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Follicle Test: Definition, How It Works, and the Window of Detection

14 February, 2024

A lab technician taking a hair sample out of a tube to place on a dish

Drug and alcohol testing has become increasingly common in many industries and organisations. While blood and urine testing are the most well-known methods, a follicle test provides a unique insight into the substance use history of an individual. It is a testing type that involves hair analysis using head hair. Subsequently, the test determines if the specimen contains traces of substances or their metabolites. The detection period ranges from a few days to several months.

Employers and law enforcement agencies often utilise hair testing. It is a preferred method to other types because it has a longer window. Thus, it makes it more difficult for individuals to cheat the test by abstaining from substances for a short period before the test. Understanding the components surrounding hair tests can be crucial information for anyone facing a substance test soon. The following sections will present its definition, functionality, and detection period.

What is a Hair Follicle Test?

A hair follicle test is a type of substance testing that utilises hair samples to determine the presence of illicit drugs, prescription medications, or ethanol. Companies use it to screen their employees. Also, authorities apply hair testing in criminal investigations. Furthermore, athletic organisations implement hair drug testing to identify the use of performance-enhancing substances in athletes.

During a hair test, a collector cuts a small lock of hair from the back of the head near the scalp. However, they can take body hair if the person does not have enough head hair. Afterwards, they send it to a laboratory for analysis. The outcomes are valuable because the test can detect chronic or habitual drug use. Moreover, it can establish a pattern of substance abuse over time.

Aside from hair drug and alcohol testing services, people can also purchase a collection kit. Those who want to test themselves or their loved ones can rely on it. The process is straightforward and can be done at home. However, it is essential to note that false positives can occur, and factors like hair treatments can potentially impact the accuracy.

Advantages Over the Other Testing Types

  • Accuracy: Hair tests are more accurate than urine, breath, or saliva tests. This is because hair testing is less susceptible to adulteration or tampering.
  • Non-invasive: Unlike blood tests, hair tests do not require the insertion of needles. Hence, the collection process is less painful for the individual.
  • Easy to use: Hair follicle samples are simple to collect and store. Thus, the test eliminates the need for special handling or immediate testing.
  • Comprehensive results: People can get a better overview of the substance use history of an individual because hair tests can detect a wide range of substances over a longer timeframe.

A lab technician looking at hair samples on a dish

How Does Hair Follicle Testing Work?

Hair follicle testing can detect the presence of alcohol and different drug classes by doing a hair analysis. It screens a small sample of hair. The preferred samples are from the root of the hair, as they ensure accurate outcomes. Nevertheless, auxiliary hair, or hair from the pubic, underarm, and chest regions, can also be used if necessary.

Once the technicians finish the hair sample collection, they send it to a certified lab. Medical professionals will wash the specimen to remove any external contaminants. Afterwards, they crush the sample into a fine powder. Then, the powdered hair is tested using advanced techniques. Each staff member follows a strict chain of custody to ensure the integrity of the specimens.

Biological indicators must be present in the hair for precise results. In the case of alcohol, for example, the body metabolises ethanol to form Ethyl Glucuronide (EtG) and Fatty Acid Ethyl Esters (FAEEs), which are then incorporated into the hair follicle. Similarly, different drugs have specific markers that professionals can detect in hair samples.

What Can Be Detected?

A hair test can detect various substances in the body. These include drugs like amphetamines, opiates, PCP, cocaine, and marijuana. This type of test can also reveal the presence of prescription medications, including painkillers, antidepressants, and antipsychotic drugs. Additionally, the test can identify the use of alcohol, nicotine, environmental contaminants, and toxins.

Furthermore, hair testing can detect the presence of specific biomarkers that may indicate health conditions or lifestyle choices. For instance, it can determine levels of cortisol, a hormone that can indicate stress or anxiety. It can also find markers for certain chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or thyroid disorders.

A lab technician putting a hair sample inside a tube

Window of Detection in Hair Follicle Testing

The window of detection in hair follicle testing is the period in which it can detect substances in a specimen. Law officials and other organisations often utilise this testing method to identify drug use over an extended time. This is because the drugs and their metabolites can be trapped in the hair and remain detectable for a longer duration compared to other forms of drug testing. The window can range from several days to several months, depending on some factors.

Due to the longer detection window, professionals consider hair testing a highly effective method for determining substance use. In particular, it is beneficial in scenarios where a comprehensive history is necessary. An example is when employers or authorities need to evaluate alcohol use for potential employment or during probation periods.

In addition, a long detection window gives knowledge about the patterns of drug use or alcohol consumption. Analysing different hair segments makes it possible for providers to establish a timeline and identify trends. This information can be valuable in understanding substance abuse habits and developing appropriate intervention strategies.

Factors Affecting the Detection Window

Several factors affect the detection window of hair tests, including hair growth rate and length. Technicians can identify substances for a longer period if the hair grows slowly or is unusually long. Additionally, the frequency and amount of alcohol or drug use can impact the detection window. Regular and heavy use leads to a longer detection window.

Another factor is the cosmetic treatment of the hair. Some hair treatments, such as bleaching and dyeing, can affect the integrity of the hair and potentially impact the test outcomes. Furthermore, exposure to secondhand smoke may affect the detection window of the test.

Conclusion

A hair follicle test is a substance testing method. It analyses a small hair sample for the presence of drugs and alcohol or their metabolites. People and organisations can avail of hair drug tests and alcohol screens from a service provider nearby. In addition, they can buy testing kits for further convenience. The test works by identifying and measuring the molecules present in the hair shaft. It can determine ethanol, cocaine, antidepressants, and other substances.

Hair testing has a detection window of up to several months. Therefore, it is valuable for many employers and law enforcement agencies seeking to assess the history of substance use precisely. Nevertheless, they should understand that several factors can impact this window, such as hair treatments. This can lead to false-positive results, which can be problematic. Overall, a hair test is a thorough and effective method of drug testing and alcohol screening.

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