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Of the many different forms of drug testing available to employers, hair testing tends to be the least commonly used. As such, it is also the least commonly understood. There is a lot of misinformation about how hair tests are conducted. For those of you who may be considering hair testing as an option for your organization, let this be a guide.
How hair drug tests work
Hair follicle tests operate much in the same way as a urinalysis drug test. Chain of Custody Forms (CCF) and a hair collection kit are used to complete the collection process. Once your donor has their form, they will be sent to a collection site to have their hair sample collected.
At the collection site, 1.5 inch samples are taken from the base of the scalp. The width of hair needed is about the size of a pencil tip. In situations where the donor doesn’t have long enough hair to give the required sample, the collector can use body hair instead – most commonly underarm hair.
Why use hair testing instead of other forms of drug testing?
Hair follicle tests have a larger detection window than other forms of drug testing. With hair tests, you have an approximate detection window of 90 days. This contrasts with urinalysis that has a detection window of 1-7 days and saliva with 1-2 days.
Along with longer detection windows, hair tests are always directly observed by the collector, making it more difficult for a donor to cheat on their test. Saliva tests are similar in this regard. However, urine drug tests – in most instances – are not directly observed.
Specific applications for hair tests
While there aren’t any specific industries that benefit more from hair testing than others, it is most commonly used as an alternative to urine testing in situations where a backup form of testing is required. Hair testing is also commonly used by courts (often in custody cases) to show behavior over an extended period.
The downsides for hair testing
Cost is most often top-of-mind for employers and is an important factor for hair testing. Hair tests are expensive – usually ranging around $100 per test. If your drug testing program requires sending hundreds of employees or applicants to a collection site each year, that price tag will quickly add up.
Despite the large price tag, the drug panel options are limited as well. Employers that use hair testing are limited to testing these seven drug groups:
- Phencyclidine (PCP)
- Expanded opiates (Oxycodone, Oxymorphone, Hydrocodone, Hydromorphone)
*Hair testing cannot detect alcohol use.
Another common deterrent for hair testing is its invasiveness in comparison to urine and saliva testing. While it is legal to conduct hair tests on employees and job candidates, it isn’t going to make you popular with them. Employers should consider this as a factor in their policy decision.
Common misconceptions about hair testing
As mentioned, hair tests aren’t as commonly used as other forms of drug testing. Because of this, there are some common myths that we hear when discussing the topic with our clients. I’ll use this as an opportunity to dispel some of these myths.
“Hair testing is better or higher quality than other forms of testing”
Hair testing has the same efficacy as urine or saliva testing. The reality is that it isn’t a better form of testing, it is just a different form of testing. It will depend entirely on what your objectives are for testing.
“Hair and urine testing are the same”
Beyond the obvious differences between the two forms of collection, there are several thinks that separate the two. They are tested in different ways, have different measurement ranges for the drugs that they are testing for. And again, they may test for the same drug, but their results have different implications because of their different detection windows.
“Drug users can beat a hair test with special shampoos”
There is no special shampoo that can remove drug metabolites from a donor’s hair before the sample is collected. Companies that offer these types of miracle shampoos are just selling snake oil (not literally). Hair samples are taken from the base of the scalp and washed before testing so that no residues will interfere with the testing process.
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“Second-hand smoke can cause a positive hair drug test”
One of the most common myths. The potential effect of second-hand smoke is removed during the collection process when the lab washes the hair sample. Additionally, when measuring the amount of a drug metabolite in the sample, the lab uses cutoff ranges to ensure that your Phish concert doesn’t cost you your job. Donors are safe from poppy seed muffins as well.
“Hair drug tests show habitual drug use”
Hair testing shows drug use over a much larger period compared to other forms of collection. Regardless, hair testing can’t detect how many times an individual has used an illicit drug – just measure the presence of the drug metabolite in the hair sample at the time of collection.
Compliance considerations for hair testing
If hair testing is something your organization is considering as part of your drug testing program or if this is something your organization currently does, there are a few compliance considerations specific to hair testing that you should consider as part of your policy.
Consistency is important to any form of employment screening. For any position, all applicants or employees should have the same screening process under each job title or role. This can present a challenge when using hair drug testing.
For example: An employer uses hair testing as a backup for donors with a “shy bladder.” In this scenario, the employer is unable to collect a sample through their standard procedure due to a medical issue specific to a donor. Using hair testing as a backup creates an issue for that applicant because they are now being tested with a larger detection window than their peers
Hair testing doesn’t show recent use
Employers should consider that hair test results are not the same as urine and saliva test results. The large detection window with hair testing is good for showing drug use over an expanded period. As such, it cannot determine recent use and isn’t effective for random, for cause, and post-accident drug testing.
Like any other policy, it will be ultimately important to detail all aspects of your procedure for drug testing. This means highlighting the 5 W’s (Who, What, Where, Why, When). Specifically, your policy should include what types of testing you plan to conduct, for which drugs, and for what reasons. It’s never a bad idea to consult legal counsel to walk you through this process.