Test Overview

Hair analysis
can be used to check if people are blood relatives. Forensic hair analysis
can be done to help identify a criminal by evaluating hair structure and DNA from cells attached to the root of the hair.
Hair samples are tested with specific chemicals and looked at under a
microscope. Hair analysis can also be used to check for poisoning caused by metals such as lead or mercury.
But hair analysis alone usually is not used for this type of testing.

Hair is a protein that grows out of
hair follicles in the skin. Normally, a hair grows in the hair follicle for
many months, stops growing, and falls out. A new hair then grows in the
follicle. It takes weeks for a hair sample to show changes in the body, because
hair grows slowly. Hair samples do not show recent changes in the body, such as
drug use within the past few days. But a hair analysis may show drug use or exposure to chemicals that occurred over the last few months.

Why It Is Done

Hair analysis is used to provide
DNA evidence for criminal and paternity cases. For DNA
testing, the root of one hair is needed to analyze DNA and to establish a
person’s genetic makeup.

Hair analysis is less commonly used to
test for heavy metals in the body, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic.

How To Prepare

If you have a hair analysis done, the
laboratory will give you specific instructions on how to prepare your hair.
Hair preparation and the part of your body from which the hair is taken varies.
In general, your hair should be washed and free of any hair care
products.

You may be asked to sign a consent form that says you understand the risks of the test and agree to have it done.

Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its
risks, how it will be done, or what the results may mean. To help you
understand the importance of this test, fill out the
medical test information form (What is a PDF document?).

How It Is Done

Hair analysis is done by collecting a
hair sample and sending it to a laboratory. If a DNA test is done on the hair, then the hair collected needs to have the root attached.

Hair samples are
taken from a specific part of the body, such as from the back of the scalp by
the neck or from the pubic area. Hair samples are generally collected from the
section of the hair closest to the skin. Hair close to the skin or scalp
includes the most recent growth, which provides the most accurate information
about what has occurred recently in the body.

Hair samples are
washed in special chemicals before testing.

DNA profiles

Hair samples for DNA analysis will be
gathered by laboratory personnel or law enforcement officials or a
forensic examiner. For DNA testing, the hair must
include the root. This requires that the hair be plucked, not cut.

Heavy metal analysis

If you are collecting your
own hair sample, follow the instructions given to you by the laboratory.
In general, you will be asked to:

  • Clip a small sample of your hair (usually
    about a spoonful) from the nape of your neck. The sample should be
    1 in. (2.5 cm) to
    1.5 in. (4 cm) long and should
    include the new growth closest to the scalp.
  • Put the clippings in
    a plastic bag and seal it.
  • Send the samples to the laboratory along
    with information about the type of hair treatments you have used, including
    shampoos, conditioners, colorings, bleaches, and permanents. Information about
    your age, height, weight, sex, and whether you smoke may also be requested by
    the laboratory.

How It Feels

There is generally no pain or discomfort
associated with this test. But if you have to pluck a hair for a DNA test,
this may cause some minor discomfort.

Risks

Hair analysis itself has no risks or
complications.

Results

Hair analysis uses samples of hair for
DNA analysis or to look for heavy metals, such as lead
or arsenic.

Heavy metal analysis

The results of hair analysis
are usually complete within 3 weeks. You or your doctor will
receive a report listing the levels of minerals and heavy metals in your hair.
Several things need to be considered before testing for heavy metal
exposure.

There is no standard procedure for cutting, washing, and
analyzing hair. Different labs may report different results from the same hair
sample. In fact, the same lab may report different results for separate hairs
from a common sample. Standards for testing do not exist. Any hair analysis to
detect the presence or absence of minerals, nutrients, or toxic metals in the
body should be confirmed by testing blood and urine samples.

What
the hair sample contains is determined not only by nutrition and internal
metabolism but also by external substances. Air pollution, mineral content of
the water supply, exposure to industrial waste, shampoos, hair dyes, hair
sprays, permanents, and bleaches may raise or lower the levels of certain
minerals in the hair. Also, the use of medicines such as birth control
pills can change the mineral concentration of hair.

What Affects the Test

Things that can interfere with
your test and the accuracy of the results include:

  • The area of the body from which the hair sample
    was taken.
  • Your age.
  • Your hair color.
  • Your
    race.
  • The rate of your hair growth.
  • Your use of hair
    products, such as hair colors and sprays.
  • External environmental
    factors, such as where you live and work.

What To Think About

  • Hair analysis has become more reliable and acceptable over the
    past 20 years. But there are still issues that raise legal and ethical
    questions about its use, including possible
    false positives and different results for people with
    different hair colors or ethnic backgrounds.
  • Some natural health and homeopathic companies offer hair analysis by mail order. But hair analysis is not a accurate way of determining your need for vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients.
  • The
    importance of most of the findings from hair analysis is unclear. It is
    hard to interpret a hair analysis for the presence of heavy metals without
    other testing. For most trace minerals, what really means normal or
    significant deviations from normal is not known.
  • Although hair
    analysis is being done more frequently to test for illegal drug use (such as
    the use of cocaine or marijuana), it is not widely available. Drug screening is
    more commonly done on blood or urine samples. To learn more, see the
    topic
    Toxicology Tests.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Curtis J, Greenberg M (2008). Screening for drugs of abuse: Hair as an alternative matrix: A review of the medical toxicologist. Clinical Toxicology. 46: 22-34.
  • Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Vassiliki BA, et al. (2006). Hair as a biological indicator of drug use, drug abuse or chronic exposure to environmental toxicants. International Journal of Toxicology. 25: 43-163.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer R. Steven Tharratt, MD, MPVM, FACP, FCCP – Pulmonology, Critical Care Medicine, Medical Toxicology

Current as ofOctober 9, 2017