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Why does my jewelry tarnish? Why is my finger green? Our expert has the answers

A jewelry designer and engineer answers all our burning accessory questions.
Woman touching her necklace and a women showing off a ring on her finger
Vivian Le/ TODAY

When someone says you have a green thumb, it can mean one of two things. One: You're standing next to a luscious garden you've planted and tediously cared for on your own over an impressive period of time. Or two: Your finger is actually turning a gross shade of green. If the latter applies to you, you'll want to read these next couple paragraphs closely.

Whether your digits are turning different colors or what you thought was "fine" jewelry is somehow looking a bit lackluster, you're probably looking for answers. Luckily for you (and all accessory shoppers), we pegged a true expert in the jewelry-making business — engineer, jewelry designed and founder of the brand Maison Miru Trisha Okubo — to give us the rundown on the metals your shopping and how to keep them shining like new for longer.

Your jewelry metals make a difference

Why is your jewelry looking like an ancient artifact only weeks after purchasing? Why does it look like your ring finger is growing moss? Well, knowing what kind of metals are dominating the market (and what they are truly made from) can answer those questions.

"Typically a lot of affordable jewelry is made of brass [and gold-plated brass], and the reason why that is, is it's typically an easy material to work with," says Okubo. "The problem with brass is that it tarnishes. And then for silver jewelry, sterling silver is a nice metal; it's just that by nature, it tarnishes as well. And why this happens, if you remember back in chemistry class — it's oxidation. With gold-plated brass, what happens is the gold plating wears off, and what breaks down the plating is typically exposure to water or travel. Unfortunately, there’s just no way around it."

If you barely passed chemistry class, don't fret. Okubo goes into more detail on the science of tarnishing. But, at the moment, if you're more worried about that recent purchase of gold-plated accessories, and wondering if it was a massive waste of money, Okubo says you need to first check on two things: the underlying metal and its "thickness."

"In terms of gold-plated brass and even gold-plated sterling silver, there are different levels of quality there and you really should be asking how thick the plating is. Very rarely do we get customers asking, 'What is in my jewelry?' 'How thick is this plating?' I love it when people actually care," says Okubo. "You should know what's in your jewelry."

Generally, the thicker the plating, the longer it’s going to last because plating eventually wears off. "It’s the nature of things," Okubo puts plainly. She says to think of these jewelry pieces as being dipped in gold — which is exactly what happens. And you'll notice that the thicker the gold plating, the more expensive it is, because you’re basically getting a larger quantity of the gold. What you want to watch out for is jewelry with thinner layers.

Generally, the thicker the plating, the longer it’s going to last because plating eventually wears off. It’s the nature of things."

"If the pricing is too good to be true, what you're probably getting is just the thinnest of thin layers, which is called flash [plating]," Okubo says. "That's sort of the standard in the industry, and the problem with that is that it honestly doesn't last."

Now, here's where we return to that chemistry lesson. According to Okubo, the lasting power is not only determined by the plating thickness, but also by the use of each piece and what you're exposing it to while wearing it. She says that exposure to water and air makes a bad combination, but chemicals from the items you use every day can be just as harmful — like your sunscreen, hand lotion, perfume or hairspray. Okubo also says your personal body chemistry can speed up the tarnishing process as well.

"It's hard to say how long a piece will last because it's honestly very dependent on the actual person themselves. I wish that [people] understood their own body chemistry because some people will find [they] can wear gold-plated jewelry for years and it's totally fine. But there's part of the population, [and] whatever hormones they have, naturally eats through plating very fast," she says.

So, why exactly is your finger turning green?

Very simply, it's copper. In fact, Okubo says the natural state of this metal appears green. As to how it turns your flesh a different color, she says it's a result of the copper in your jewelry reacting to your skin tone.

And in certain metals, there's really no avoiding copper. "Definitionally, brass and silver have copper in it. That's just part of what they are. That's the natural composition of these metals," Okubo says.

Are there metals that won't tarnish?

Actually, yes. Medical-grade titanium or recycled stainless steel don't have the same oxidation problem as other tarnishable metals so nothing happens to their surfaces when exposed to air and water. So, the million-dollar question is, why aren't these magic metals more prevalent? Okubo has an answer to that one, too — "Because [they're] really hard to work with." So, if you come across a titanium piece that you love, know that it's likely going to last you a long time.

Quality jewelry pieces to shop

Flaire & Co. The Original Everyday Gold Hoops

According to the brand, these 18-karate stainless steel hoops are water-safe, hypoallergenic and anti-tarnish. If that sounds too go to be true for an $11 item, just take it from the five-star reviewers, or just this one shopper who called them "gorgeous and high quality." They continue, "These earrings are absolutely worth it. I wear them every day (in the shower all the time) and I've had no problems with them at all."

Mejuri Tube Huggie Hoops

These mini huggie hoops are made from sterling silver and 18-karat gold vermeil, which is made from solid gold, and are "a minimum of 2.5 microns thick, as required by the Federal Trade Commission to classify vermeil." Meaning, it's going to last longer.

Gorjana Tatum Bracelet

For something on the more affordable side, this elegant bracelet is offered in both 18-karat gold-plated and silver-plated brass.

Alex And Ani Charm Station Wire Bangle

Alex and Ani is another brand that works with recycled metals, and this charming bangle is available in sterling silver with or without a 14-karat gold plating.

Monica Vinader Fine Beaded Chain Bracelet

Okubu says many jewelry companies will use nickel to stabilize the gold plating and make it last longer. The problem is that many people are actually allergic to it, and it's not safe for sensitive skin. This fine jewelry piece from Monica Vinader is nickel-free, made from recycled gold and silver and comes in three lovely finishes.

Uncommon James On A Wave Vermeil Ring

According to the brand, each of the pieces from the vermeil jewelry collection are "always made with high quality materials," which includes 18-karat gold (that comes out to 2.5 microns in thickness) layered over sterling silver. We love this tiny but trendy ring for its unique shape and stackable potential.

Tini Lux Jasmine Necklace

Not only is this necklace made in a very on-trend paperclip design, but it's also made from stainless steel and free of nickel. Even better, it's covered in a titanium coating, which makes it hypoallergenic and waterproof, according to the brand.

Mejuri Spheres Bar Studs

These 14-karat studs are designed with both style and the environment in mind. "To ensure a positive impact on both the environment and local communities, 70% of our 14k pieces are made with certified recycled gold and 30% with responsibly mined gold," says the brand.

How do I keep my jewelry from tarnishing?

Keep them clean, consistently

The best way to increase the lifespan of your jewelry, especially pieces that are more prone to tarnishing, is by regularly cleaning them. Okubo recommends as much as once a week. The best part? You don't need any special tools or cleaners to do it.

"In terms of cleaning it, just clean it with a soft cloth to remove dirt and dust," says Okubo. "That's the easiest way to do it. If you have not cleaned your jewelry every day, and you need a little bit more of a thorough cleaning, just use warm, soapy water. Soak it in water for a few minutes with a drop of [mild] soap and then clean it with a soft cloth." Okubo suggests using a microfiber cloth but avoiding the cloths marketed specifically for cleaning jewelry (unless it's being used on solid gold) as they can be too abrasive for gold-plated pieces and can "can take off the top layer."

And after cleaning, "The key is you want to dry it immediately afterward because exposure to air and water is what eats through the plating."

Aidea Microfiber Cleaning Cloths (Pack of 8)

Dawn Ultra Dishwashing Liquid Dish Soap

Proper storage is key

After giving your jewelry pieces a good cleaning, you'd probably believe that your final step is to store it in your jewelry box and call it a day. While that's not necessarily the wrong thing to do, Okubo says if you really want to do it right, you'll do it in the not-so-cute way.

"So, if you wanted to be very good about taking care of your jewelry, and this is super annoying, and I don't think anyone actually does this, you basically want to store it in an air-tight baggy, like a plastic bag. It's not cute, but honestly, that's the best thing. That will basically prevent air from getting to it. Humidity can also get to it, so a plastic baggie is good for that as well."

Ziploc Grip 'n Seal Bags