Hair alcohol testing for court

Marie Law Alphabiolabs

By Marie Law, Head of Toxicology at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 20/09/2022

Alcohol testing is performed every day across the UK for use in legal matters: from local authorities making decisions about a child’s welfare, to family courts handling custody disputes.

Hair alcohol testing, also known as hair follicle alcohol testing or hair strand alcohol testing, provides one of the most effective ways of determining whether an individual has been drinking alcohol in excess. 

When used in conjunction with other tests, such as blood alcohol tests, it can help paint a complete picture of a person’s historic alcohol consumption.

In this article, we take a closer look at hair alcohol testing, including how this type of test is performed, and what the results of a hair alcohol test will show.

Table of contents
  • What is a hair alcohol test?
  • When is a hair alcohol test performed?
  • How does testing hair for alcohol work?
  • How is a sample collected for hair alcohol testing?
  • How can alcohol be detected in a hair sample?
  • Can body hair be used for alcohol testing?
  • What can a hair alcohol test show and what can’t it show?
  • Can hair alcohol tests be used alongside other alcohol tests?
  • How much does a hair alcohol test cost?
  • How accurate is alcohol testing with hair?
  • How long does alcohol stay in the hair?
  • What will the results of a hair alcohol test show?
  • What can affect the results of a hair alcohol test?
  • Can a person cheat a hair alcohol test?
  • What is the difference between a hair alcohol test, a nail alcohol test and a blood alcohol test?
  • Where can I get a hair test for alcohol?

What is a hair alcohol test?

Hair alcohol testing, also known as hair strand testing for alcohol or hair follicle testing for alcohol, is a type of laboratory test used to gain insight into an individual’s historic alcohol consumption, by analysing hair samples for the presence of alcohol biomarkers.

When a person consumes alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream, and around 90% of it is broken down in the liver.

The rest is passed out of the body in sweat, urine, and exhaled breath.

An AlphaBiolabs hair alcohol test works by analysing hair samples for the presence of two alcohol metabolites (biomarkers): ethyl glucuronide (EtG) and ethyl palmitate (EtPa), which is a fatty acid ethyl ester (FAEE).

When is a hair alcohol test performed?

Hair alcohol testing is performed for a variety of reasons, from helping authorities make crucial decisions about a child’s welfare, to family courts handling custody disputes.

It can also be used as a form of workplace testing, for employers implementing drug and alcohol testing as part of their substance misuse policy.

It has become increasingly popular for pre-employment screening, where an employer is seeking to learn more about an individual’s historic alcohol use during the recruitment process.

How does testing hair for alcohol work?

During a hair alcohol test, toxicologists analyse hair samples for the presence of alcohol biomarkers, to gain insight into an individual’s pattern of alcohol consumption.

Unlike head hair drug testing, which provides us with two options for analysis – segmented or overview analysis – hair alcohol testing can only provide us with either a three- or six-month overview of usage.

This is because alcohol does not find its way into the hair in the same way as drugs.

When drugs are absorbed into the bloodstream, a proportion of the drug and its metabolites enter the hair follicle and become trapped in the medulla, the innermost layer of the hair shaft.

This makes it possible to perform segmented hair strand analysis during head hair drug testing, for a month-by-month insight into historic drug use.

Alcohol biomarkers, however, are absorbed into the hair via sweat and diffusion, and are present along the entire length of the hair, meaning it is not possible to segment the hair.

For this reason, a hair strand test for alcohol can only be used to provide a three- or six-month overview of alcohol use, depending on the length of hair sampled (3cm = approximately 3 months of hair growth).

An AlphaBiolabs hair follicle alcohol test using head hair looks for the presence of two direct biomarkers of alcohol: ethyl glucuronide (EtG) and ethyl palmitate (EtPa).

EtG is water soluble, produced in the liver, and is deposited onto your hair via sweat glands. Hair treatments such as bleaching, dyeing, perming, straightening, and excessive washing all have the potential to reduce the levels of EtG found on the hair.

FAEEs like EtPa are lipophilic (fat soluble). This means that styling methods such as bleaching, perming, dyeing etc. will not significantly affect EtPa levels unless there has been aggressive use of these products.

However, styling products that contain alcohol (hairspray, gel, wax) can increase the levels of EtPa found during laboratory analysis.

Sample donors are advised not to use any alcohol-based styling products for at least one month prior to testing, to reduce the likelihood of an elevated EtPa result.

Because of their respective strengths and weaknesses, both EtG and EtPa tests should be performed, and their findings used to support each other.

This was shown in LB Richmond v B & W & B & CB [2010] EWHC (2903) Fam, where Mr Justice Moylan gave guidance on the evidential worth of hair strand testing. Within his guidance, it was also stressed that hair strand tests should not be used in isolation to reach evidential conclusions.

Performing hair alcohol testing in conjunction with Phosphatidylethanol (PEth) blood alcohol testing and other blood tests, can allow an even more holistic conclusion to be drawn about a person’s alcohol use.

How is a sample collected for hair alcohol testing?

Samples for legally-instructed hair alcohol tests are usually collected by a trained sample collector, under chain of custody conditions, ensuring the samples are collected from the right people, and preventing sample tampering.

If possible, the hair sample needs to be cut from the highest point of the scalp (the vertex).

Ideally, the sample needs to contain around 200 individual strands and should always be taken from a discreet area if possible.

Hair samples are usually taken from a person’s head. However, if head hair is not available, body hair can be collected from the underarm, leg, chest, or face.

How can alcohol be detected in a hair sample?

There are two key alcohol biomarkers that the laboratory will look for when testing for alcohol in a hair sample.

  • Ethyl glucuronide (EtG) – water soluble and produced in the liver, EtG is deposited onto the hair via the sweat glands. Various hair treatments including excessive washing can impact levels of EtG in the hair.
  • Ethyl palmitate (EtPa/FAEE) – lipophilic (fat soluble) and formed in the body from ethanol diffusing from the blood circulation, and then being deposited into the hair primarily from sebum (oil glands on the scalp). Its presence can be affected by alcohol-containing hair products such as sprays, gels and wax.

Both EtG and EtPA are direct biomarkers of alcohol, meaning that they can only be formed in the body when ethanol – the intoxicating agent in alcoholic drinks – has been consumed.

Each gives us a highly accurate insight into patterns of drinking, with a three- or six-month overview of usage.

Because of their respective strengths and weaknesses, both EtG and EtPa tests should be performed, and their findings used to support each other.

When testing hair samples for alcohol, AlphaBiolabs follows the Society of Hair Testing guidelines for cut-off levels (where applicable) for hair sample types.

Can body hair be used for alcohol testing?

If head hair is unavailable, body hair can be used to test for the presence of ethyl glucuronide (EtG).

However, due to the way in which ethyl palmitate (EtPa) is incorporated into hair, body hair can only be used to test for EtG, not EtPa.

Due to the rate at which body hair grows, the time period would also be more approximate, with body hair (arm, chest, leg) providing us with up to a 12-month overview of alcohol use.

When testing body hair for the presence of EtG, we also recommend blood alcohol testing (e.g. PEth testing) – as offered by AlphaBiolabs – in conjunction with a clinical assessment sourced from elsewhere, to gain a greater insight into an individual’s alcohol consumption.

What can a hair alcohol test show and what can’t it show?

A hair alcohol test or hair strand alcohol test can tell us whether excess levels of alcohol have been consumed during a three- or six-month period, but it cannot tell us:

The exact date, time, and method of ingestion

Laboratory testing can only tell us whether alcohol biomarkers are present in the sample during the period for which we are testing – not the exact date or time of day when alcohol was consumed.

Quantities that were consumed

Because of the way alcohol is metabolised by the body – with 90% of it broken down by the liver – it is impossible to determine exactly how much alcohol a person has consumed during the three- or six-month period prior to sample collection.

Whether hair treatments have impacted the results

Hair treatments including bleaching, perming, dyeing, straightening and excessive washing have the potential to affect the results of an EtG hair alcohol test.

EtPa hair alcohol tests can be affected by alcohol-containing hair products such as sprays, gels and wax.

For this reason, the sample collector – such as those in AlphaBiolabs’ nationwide network – will ask for full disclosure of any recent hair treatments and products used, so that this can be taken into consideration when preparing the results.

However, it is not possible to specifically determine to what extent such treatments may have impacted the results.

Can hair alcohol tests be used alongside other alcohol tests?

Yes, hair alcohol testing can be used alongside other forms of alcohol testing for a complete picture of an individual’s historic alcohol consumption.

Hair alcohol tests are especially effective when performed in conjunction with blood alcohol tests.

There are four main types of blood alcohol test that can be used for legal purposes: all of which can provide a four-week historic overview of alcohol use:

Unlike CDT, LFT and MCV – all of which are indirect biomarkers of alcohol and whose presence can be affected by pre-existing medical conditions and medications, among other factors – PEth is a direct biomarker of alcohol.

This means that it is only present in the body when alcohol has been consumed. An abnormal phospholipid, it requires ethanol (the intoxicating agent in alcoholic drinks) for its production.

By performing hair alcohol tests in conjunction with PEth and other blood tests, a more holistic conclusion can be drawn as to a person’s alcohol use.

Learn more about PEth vs EtG testing

How much does a hair alcohol test cost?

The cost of a hair alcohol test varies depending on the requirements of the instructing party.

To request a quote for hair alcohol testing, simply complete our online form, and a member of our Legal sales team will be in touch to discuss your needs.

You can also call 0333 600 1300 or email testing@alphabiolabs.com for more information.

If you have received a quote for hair alcohol testing from another testing laboratory, we will match their price and reduce it by a further 5%: this makes AlphaBiolabs the most cost-effective solution for your legal alcohol testing needs.

How accurate is alcohol testing with hair?

Our hair alcohol testing is 100% accurate and reliable based on the samples we receive at our laboratory.

Here are just a few more reasons why you can trust the accuracy of AlphaBiolabs’ hair strand alcohol testing for court:

  • We have over 15 years’ experience providing first-class alcohol testing services for the legal sector
  • We have invested in the very latest technology for our state-of-the-art toxicology laboratory
  • We employ the foremost toxicologists in Europe
  • We follow cut-off guidelines for hair alcohol testing, as set by the Society of Hair Testing (SoHT)
  • Our laboratory is accredited by UKAS to the quality technical standard of ISO 17025 (No. 2773) and certified to ISO 9001
  • All our legal sample collections are carried out by professional sample collectors, under chain of custody conditions
  • Our toxicologists work within the framework of Family Law and follow Part 25 of the Family Procedure Rules (2010)

How long does alcohol stay in the hair?

Depending on the length of hair available for testing, and when alcohol was consumed, it is possible for alcohol biomarkers to remain detectable in a cut hair sample for up to six months, as advised by the Society of Hair Testing (SoHT).

What will the results of a hair alcohol test show?

AlphaBiolabs offers two types of alcohol test report: a Certificate of Analysis and a Statement of Witness.

A Certificate of Analysis is included as standard for legally-instructed alcohol tests and details the levels of EtG and EtPa detected within the hair sample, above cut off levels.

A Statement of Witness is a more in-depth report with full analytical results, interpretation, and conclusions, and is available for an additional fee.

While both documents are invaluable for court proceedings, a Statement of Witness provides the most comprehensive interpretation of the findings, including disclosures provided at the time of sample collection (e.g. any hair treatments or products used) and the professional and objective expert opinion of the Reporting Scientist.

At AlphaBiolabs, we highly recommend a Statement of Witness report as part of an alcohol test.

Please be aware that in cases where the sample donor is a child, a Statement of Witness expert report is compulsory.

AlphaBiolabs follows the Society of Hair Testing guidelines for cut-off levels (where applicable) for hair sample types.

What can affect the results of a hair alcohol test?

An AlphaBiolabs hair alcohol test can be used to detect two alcohol biomarkers in head hair: ethyl glucuronide (EtG) and ethyl palmitate (EtPa).

Levels of EtG and EtPa in the hair can be affected by different external factors.

EtG is water soluble, and as such can be impacted by hair treatments such as bleaching, perming, dyeing, straightening and excessive washing.

EtPa is fat soluble so, while not significantly impacted by hair treatments such as those mentioned above, levels of EtPa can be affected by alcohol-based hair products such as hairsprays, gels, and wax.

For this reason, reputable testing laboratories like AlphaBiolabs will always ask for full disclosure of any recent hair treatments and hair products used, so that this can be taken into consideration when preparing the test results.

Can a person cheat a hair alcohol test?

For hair alcohol test results to be admissible in court, samples must be collected under strict chain of custody conditions, reducing the likelihood of tampering, and ensuring samples are collected from the right people.

Yet there are still some individuals who will attempt to ‘cheat’ a hair follicle alcohol test: something which can be easily prevented by using a trained sample collector.

Common methods include:

  • Wearing a wig
  • Attempting to provide a pre-cut hair sample that is not theirs
  • Having someone else attend the sample collection appointment on their behalf
  • Shaving off all head and body hair

While these methods are ultimately ineffective, it is important to note that excessive bleaching, dyeing, perming, straightening, and washing of the hair have the potential to impact a hair alcohol test result.

If testing for the presence of EtPa in the hair sample, the use of alcohol-based hair products such as hairsprays, gels and wax could also impact the results.

For this reason, we will always ask for full disclosure of any recent hair treatments so that this can be taken into consideration when preparing the results.

What is the difference between a hair alcohol test, a nail alcohol test and a blood alcohol test?

The main difference between a hair alcohol test, a nail alcohol test and a blood alcohol test is the sample type used for testing.

However, each testing method is also used to detect alcohol biomarkers in different ways, with varying detection windows depending on which sample type is being analysed.

Blood alcohol testing

Blood alcohol testing works by analysing a blood sample for the presence of alcohol biomarkers.

AlphaBiolabs offers four types of blood alcohol test for court, providing an overview of four weeks’ alcohol consumption.

  • Phosphatidylethanol (PEth)
  • Carbohydrate Deficient Transferrin (CDT)
  • Liver Function Test (LFT)
  • Mean Corpuscular Volume (MCV)

Of all the blood alcohol tests available, PEth testing is by far the most conclusive. This is because PEth is a direct biomarker of alcohol and can only be found in the body when alcohol has been consumed.

Nail alcohol testing

Unlike hair alcohol testing, which can provide a three- or six-month overview of alcohol use, nail alcohol testing can provide an overview of up to 12-months.

Like hair, nails are made from keratin, which is a fibrous protein.

A nail alcohol test looks for the presence of ethyl glucuronide (EtG), a specific long-term biomarker of ethanol (the intoxicating agent in alcoholic drinks).

These EtG biomarkers become trapped within the keratin fibres along the length of the nail.

A nail test for alcohol can only show abstinence during an approximate six-month (fingernails) or 12-month (toenails) period, by identifying whether or not EtG is present in the sample.

Where can I get a hair test for alcohol?

Understanding which alcohol testing methods will best suit your client will help you secure a satisfactory outcome for your case.

At AlphaBiolabs, we have over 15 years’ experience providing first-class alcohol testing services for the legal sector, including hair follicle alcohol testing

We also offer FREE sample collection for legally-instructed hair alcohol tests from any of our nationwide walk-in centres.

For expert advice on hair alcohol testing, or to request a quote, call AlphaBiolabs’ Legal team on 0333 600 1300 or email testing@alphabiolabs.com.

Alternatively, complete our online quote form, and a member of the team will be in touch to discuss your needs.

Hair alcohol testing

Hair alcohol testing for court, direct from our UKAS-accredited laboratory.

Marie Law

Marie Law

Head of Toxicology at AlphaBiolabs

A highly-skilled and respected scientist with over 13 years’ experience in the field of forensics, Marie joined AlphaBiolabs in 2022 and oversees the company’s growing toxicology team.

As Head of Toxicology, Marie’s day-to-day responsibilities include maintaining the highest quality testing standards for toxicology and further enhancing AlphaBiolabs’ drug and alcohol testing services for members of the public, the legal sector, and the workplace sector.

Prior to joining AlphaBiolabs, Marie held roles with LGC Forensics, Cheshire Constabulary and Eurofins Forensic Services.

Connect with Marie on LinkedIn

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