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Nail drug testing FAQs

In this article, we take a closer look at nail drug testing, how it works, and when it might be used.

What is a nail drug test?

Nail drug testing is an extremely reliable and effective method of drug testing where nail clippings are used to detect historic drug use.

Like hair testing, nail drug testing is known as a ‘wide-window’ form of testing, enabling us to detect drug use for up to 12 months prior to the samples being collected.

Fingernails provide an overview of up to six months for historic drug use, with toenails providing an overview of up to 12 months. This is because fingernails and toenails grow at different rates.

Nail drug testing is ideal for those cases where hair testing is not possible. This could be for a variety of reasons, including where the donor has little or no hair, where they cannot provide a hair sample for religious reasons, or for those concerned about their appearance.

How does nail drug testing work?

When a person consumes drugs, they are broken down by the liver and a proportion of the parent drug and its metabolites are released into the bloodstream, with a small amount being excreted by the body in a variety of ways including in urine, saliva, hair, and nails.

In nails, these substances find their way to the nail bed and become trapped in the keratin fibres along the entire length of the nail, making nail drug testing an extremely reliable and effective method for identifying historic drug use.

Either fingernail clippings or toenail clippings can be used for nail drug testing, however the two sample types cannot be mixed at the laboratory.

This is because fingernails and toenails grow at different rates, with each offering a different insight into drug use – an overview of up to 6 months for fingernails, and an overview of up to 12 months for toenails.

Any artificial nail applications including acrylics, gels, polish, and nail extensions must also be completely removed prior to testing, so as not to impact the results.

Who might need a nail drug test?

Nail drug testing is extremely useful for family law professionals, courts, social workers, and councils concerned with child welfare or custody disputes.

Depending on the circumstances of the case, the requirements of the court, and/or the needs of the client, nail drug testing can be used to provide a general insight into a person’s drug use over a certain period (up to 12 months).

What are the advantages of a nail drug test?

The main advantage of nail drug testing is that it can provide insight into drug use over an extended period – this is known as a ‘wide-window’ of detection.

While urine and oral fluid (saliva) drug testing methods provide us with a ‘narrow-window’ of detection for drug use (from a few hours up to a few days), nail drug tests can be used to detect substances for up to 12 months after they were consumed.

This is due to the way in which drugs are retained in the nails. After drugs are consumed, a proportion of the parent drug and its metabolites finds its way to the nail bed, becoming trapped in the keratin fibres along the entire length of the nail.

This makes it possible to detect drugs long after they were first taken. With only nail clippings required, nail drug testing is also a simple, non-invasive way to collect samples for drug testing.

Nail drug testing is also useful when head hair or body hair is unavailable for analysis, and a wide window of detection is required.

How are samples collected for nail drug testing?

When collecting a sample of nail clippings for a nail drug test, the nail is clipped from as close to the nail bed as possible.

If the nail is long (5mm or above), then only one clipping is required. If the nails are short, a few nail clippings may be collected from different fingers or toes.

Any artificial nail applications including acrylics, gels, polish, and nail extensions must also be completely removed prior to the nail samples being collected, so as not to impact the results.

Either fingernail clippings or toenail clippings can be used for testing, but not a mixture of both. This is because fingernails and toenails grow at different rates, with fingernails providing an overview of up to six months of drug use, and toenails providing an overview of up to 12 months.

How far do nail drug test results go back?

Nail drug testing can be used to detect drug use for up to 12 months after substances have been consumed.

Fingernail clippings provide an overview of up to six months, with toenails providing an overview of up to 12 months.

This is because fingernails and toenails grow at different rates.

How accurate is nail drug testing?

Nail analysis is a highly accurate form of drug testing, and a useful alternative when head hair or body hair is unavailable, or when there is insufficient hair available for the requested period of analysis.

Nail samples received by AlphaBiolabs are analysed using Liquid Chromatography with tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS). This is a highly sensitive and specific analytical technique which means that, if a drug is detected, it can only be that drug and not any other substance.

Our toxicology laboratory is also accredited to the quality technical standard of ISO 17025 (No. 2773) and certified to ISO 9001.

How long do drugs stay in nails?

Substances remain detectable in nails for a period of up to 12 months after drugs were first consumed.

Fingernails provide an overview of up to six months for drug use, while toenails provide an overview of up to 12 months. This is because fingernails and toenails grow at different rates.

Can you trick a nail drug test?

Although some people may try to trick a nail drug test, this is extremely unlikely to work, especially when employing the services of a professional sample collector, such as those in AlphaBiolabs’ sample collection network and walk-in centres, for legally-instructed drug tests.

One of the most common ways that people try to cheat a nail drug test is by cutting their nails short. However, in these circumstances, an alternative sample would be sought for drug testing.

Some nail treatments can also affect the results of a nail drug test, which is why we require the complete removal of all nail polish or artificial nail applications including nail varnish, gel polish and acrylics, prior to the collection appointment.

Nail drug testing for court

With over 15 years’ experience providing drug testing for family law professionals, social workers, and councils, we are well placed to provide you with nail drug testing for court.

Our toxicology laboratory can detect a wide range of drugs and their metabolites in nails and our nationwide network of professional sample collectors are trained to collect a variety of samples under strict chain of custody, including nail samples. We also offer free sample collection for legally-instructed drug tests from our Dublin walk-in centre.

For expert advice on which test is best for your client, call our Legal team on 01 402 9466 or email info@alphabiolabs.ie

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Gail Evans AlphaBiolabs

Gail Evans

Technical Trainer at AlphaBiolabs

A professionally-trained forensic scientist, Gail joined AlphaBiolabs in 2012 and holds the role of Technical Trainer.

Her day-to-day responsibilities include delivering in-depth training sessions both internally and externally, covering DNA, drug, and alcohol testing.

Throughout her career at AlphaBiolabs, Gail has held a variety of roles, including within the Legal and Workplace sectors of the business.

Before joining the company, Gail was a practicing forensic scientist with 25 years’ experience working for the Forensic Science Service, attending scenes of crime, and analysing physical and biological material with potential evidential value.

Gail also holds qualifications in chemistry and is a Lead Auditor for the ISO 9001 standard, the international standard for quality management.

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