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Hair Strand Test: Collection Process and the Laboratory Analysis

15 February, 2024

A lab technician placing hair samples in a tube

Heavy drinking of alcohol and taking illicit drugs can impair the body and mind in various ways. To detect these substances, people undergo drug and alcohol testing. One increasingly popular method is hair strand tests. The collection process involves cutting small portions of head hair. If unavailable, collectors can use body hair samples. Then, they send the specimen to a laboratory for analysis. Professionals test the strands of hair for the presence of ethanol and a wide range of drugs.

Hair analysis has been used for decades as a way to detect exposure to drugs, alcohol, toxins, and heavy metals. Many employers utilise it in pre-employment screening to ensure a substance-free workplace. Meanwhile, courts may order it as part of probation or custody hearings. It is valuable because it has a long window of detection. To learn more about hair testing, the following sections will present its definition, collection and preparation procedure, and lab analysis.

What is a Hair Strand Test?

A hair strand test is a method that analyses the hair to detect the presence of illicit substances. It is beneficial in settings, such as forensic and workplace, to determine if an individual has consumed or taken drugs or alcohol over a specific period. Hair follicle testing checks the substances and their metabolites deposited in the hair shaft as the hair grows.

Hair drug testing can identify recreational drugs like marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy. It can also detect prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and opioids. On the other hand, hair alcohol testing can check for Ethyl Glucuronide (EtG) and Fatty Acid Ethyl Esters (FAEEs). These are markers indicating alcohol consumption. The results can provide a detailed report and can confirm or refute suspicions of substance use.

The hair drug test and alcohol screen are dependable. However, it is essential to note that several factors can impact the outcomes, including hair products. Hair dye or hair colouring, shampoos, and conditioners contain chemicals that may bind to or coat the hair shaft. Hence, this makes it difficult for the test to detect any traces of illicit substances.

Advantages and Importance

  • Testing strands of hair can provide a comprehensive assessment of the health and lifestyle of individuals, as it can detect exposure to different substances.
  • Urine tests have short detection windows. Meanwhile, hair testing offers a long-term history, spanning several months, of drug or alcohol consumption history.
  • Blood tests are accurate, but the collection process can be intrusive with needle insertion. On the other hand, hair tests are accurate and relatively non-invasive.
  • Hair testing has a high level of importance in professional and legal matters because it can effectively determine substance use over a long period. It helps in workplace screenings and child custody cases.

A lab technician looking at hair samples on a container

Collection and Preparation Procedure for Hair Strand Tests

The collection process when conducting a hair strand test is crucial for precise results. Collectors should use clean and dry tools to prevent contamination. Also, they must wear gloves to avoid transferring oils or dirt onto the hair sample. In addition, it is necessary to collect a sufficient amount of hair to ensure there is enough for the test.

After collecting the human hair, professionals prepare them for testing. This involves washing the hair with a gentle shampoo to remove external contaminants. Then, the hair should be air-dried thoroughly before proceeding with the testing process. Handling the hair specimen carefully during the preparation procedure is vital to avoid any damage or loss of the sample.

Once medical practitioners collect and prepare the strands of hair, they are ready to undergo the testing procedure. This typically involves analysing the specimens for ethanol and drugs. The test may vary depending on the specific substances being tested for, but it is essential to follow the appropriate protocols to ensure trustworthy results.

Handling and Storage

Qualified staff must use Personal Protective Equipment or PPE when handling hair samples. Similarly, they need to follow other safety protocols. These include properly disposing of hazardous materials and maintaining a sterile work environment. This is essential for their protection. In addition, it ensures the integrity of results.

Moreover, placing the hair strands in a clean, labelled envelope or container immediately after collection is crucial to avoid any mix-ups or contamination. Then, professionals must keep the specimens in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and moisture. It is recommended to store the samples at room temperature.

Three technicians discussing inside a lab

Laboratory Analysis for Hair Strand Tests

Laboratory analysis for hair strand tests is a method used to detect alcohol and drug usage. The process involves analysing samples for traces of cocaine, opiates, and other substances. Many organisations choose hair testing as the preferred method over blood or urine tests because it provides a longer detection window, typically up to 90 days. This makes it an effective tool for monitoring long-term abuse.

During the lab analysis, professionals go through a series of chemical treatments to extract any substances in the hair shaft. This process involves breaking down the hair shaft and releasing the substances incorporated into it. Then, they analyse the extracted substances using various techniques like Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS).

Afterwards, medical providers interpret and report the test outcomes. The result determines the presence of drugs and ethanol. Also, it identifies the amount ingested and the frequency of use. Thus, it can assist in making important decisions regarding the well-being of individuals. Nevertheless, further confirmation and additional testing may be necessary to compose a conclusive determination.

Accuracy and Reliability

The accuracy of hair testing refers to the level of precision in identifying specific substances or markers present in a hair specimen. This test is highly regarded because of its ability to provide a historical record of substance use, as each strand of hair represents approximately one month of data.

Meanwhile, the reliability of hair tests stems from the fact that it is less susceptible to external factors such as dilution or adulteration. This makes it more difficult for people to manipulate the results compared to other methods of substance testing. Additionally, the consistency in the processes further contributes to the dependability of hair testing.

Conclusion

The hair strand test is a beneficial and valuable tool for detecting drug and alcohol use over an extended period. This non-invasive method involves collecting a sample of head hair. During the preparation for testing, professionals wash and air-dry the specimens to remove external contaminants. It is essential to note that staff must wear PPE and follow safety protocols to prevent issues. Once the hair sample is ready, it undergoes a thorough analysis using specialised techniques.

In lab analysis, practitioners measure the presence of substances and their metabolites in the hair shaft. These include cocaine, alcohol, and various prescription medications. Also, they utilise highly sensitive techniques to detect these substances. Then, the results provide valuable information to make informed decisions in professional and legal settings. Overall, testing a sample of hair offers a convenient and effective method for monitoring drug and alcohol consumption over an extended period.

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