don’t worry–we’ve got all the answers!

So why does my turtle’s water look oily? There are a few possible reasons, including oil from your hands, your turtle’s food and waste, your tank’s filter or pump, and a poor aquarium environment.

Read on for detailed information about each of these causes, along with advice to get rid of pesky oil slicks and to prevent them in the first place. Your turtle will thank you for keeping its aquarium clean and oil-free!

Causes of Oily Water in Your Turtle’s Tank

There are a few different reasons why the water in your turtle’s aquarium appears to be oily. For the most part, it’s nothing to worry about and can be fixed quickly and easily. Below, find out more about the top five causes of oil slicks in your tank, plus tips on how to fix and avoid them.

Oil From Your Hands

This is the most common cause of oil slicks in fish and turtle tanks! You probably dip your hands into your turtle’s aquarium more often than you realize. What many turtle owners don’t take into account is that their hands have natural oils that can eventually build up and rest on the surface of the water. This is especially true if you use hand lotion or don’t rinse your hands thoroughly after washing them.

There’s a simple solution to this problem! Just make sure to wash and rinse your hands carefully before and after reaching them into your turtle’s aquarium. If you want to take it a step further, you can also buy aquarium-safe gloves that will completely prevent any oil from your hands getting into the water. 

Your Turtle’s Waste

If you’ve had a pet turtle for awhile, you’ve probably noticed that they are pretty messy creatures and produce a lot of waste. Oil from your pet’s feces will rise to the surface of the water. When you’re dealing with fresh water in the tank, your filter needs to build up enough beneficial bacteria to essentially cancel out the bacteria from your turtle’s waste.

An easy way to solve this problem is actually to do nothing–just wait until the water cycles properly. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. There’s no need to worry as long as your aquarium and filter are set up properly. Pet stores also sell drops that can neutralize the waste.

Your Turtle’s Food

Some foods that are part of your turtle’s diet contain fat. As the food dissolves, fats and proteins float to the surface of the water and create an oily sheen. If this happens frequently, it can be a sign that you’re overfeeding your turtle. Any leftover food that your turtle doesn’t consume will break down and add to the oil slick. You can also try feeding your turtle outside of its tank.

Aquarium Filters and Pumps

This may seem counterintuitive–shouldn’t your filter and pump prevent oil from collecting? But the fact is that when you purchase a new pump or filter, they typically have small amounts of oil or other lubricants on their moving parts. It’s also possible for other oils to be left over from the manufacturing process. Because of this, it’s a good idea to clean any new filter or pump thoroughly before putting it in your turtle’s aquarium.

Poor Environment

The source of oil may actually be the location of your turtle’s tank. For example, if the aquarium is close to the kitchen, cooking grease can settle on the surface of the water. If you use aerosol sprays or perfumes near the aquarium, they can also land on the water and cause an oil slick.

You’ll want to move your turtle’s tank away from any contaminants. It’s best to avoid this problem in the first place by simply selecting a clean environment for the aquarium before setting it up. 

How Dangerous Is Oil In Your Turtle’s Tank?

A small amount of oil won’t cause too many problems, but it’s best to handle it as soon as possible. This is because the oil can create a barrier for oxygen, which your turtle needs to breathe. A large buildup of oil can also trap carbon dioxide under the water.

There’s no reason to panic if your aquarium appears oily, but you should definitely take steps to remove it and prevent it from happening in the future!

How to Remove Oil From Your Turtle’s Tank

There are several methods to get rid of that pesky oil that collects on the surface of the water. Whether you’re looking for a quick fix or a permanent solution, you’ll find some helpful tips below!

Paper Towels

If you want the oil gone immediately, reach for some paper towels. First, you’ll want to turn off anything that causes water movement in your turtle’s tank. This includes pumps, filters, and powerheads. 

Next, lay a paper towel or two onto the surface of the water, letting them rest there for a few moments. You should be able to see the oily film cling to the paper towel’s surface. If your tank is especially large, you’ll want to repeat this process several times until all the oil is removed.

Water Circulation

The best way to avoid an oil slick in the first place is to keep the water in your aquarium circulating. As the water circulates, it mixes and disperses the oil. Then the oil is removed when you change the tank water and rinse the filter.

Some methods to improve water circulation are to add a powerhead, use a spray bar, or to point your filter nozzle at the surface of the water. If you notice that oil only collects in a small area in the tank, this can indicate a “dead spot” where the filter is unable to circulate water. Try adjusting your filter so that the water moves around your entire tank.

Skimming the Surface

If oil slicks in your turtle’s tank are a constant problem for you, it’s smart to invest in a surface skimmer that you can attach to the inflow of your aquarium’s filter. The oily film should disappear in minutes!

Do make sure not to mix up a surface skimmer and a protein skimmer. A surface skimmer will take care of any oil or other waste on top of the water, while a protein skimmer will only handle underwater gunk.

Other Tips for a Clean Turtle Tank

There are some other steps you can take to ensure the cleanliness of your turtle’s aquarium.

  • Purchase a water testing kit. You can find these at pet stores, and they typically test for ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites. If the levels are high, you’ll want to completely switch out the water in your pet’s tank.
  • Watch out for chlorine. Most turtles aren’t overly sensitive to chlorine, but too much of it can affect the breakdown of waste. A water conditioner is an easy fix.
  • Get a bigger tank. Typically, the bigger the tank, the easier it is to maintain good water quality. This is because oil and waste are less concentrated in larger amounts of water.
  • Choose the right filter. It’s wise to pick out a filter that is rated for two to three times the size of your turtle’s aquarium. Experts recommend filters with several different levels because they can remove waste as well as other byproducts.
  • Complete regular partial water changes. It’s not necessary to do complete water changes all the time, but you should partially switch out your turtle’s water at least once a week. Simply take out some of the water and replace it with fresh water to keep the quality at a high level.


Oil buildup on the surface of your turtle’s water can be caused by a variety of factors. Oil from your hands, a buildup of waste, and fat and protein from your turtle’s food are common culprits. The oil slick may also be caused by the environment around the aquarium or an oily filter or pump.

A few solutions to remove the oil are to use paper towels, keep the water circulating, and purchase a surface skimmer. You should also make sure to do partial water changes once a week, keep an eye on chlorine levels, and regularly use a water testing kit to ensure your turtle’s water is of high quality. 

Keeping your turtle’s tank clean is an essential part of helping them stay healthy! As long as you follow the tips above, you should easily be able to maintain an oil-free aquarium for your pet.




I’m Devin Nunn, an average joe that just so happens to have a deep love and passion for everything to do with reptiles. Because taking care of them for the vast majority of my life wasn’t fulfilling enough, I decided to begin educating others about them through my articles. read more...