You’ve got one of these, I know I have tucked away in a jewellery box. A ring you loved, bought while you were having fun and the sun was shining, on a whim because you liked it but when you tried to wear the ring, it just turned your finger green, so disappointing! What can you do? Well, there’s a simple reason why your finger goes green and several simple ways to solve the problem.
Why Your Finger Goes Green Under Your Ring in the First Place
Your finger goes green because there is copper in the ring. Most metals used in jewellery are alloys which means they are not one metal but a mix of metals. Everything from gold and silver via bronze and aluminium to exotic alloys like Inconel (used in F1 exhaust pipes due to its extreme heat resistance) are alloyed or mixed with other metals to improve or change them.
Whether your finger goes green or not depends how much copper is in the ring and how it reacts with the acidity and moisture on your skin and the air. The green is called verdigris, a naturally occurring copper acetate. A compound formed when acid and copper react together. You will have seen it on architectural metal such as Goodwood House roof and sculptures such as the Statue of Liberty. It is this verdigris that stains your skin.
The word verdigris comes from old French and Latin and means green of Greece. Ancient Greece being full of bronze statues that went green with age.
How Does Verdigris Stain Your Skin Green?
Your skin is slightly acidic; consequently, the proximity of a ring containing copper and the air are the perfect conditions for verdigris to form. Your finger will go green as the verdigris rubs off the ring, simple as that. On a warm day, your skin will moisten with sweat which can also contribute to the green verdigris forming.
The green stain left by the verdigris can be removed with normal handwashing, although it may take a couple of washes.
How green your finger goes will depend on a few things; how much copper is in a ring, how acidic your skin is, how moist your hands get with sweat. Skin acidity varies slightly between individuals. A pure copper ring or an alloy based on copper such as bronze will produce more green than an alloy based on silver with a small percentage of copper added.
Why Your Finger Goes Green Under your Ring – Summary
- The ring is made of copper
- The ring is made of an alloy containing copper – bronze, brass, sterling silver, 9ct gold
- The quality of the silver or gold may not be of the correct purity; there’s too much copper
- The copper reacts with the air, moisture and acidity of your hand to create a copper acetate
- This is called verdigris
- The verdigris stains your finger
- The local climate and your personal body chemistry may affect how and if your finger goes green.
If you have a ring, bracelet or any jewellery that is made of copper and it is in contact with your skin, it will eventually turn your skin green. This is especially if you wear it all the time. Copper bracelets are a widespread but ineffective way of improving joint stiffness and arthritis. One thing is certain they will turn your wrist green!
The length of time you wear a piece of jewellery made of copper or containing copper is relevant. I have a copper necklace that if I only wear it for the day, I don’t get green stains. If I wear it for longer, say, into the evening, I start to get green marks especially around my neck where the contact with my neck is closest.
Equally, it seems that the verdigris itself can block the reaction from happening further once it builds up. So if you have a piece of copper jewellery you wear all the time there is a limit to the amount that will build up. Your finger will still be a bit green, but it won’t get worse.
This is a fantastic metal for jewellery because it casts beautifully and wears well, unfortunately, because bronze is an alloy heavily based on copper, it will turn your finger green. It is a mix of copper and tin and is one of the longest-used alloys known to man. There are many modern types of bronze alloy for various uses, but the essential base of copper has remained unchanged for millennia. This Roman fibulae brooch photographed in my local museum is bronze, and you can see how green they have gone with age.
Brass is another gold-coloured alloy that will turn your finger green, like bronze, it is based on copper, this time mixed with zinc. It is a much brighter gold colour than bronze but is similar in the way it wears. It too will stain your finger green.
Silver and Silver Coloured Alloys
Silver won’t turn your finger green, again it is the copper that it is alloyed with that will particularly if the alloy does not have a high enough silver content. The most commonly used alloy is sterling silver, so-called because it used to be used in coins. Until 1920 silver coins in the UK were made from sterling silver, after that to 1946, they were 50% silver.
Sterling silver is 92.5% silver the rest is copper. At this level, your finger will not turn green even down at the lower fineness of 80% often used in European silver. It is when you have cheap jewellery made of unknown alloys full of lead, cadmium, nickel, and goodness knows what else that the trouble happens. A green finger is the least of your worries here. For instance, nickel can cause a nasty skin reaction in some people; lead and cadmium are toxic. These shouldn’t even be on sale if in doubt don’t buy it.
If you have a ring you think is sterling silver, which should be an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper but it is turning your finger green it may be that there is more copper in the ring than there should be. This can be true of jewellery imported into the UK that has not been properly hallmarked and is only marked 925.
Hallmarks Guaranteeing the Precious Metal
Always look for a stamp like the one below when you are buying precious metal jewellery in the UK, it is your guarantee. It tells you the type of precious metal the jewellery you are buying is made of. This applies to gold, silver, palladium and platinum.
This is not just a 925 stamp which is pretty much meaningless. All precious metals offered for sale in the UK and described as such must be hallmarked, even imported jewellery. It should have a minimum of three stamped marks. 1) The initials of the maker, 2) a fineness mark which is a number that confirms the alloy, 3) the mark of the assay office that tested and marked the item. It may also have 4) a traditional fineness mark and 5) a date letter stamp.
Gold and Gold Coloured Alloys
Jewellers rarely use pure gold or 24-carat gold. You will find it more often in bullion bought as an investment. It is dark yellow, but it is too soft to make very durable objects. It scratches easily during everyday wear, and bends out of shape too easily in fine work. The same is true of 22-carat gold, which is used more often in pieces that will not rub against anything such as brooches.
Gold is mixed with silver and copper in varying amounts to make different carats of gold. 18 carat gold is 75% pure gold, 14 carat 58.5%, and 9 carat 37.5%. The chances of a 9-carat gold ring turning your finger green are higher than that of an 18-carat gold ring.
Gold is naturally yellow other colours such as green, red and white gold are made by alloying other metals into the gold to change the colour. All colours of 18ct gold will be 75% gold it is the makeup of the other 25% of the alloy that gives the colour. White gold is 75% gold, then either silver or palladium and zinc will be used to colour the gold white. 18ct rose gold will be 75% gold, and most of the rest of the mix is copper with a little silver. This gives rose gold, its pink hue.
A 9ct rose gold ring will be 37.5% gold and the rest copper and silver. The higher copper content means it is more likely to turn your finger green. None of my 9-carat gold rings do this to me, but each person’s skin acidity and local climate differs. A warmer climate meaning you may sweat more could mean a gold ring turns your finger green. It is not common but can happen.
Silver and Gold Plated Jewellery
Silver is often plated over copper. It is an electrical process, and copper conducts electricity quickly and evenly as does silver and gold. If your silver plated jewellery has started to turn your finger green it is likely the plating has worn or has become chipped. The copper is coming into contact with your skin, and the verdigris is forming with the air and moisture on your hand.
Gold is more likely to be layered by plating over silver which is often referred to as gilding or for a thicker layer gold vermeil. Other ways to describe a gold layer on top of silver are, rolled gold and filled gold, or gold fill. This is a way of fusing a thin layer of gold to silver and rolling it out in sheets. These terms are often used confusingly and interchangeably with gold plated. The way the two are made are very different.
Gold can be plated over copper and other base metal alloys. The layer of gold is generally microns thin and wears off very quickly exposing the metal underneath which, if it contains copper will stain your finger green.
How To Stop Your Finger Turning Green
- Always check the quality you are buying. For precious metals in the UK, the hallmark is your protection here,
- Try some barrier cream, like petroleum jelly/vaseline. Make sure it is plain and unperfumed, so it does not react with the metal further.
- Try only wearing the ring in winter or on cooler days. It may be that your hand getting warm or sweating affects how green your finger goes.
- Do nothing. It’s harmless, and do you really care that your finger is a bit green? The reaction to slows with wear as the verdigris itself seals the metal and stops the reaction happening.
- The green stain left by the verdigris can be removed from your finger with normal handwashing. However, it may take a couple of washes.
- Another approach is not to wear it every day, all day.
- Remove and clean the ring daily, a good polish with a jewellery polishing cloth usually removes the verdigris that builds up over the course of a day.
- Carefully paint some clear nail polish as a lacquer on the inside and up the outside a little. This blocks the connection between metal, skin and air, so the reaction does not happen. Try to be neat and careful doing this, so it does not detract from the beauty of your ring. Buy a special square-ended paintbrush to do a neater job of this than you can with the brush in the nail varnish bottle.
- With plated jewellery find where the plating has worn or become chipped and dab a little clear nail varnish on that area.
- Wear the ring as a pendant on a long chain over clothes, no contact with skin no green stain.