State of the art in hair analysis for detection of drug and alcohol abuse

Clin Chim Acta. 2006 Aug;370(1-2):17-49. doi: 10.1016/j.cca.2006.02.019. Epub 2006 Mar 6.


Hair differs from other materials used for toxicological analysis because of its unique ability to serve as a long-term storage of foreign substances with respect to the temporal appearance in blood. Over the last 20 years, hair testing has gained increasing attention and recognition for the retrospective investigation of chronic drug abuse as well as intentional or unintentional poisoning. In this paper, we review the physiological basics of hair growth, mechanisms of substance incorporation, analytical methods, result interpretation and practical applications of hair analysis for drugs and other organic substances. Improved chromatographic-mass spectrometric techniques with increased selectivity and sensitivity and new methods of sample preparation have improved detection limits from the ng/mg range to below pg/mg. These technical advances have substantially enhanced the ability to detect numerous drugs and other poisons in hair. For example, it was possible to detect previous administration of a single very low dose in drug-facilitated crimes. In addition to its potential application in large scale workplace drug testing and driving ability examination, hair analysis is also used for detection of gestational drug exposure, cases of criminal liability of drug addicts, diagnosis of chronic intoxication and in postmortem toxicology. Hair has only limited relevance in therapy compliance control. Fatty acid ethyl esters and ethyl glucuronide in hair have proven to be suitable markers for alcohol abuse. Hair analysis for drugs is, however, not a simple routine procedure and needs substantial guidelines throughout the testing process, i.e., from sample collection to results interpretation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohols / adverse effects
  • Animals
  • Crime
  • Hair / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / adverse effects
  • Illicit Drugs / analysis*
  • Illicit Drugs / chemistry
  • Substance Abuse Detection / methods*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy


  • Alcohols
  • Illicit Drugs