Issues about axial diffusion during segmental hair analysis

Ther Drug Monit. 2013 Jun;35(3):408-10. doi: 10.1097/FTD.0b013e318285d5fa.


The detection of a single drug exposure in hair (doping offence, drug-facilitated crime) is based on the presence of the compound of interest in the segment corresponding to the period of the alleged event. However, in some cases, the drug is detected in consecutive segments. As a consequence, interpretation of the results is a challenge that deserves particular attention. Literature evaluation and data obtained from the 20-year experience in drug testing in hair of the author are used as the basis to establish a theory to validate the concept of single exposure in authentic forensic cases where the drug is detected in 2 or 3 segments. The gained experience recommends to wait for 4-5 weeks after the alleged event and then to collect strands of hair. Assuming normal hair growth rate (1 cm/mo), it is advisable to cut the strand into 3 segments of 2 cm to document eventual exposure. Administration of a single dose would be confirmed by the presence of the drug in the proximal 2-cm segment (root), whereas not detected in the 2 other segments. However, in the daily experience of the author, it was noticed that sometimes (about 1 case from 10 examinations), the drug can be detected in 2 or 3 consecutive segments. Such a disposition was even observed in volunteer experiments in the literature. As it was also described for cocaine in early 1996, there is considerable variability in the area over which incorporated drug can be distributed in the hair shaft and in the rate of axial distribution of drug along the hair shaft. This can explain why a small amount of drug, as compared with the concentration in the proximal segment, can be measured in the second segment, as a result of an irregular movement. Another explanation for broadening the band of positive hair from a single dose is that drugs and metabolites are incorporated into hair during formation of the hair shaft via diffusion from sweat and other secretions. The presence of confounding interferences in the hair matrix or changes in the hair structure due to cosmetic treatments might mislead the final result of hair analysis. To qualify for a single exposure in hair, the author proposes to consider that the highest drug concentration must be detected in the segment corresponding to the period of the alleged event (calculated with a hair growth rate at 1 cm/mo) and that the measured concentration be at least 3 times higher than those measured in the previous or the following segments. This must only be done using scalp hair after cutting the hair directly close to the scalp.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Doping in Sports
  • Hair / chemistry*
  • Hair / growth & development
  • Humans
  • Substance Abuse Detection / methods*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Time Factors