The Science Behind the Hair Follicle Drug Test and How it Works

July 24, 2019

Drug Testing Articles


Ever wondered how a hair follicle drug test actually manages to pick up traces of drugs in your system? Learn more about the science and accuracy of this test.
It sounds like something straight off of CSI.

Researchers analyze strands of your hair with scientific precision. Then, from those tiny, whisper-thin pieces, they can tell if you have drugs in your system and if so, which ones and how long they’ve been there.

It isn’t something off the Jetsons. It’s a hair follicle drug test, and though the idea has been around for decades, innovative technology is opening new doors in the worlds of both forensics and corporate screening.

Today, we’re breaking down the basics of this test and explaining how it works, along with why it’s so accurate. Ready to learn more? Let’s go!

Hair Follicle

What is a Hair Follicle Drug Test?

Before we delve into the scientific specifics, let’s cover what the hair follicle test entails.

In short, this test screens the participant for illegal drug use or prescription medication misuse. The test administrator removes a small amount of hair from your head using scissors, around 100 to 120 strands. He or she will work around different spots on your head to avoid creating a bald spot, and then secure the hair sample in foil.

Then, researchers analyze it for traces of drug use. This test is most often used to test for the presence of the following drugs:

  • Methamphetamine
  • Amphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Ecstasy
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)
  • Marijuana
  • Opioids (codeine, morphine, 6-acetylmorphine)

One advantage of using hair follicles over urine samples to screen for drugs? Urine tests can only screen for drugs used over the past few days. On the other hand, hair follicle tests can capture drug use dating 90 days back!

Hair tests are also impossible to cheat on, as the sample collection process takes place with both the collector and participant present, rather than behind a bathroom door.

Companies may perform this test in their workplace, using a kit that they then mail back to a laboratory. Or, it may take place in a research lab or hospital setting. There are also at-home hair follicle drug tests available online for family members to administer.

How Does the Science Work?

Once your hair enters the lab, what are the researchers looking for? How can they detect drug use this way?

The premise behind a hair follicle drug test is that your body produces new hair cells on a regular basis. These cells form in your hair follicles.

As they develop, they absorb the molecules of any substance circulating in your blood. As such, the molecules become embedded into the hair cells, creating a bond that exists even as your hair grows out of your scalp.

This forms a permanent chemical record that you can’t eliminate with simple scrubbing. In fact, the cells are so intricately interwoven that your hair follicles can even reveal patterns of multiple instances of drug use over the 90-day period!

Once the test administrator or collector removes the strands and sends them off for testing, the real work begins.

Initial Washing Process

During testing, the researchers will wash your hair and test it for environmental contamination, which can arise when your hair contains trace amounts of a drug that you were around but never took.

For instance, your follicles can test positive for marijuana if you were merely in the presence of cannabis smoke at a party, even if you weren’t an active participant in the drug use. This washing step helps minimize those false positives.

Keep in mind that if you have real drugs in your system, your hair can be washed, dried, colored or styled without affecting the outcome of your drug test. As described above, those blood-borne molecules bind with your hair cells in a way that shampoo can’t eliminate.

After researchers wash your hair follicles, they will dissolve them into solvents. Then, they analyze the liquid that results from that soak, using the testing procedures detailed next.

Dual-Step Testing Procedures

Most laboratories will conduct a series of two tests to ensure accuracy.

The first is an ELISA test. This stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. ELISA delivers an initial positive or negative test confirmation within 24 hours.

From there, researchers will take additional steps to further investigate all screens presumed to be positive. The second test is a GC/MS test, standing for gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. Researchers use this test to analyze the liquid for any drug metabolites that may be present.

The GC/MS test is also necessary for testing for the presence of specific drugs, as it’s able to screen for up to 17 different ones. This test also helps cancel out any false positives arising from the ELISA Test, which can occur if the participant has eaten poppy seeds or hemp seeds.

When you purchase a hair follicle drug test from our site, such as the HairConfirm Regular test, Ph.D. staff scientists from a CLIA and ISO-certified laboratory will review the results from the GC/MS test before sending the results back to you through the mail.

Your Go-To Source for Hair Follicle Drug Test Kits

Are you an HR manager, looking for a hair follicle drug test kit to administer to new hires or those under supervision? Or, are you a concerned family member seeking a discreet way to purchase an at-home drug testing kit?

Either way, we’d love to help.

Our HairConfirm Hair Follicle Drug Testing Kits are comprehensive and accurate while still easy to use. Following a simple at-home or in-office collection procedure, you’ll mail the sample to the HairConfirm laboratory, receiving the quick and confidential results you need.

Contact us to learn more about the different types of drug tests we offer. From urine analysis kits to mouth swabs, we’ll deliver the answers you’re looking for, without any of the headache and hassle.

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