Study Questions The Reliability of Hair Analysis

Hair analysis is a controversial test that has used for many years by some alternative practitioners to assess a person's nutritional status and exposure to metals and minerals such as mercury.

A 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, however, revealed that a hair sample from one person could produce extremely variable results when analyzed by six of the major hair analysis labs.

To be certified in the United States under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act (CLIA), labs are required to provide standardized clinical lab tests or use other methods to ensure the accuracy of their tests.

None of the labs in the study, all of which claimed CLIA certification, mentioned any procedure to verify the reliability of test results. For the single hair sample, variability among lab results ranged from 9.8% for sulfur to 238.1% for phosphorus.

This inconsistency may be partially attributed to a person's use of hair dye, perms and other environmental chemicals. All six labs used a variety of methods to remove external contamination, however, no standardized procedure for hair sample collection and preparation exists to ensure consistency and reliability. The extent to which the findings were due to external chemicals coating the hair or penetrating the hair shaft from the outside is unclear.

Reference ranges, values considered normal for a person's age, environment, and hair quality, also varied widely between laboratories. For example, one lab considered normal lithium values to be 1.25 to 3 while another considered normal to be 0.0035 to 0.025, ranges that don't overlap.

Why use hair analysis at all?

According to proponents of hair analysis, blood bathes growing hair follicles, so minerals and metals in blood become incorporated into the hair's protein and can be used to assess prior or recent exposures.

If you're considering getting a hair analysis, make sure to discuss it first with your primary care provider. Keep in mind that avoiding or delaying standard care can have serious consequences.

Sources:

Barrie S. Heavy metal assessment. Textbook of Natural Medicine. Edinburgh 2000. Churchill Livingstone, 161-175.

Markus S. Mineral status evaluation. Textbook of Natural Medicine. Edinburgh 2000. Churchill Livingstone, 211-215.

Seidel S, Kreutzer R, Smith D, McNeel S, Gilliss D. Assessment of commercial laboratories performing hair mineral analysis. JAMA 2001; 285: 67-72.

Steindel SJ, Howanitz PJ. The uncertainty of hair analysis for trace metals. JAMA 2001;285:83-85.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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