In considering the significance of drug testing within society, there is a peculiar parallel to those hopelessly introverted students hiding away at the back of the classroom. Though not prominent figures within the schoolhouse milieu, these reticent and timid characters will be forced to speak up when called upon. Similarly, drug testing, though not always top-of-mind, will inevitably come to the surface when life circumstances demand.
The majority of people will be subjected to at least one drug test throughout their lifetime. However, there are several misunderstandings surrounding them due to their sporadic and often mysterious nature. This article aims to shed light on how these tests work and discuss the science behind products claiming to alter their results.
A General Overview of Drug Testing
There are many drug testing modalities, including those which are unlikely to be relevant to the average person. For the purpose of brevity, this piece focuses on the most common testing methods.
Employment-related screening is one of the main types of drug testing.
This can occur before (pre-employment) and during employment. Other circumstances that may warrant a drug-screen include competitive sport, drug-rehabilitation, prison and parole programs, and screening for illegal substances by law enforcement officers when evaluating a suspect. The latter includes the frequently administered blood-alcohol content (BAC) test via breathalyzer for drivers who are under suspicion of intoxication.
In almost all of these circumstances, urine testing is the most common method of evaluation. This tends to be favored due to its low-cost, ease of use, and accuracy. Other less-commonly administered forms of drug-testing include blood, hair, sweat, breath, and saliva.
Most organizations marketing products that claim to help evade detection focus on urine testing.
What do Drug Tests Look For?
Most common, “5-panel” drug tests will detect the presence of marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, phencyclidine (PCP), and “basic opiates” including morphine, codeine, and heroin.
There are more comprehensive panels available, some of which can detect up to 25 substances of interest. Such testing can include evaluation of methadone, ecstasy, alcohol, benzodiazepines (ex. Xanax, Klonopin), barbiturates, and even commonly prescribed antidepressants and sleep medication.
The degree of evaluation depends on the organization or individual administering the test.
The ability for these tests to properly detect substances is largely dependent on the last time that they were consumed. The frequency and amount consumed are also key factors. It’s important to note that these factors vary significantly depending upon an individual’s metabolic rate.
Five-panel urine testing can detect the presence of the substances above around 2-7 days after consumption depending on the specific substance.
In the case of marijuana, single-use is detectable within this timeframe but taking it more frequently can extend this to more than 30 days. Alcohol has a much shorter detection period in the urine of around 2-12 hours.
Hair testing yields far longer detection times for all substances when compared to urine testing, ranging from 90 days or more.
Most other tests result in shorter detection times. Blood testing has a window of minutes to hours.
Breath testing has a window of approximately 2-3 hours and has a more limited ability to detect a range of substances than other methods.
Saliva testing has a window ranging from 5 to 48 hours. Sweat (“patch”) testing has a window of 24-72 hours.
With so many different methods available, it is useful to know when a particular test is preferred, as well as the advantages and disadvantages in comparison to other modalities.
With the exception of breath testing, all other methods previously mentioned can detect a litany of substances ranging from common “street” drugs to prescription medications and alcohol. Some forms of testing are able to detect the presence of particular substances with greater ease than others. Ultimately, the decision to use a particular test depends on the circumstance in which it is being used.
Urine testing is the most commonly used test for both screening and detection. Also, it is the only type of testing approved for use in federally mandated places of work (ex. Department of Transport , Department of Health and Human Services).
Because of its ability to deliver accurate results in a non-invasive and painless way, in addition to its ease of administration, cost-effectiveness, rapid turnover time and wide applicability, it is the preferred method for thousands of organizations.
Some of the drawbacks to urine testing include its inability to detect the frequency of substance use. In addition, it has the greatest likelihood of being manipulated to alter its results.
Hair testing has the longest period of detection of all screening methods. Therefore, it is the preferred method of testing when trying to determine the presence of a habitual pattern of drug use throughout history. Though touted for its greater accuracy, lengthier period of detection, and greater difficulty in being “beaten” when compared to other forms of testing, this method of screening is not without its drawbacks.
Hair testing is more expensive than other forms of testing and has a much longer turn-over time due its complexity and need to be conducted within a laboratory setting. Hair testing cannot detect substances which have been consumed on a short-term or single-use basis.
Despite its lengthy detection time, substances can only be detected approximately 5-10 days after use. Although it is highly accurate, it is not entirely infallible. Bleached or chemically altered hair can greatly affect its accuracy. Recent evidence has also demonstrated a higher rate of substance detection in those with darker than those with lighter hair.
Obviously, this testing requires hair to detect substances of interest and is therefore impossible for those lacking head and/or body hair.
Blood testing is most suitable when rapid results are required. For example, a post-accident analysis to determine if the event was caused by intoxication. In contrast to urine tests, which can only detect substances after a day or so, blood tests can do this in minutes to hours, hence their favorability.
Blood tests are also often combined with urine tests in order to obtain stronger results.
Disadvantages of blood testing include its narrow window of detection due to the rapid metabolization rate within the blood. Additionally, the invasive nature of the test means that it can be uncomfortable. Similar to hair testing, the results of blood testing are not easily manipulated by those subject to screening, which gives them a great deal of accuracy (if conducted within a timely manner).
Saliva (“oral fluid”) testing shares a similar narrow window of detection as blood testing, also making it beneficial when immediate assessment of intoxication is necessary. Oral fluid testing is also equally suitable for use within workplace environments. However, unlike urine testing which can occur under unsupervised conditions that predisposes it to tampering and manipulation, oral fluid testing always takes place under strict supervision. This makes it a more reliable test. However, its accuracy is equivalent to that of urine.
In addition, similarly to urine, one of the drawbacks of saliva testing is its inability to determine the frequency of drug use. This is partly due to its narrow window of detection, which is approximately 48 hours.
Breath testing is in the same “narrow-window class” of drug screening tools, with its use being preferred in situations where evaluation of current levels of intoxication are necessary. For example, when law enforcement officers are evaluating individuals under suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Alcohol breath testing can also be used in the workplace to determine if an employee is currently intoxicated. Breath testing can be combined with blood testing for optimal results.
Unlike other screening modalities, breath testing is limited in its ability to detect a wide range of substances. Although there have been recent advancements in breath-test (“breathalyzer”) technology, which allow for the detection of a wider range of substances, current tests are only able to detect alcohol.
An additional disadvantage of breath testing is its lack of accuracy and validity. Despite their widespread use in alcohol testing, breathalyzer machines are subject to miscalibration and malfunction, which can cause errors. False positive results can occur due to machine error, but also from detecting other chemical compounds that mimic alcohol and thus make them indistinguishable from the substance of interest.
Sweat (perspiration/ “patch”) testing is primarily used in legal circumstances, such as drug use during probation.
Sweat testing consists of a patch which is placed on the skin for approximately 14 days. After this time, it is removed and assessed for the presence of substances. These include commonly used drugs of abuse, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, methadone, PCP, and alcohol.
Patch testing has received criticism due to its lack of accuracy compared with other forms of evaluation. Additionally, the nature of the patch also means it is easily tampered with by those who are required to wear it.
The Science: How do Drug Tests Work?
To understand the basis for how drug tests work, it is important to learn about the process of metabolism. Pioneers who sought to build the prototypical versions of these tests clearly had an impressive comprehension of the human metabolic process. This knowledge formed the foundation for the screening systems currently used throughout society.
Almost all substances we consume are broken down within the body via “phase 1” and “phase 2” metabolism. In phase 1 metabolism, proteins that catalyze biochemical reactions called enzymes will break the substance down into metabolites, many of which are pharmacologically inactive. In phase 2 metabolism, the body will further break down the compounds of the drug to the point where they can be excreted in the urine.
With the most common form of substance screening being that of urine analysis, this particular modality looks at urine samples to detect the presence of specific drug metabolite(s) of interest (depending on the organization or individual administering the test) that one may have consumed.
The same principle can be applied to all major forms of comprehensive drug screening panels. Drugs and their metabolites are not restricted to detection solely within the urine, but can also be detected in many other areas of the body, such as blood, hair, sweat, saliva, and nails.
The variance in drug detection windows is dependent on the time metabolites will spend within them. Some bodily components hold onto metabolites longer than others and some components may have more metabolites directed toward them than others.
As the majority of metabolites are excreted within the urine, this form of testing is currently the preferred modality for a wide range of scenarios.
The Science: Products that Attempt to Manipulate Drug Test Results
Most products that are created to subvert the mechanics of commonly-administered screening tests aim to effectively tamper with the detection-ability of these tests to the point where substances cannot be detected.
The majority of these are created for urine testing, with a smaller portion of the market targeting hair testing. Although there is a litany of products in each category, most are designed with similar principles in mind.
The metabolic process and its potential for manipulation appears to be the primary target for products aimed at urine screen subversion. Some products do not require consumption but do demand engagement in highly risky and potentially devastating acts of subterfuge at the test site in question. These include synthetic urine, where the user must use stealth in order to dupe testing moderators. Other products are classified as “adulterants” and require the user to mix chemicals into a urine sample produced at a testing site. These contain strong chemicals that destroy traces of the substance in the body.
This article focuses on products that take a more “natural” approach via ingestion, and subsequently migration and eventual excretion in a way that is similar to the process of any other substance.
Most commercially available products designed to beat urine testing are “diluting” agents. These agents, as their name suggests, seek to flush the body with enough fluid to the point where the presence of substances-of-interest and their metabolites are reduced to an undetectable level, thereby not appearing positive on urine analysis. These contain natural diuretics (ingredients that increase urine output) such as caffeine, as well as other natural non-diuretic compounds.
Some products which are commercially available are not marketed for the use of drug test manipulation, but have been used to thwart urine testing. These have often been made known via the spreading of unintentional misinformation and hearsay, mistakenly described as “speeding up” the metabolic system as well as “burning fat.”
The latter is based on the (correct) principle of certain drugs, such as marijuana, having a high level of fat-solubility. However, it is a mistake to assume that burning fat can markedly decrease the level of metabolites within the body, particularly in time for a drug evaluation.
The second false assumption is that these products can successfully influence drug test results. For example, the use of niacin (vitamin B3), has been demonstrated to be ineffective and dangerous.
In the case of hair testing, most products on the market are varying forms of “shampoos” and “cleansers”. These substances claim to be able to “strip” the hair of any metabolite residue, rendering it undetectable during laboratory analysis.
In scouring the internet one is bound to find a sea of positively-affirming anecdotal claims of individuals who claim to have successfully manipulated the outcome of a drug test due to the use of a particular product. When reading such accounts, it is important to be aware of two important truths.
Despite the huge amount of money and time spent on the research, development, and production of developing current drug screening modalities, there is no test that exists which can guarantee 100% accuracy and reliability.
The same is true for products which claim they can beat these drug tests. Although, it is worth noting that there is comparatively little research on their production, particularly in regards to safety. The consumption of such products should always, therefore, be taken not only with a grain of salt, but with great caution.