Nail testing is the latest addition to AlphaBiolabs’ armoury of drug testing services. Not only can nail analysis provide detailed information about drug consumption, it provides a highly stable, simple-to-collect and easy-to-transport sample. As such, interest in this relatively new technique is increasing.
Up till now, hair drug testing has been considered the gold standard in toxicological analyses. This long-established method permits a detailed history of drug abuse and is routinely used in the forensic and family law fields. Any drug that is consumed circulates in the bloodstream and a proportion of it and its metabolites enters the hair follicle and becomes incorporated into the keratin of the hair shaft.
The principle of drug incorporation into nails is similar. Like hair, nails are also made of keratin. And again, it is this fibrous protein that traps any drugs and their biomarkers ready for detection. Therefore, both hair and nail testing can be used to detect the same drugs. Also, the turnaround times for both testing methods are similar at 3 days each.
A major difference, however, is that head hair grows at a regular rate (approximately 1 cm a month) so samples can be used to show a pattern of drug use. Each hair sample is measured and cut into segments according to the requirements of the case. This segment is then analysed separately for the presence of drugs and their metabolites. As such, a month-by-month analysis of the donor’s drug usage can be obtained for a period of up to 12 months. This type of segmenting can’t be done with nail clippings, but they can give an overview and can detect drugs for up to 6 months after use.
An obvious advantage of nail testing is that no hair is needed to be taken. This can be useful in cases where the donor has no or little hair, for religious reasons, and for those concerned with their appearance. Obtaining a sample is also less obtrusive with nail drug analysis. Clippings need to be taken as near to the nail bed as possible, and toe nails as well as finger nails can be used. The advantages of using toe nails is that there is less potential for contamination. Acrylic nails, Shellac and other forms of nail varnish would need to be removed as this may damage the surface of the nail and impact on the drug results.
So, is hair strand analysis under threat of being usurped as a superior drug testing service? Not yet. The Society of Hair Testing guidelines ensures that standards are maintained throughout the hair testing process and produces cut-off levels for accredited testing laboratories to follow. As yet, there are no industry-wide standards or agreed cut-off levels for nails. Hair testing can tell you what drug was taken, when and how much. Nail testing can only provide an overview, but gaining a sample is an easier process. As a relative newcomer to the testing industry, nail drug testing has a way to go, but it definitely brings advantages and is one to watch.