I'm looking for a concise way to describe the grime that accumulates on frequently-touched objects and surfaces such as doorknobs and handrails. I doubt there's a single word for it, but I'd welcome one. Phrases like "finger dirt" or "touch grime" are descriptive but somewhat equivocal -- I'm hoping for something that most people would relate to quickly. Even slang terms might work.


5 Answers 5


How about "It had developed a patina of grime from being frequently touched"?

https://www.thefreedictionary.com/patina [3]

(The reference cites "neglect" as the source of the "patina of grime," but I prefer adding "from being frequently touched" to invoke the phenomenon you intend.)

  • Great, great word - but it refers specifically to the naturally-occuring buildup of a film from the process of oxidisation rather than touch.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 10:18
  • @Astralbee No - see the link in Mark Hubbard's answer above. In one word requests you should give a sample sentence that conveys some context. The suggestions so far are good but may not be appropriate to the context.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 16:56
  • @Greybeard Sure, I saw the sample "a patina of grime". But if a patina is specifically a film of oxidised metal, saying "a patina of grime" is like saying "a rust of dirt".
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 21:32

You might consider:

  • An incrustation - defined as "a layer of material, such as dirt or a chemical, that forms on something, especially slowly".

  • A buildup of dirt/grime. This is somewhat similar to saying an accumulation but is idiomatic in this context. The definition of "buildup" is "a gradual accumulation or increase, typically of something negative that leads to a problem".

  • Ingrained dirt/grime. This suggests that the dirt is not just surface dirt, but has become deeply embedded through prolonged or repeated touching. One dictionary gives this example along with the definition: "the ingrained dirt on the flaking paintwork".

  • These are good. I'd prefer something that more strongly implies touching, but I may be dreaming :-)
    – Jim Mack
    Commented Jul 5, 2020 at 21:32
  • 1
    @JimMack I suppose it depends how you intend to use it, but if you're just trying to avoid the word "touch" you could say something like "the door handle had a buildup of dirt from heavy use"? I think "buildup" does imply a lot. You might not even need to say "dirt" - for example, if a dentist said "there is heavy buildup on your teeth" you would just assume it was a buildup of plaque. There are also words like "maul", "pawed", or "manhandled" that imply a degree of touch that is unnecessary and leads to grime.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 8:00
  • @JimMack I've added "incrustation" - I'll confess I found it as a synonym of 'patina' suggested by another user, but I disagree with that word as it refers to a buildup of naturally occuring grime through oxidisation rather than by touch.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 10:17
  • I can't comment on the question, which, in any case, I feel is a good one. But answers essentially offering synonyms for 'layer' / 'accumulation' // 'grime' or suggested strings for 'layer of grime', which don't specify 'arising on frequently touched objects', are, I feel, not what ELU is all about. Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 11:21

How about contact grime? From Lexico:

contact: The state or condition of physical touching.

grime: Dirt ingrained on the surface of something.

The OP "is looking for a concise way to describe the grime that accumulates on frequently-touched objects and surfaces such as doorknobs and handrails." Contact grime does the job as it describes dirt ingrained on the surface of something, e.g., door knobs or handrails, by virtue of physical touching, e.g., by the fingers or hands. The OP also said in a comment that he prefer something that strongly implies touching -- contact does that. Contact grime also implies frequent touching as it takes time for grime to accumulate.


This might be a controversial one because the the origin of the word is Yiddish, but the first thing that came to mind was schmutz.


schmutz (also shmutz)

Pronunciation /SHmo͝ots/ /ʃmʊts/ 
informal North American

Dirt or a similar unpleasant substance

There was a popular TV campaign in New York back in the early 2000's for a newspaper (remember those?) that was printed with ink that did not rub off on your hands. The tagline was "No more Schmutz!". The term might not be universally known, but it definitely gained some popularity after that campaign.


residue (n.) mid-14c., from Old French residu (14c.), from Latin residuum "a remainder, that which is left behind," noun use of neuter of adjective residuus "remaining, left over," from residere "remain behind" (see reside)

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