Why Does my Hand Turn Green?

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It was a long weekend of playing, as evidenced by a green-stained right hand in the picture below.

Have you ever wondered why this happens? Why, on un-laquered horns, do some people get the notorious “green hand?”

A brass player's hand stained green by zinc oxidization

Explained in a nutshell, this stuff is a byproduct of prolonged human contact on untreated brass. It originates from a chemical reaction — between the brass, and your hand sweat and breath condensation.

Brass tax

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Brass is basically an alloy of copper and zinc.

Some horn makers have experimented with different balances and elements and as an aside, I once owned a Lawson “Ambronze” bell, which contained a bit of tin in its ingredients. The tone was lovely; the resulting hand residue however was a nasty dark green, almost black.

Speaking of the renowned brand Lawson, from their web site one can better understand the different proportions of ingredients in a typical horn bell flare:

  • Yellow brass = 70% copper, 30% zinc
  • Red brass = 85% copper, 15% zinc
  • Nickel silver = 67% copper, 18% nickel, 15% zinc

Less typical are the following formulas, which I believe are unique to this company:

  • Ambronze = 84% copper, 2% tin, 14% zinc
  • Nickel Bronze = 89% Copper, 2% tin, 9% nickel


Chemistry 101

Hand perspiration and breath condensation contain water, salt, and acids. This set of ingredients causes the zinc in the brass to oxidize, which produces the green stuff.

The level of oxidization can vary from person-to-person — running the gambit from little or no reaction, to coffee-drinkers like myself who are cursed by heavy green residue.

A matter of taste

After putting the horn away in the case, I wash my hands thoroughly to remove this residue.

Nothing can ruin a sandwich faster than getting a taste of this nasty stuff in your mouth. Years ago, brass musicians regularly used raw-brass mouthpieces; I can’t imagine getting accustomed to that flavor in my mouth.

All flavoring issues aside, some people develop strong allergic reactions to raw brass, while others have no reaction whatsoever. Here are two interesting forum discussions on this topic to explore:


Sometimes the green residue can get deeply embedded and regular-strength hand soap will not do the trick.

That being the case, concentrated dish soap — such as Dawn — and a soft-bristle nail brush may be required. As evidenced by the picture up top, I somehow manage to get residue under my thumbnail as well.

University of Horn Matters