Hairy Pseudoscience: Are Profferers of Hair Analysis Shafting Consumers?

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Hair analysis is an ostensibly diagnostic procedure that is a major part of alternative medicine. Among promoters of alt-med, those likelier to proffer hair analysis are chiropractors, naturopaths, physicians who routinely use chelation therapy, practitioners of orthomolecular medicine, persons who style themselves "nutrition consultants," and companies that provide laboratory services directly to the public.

For What Might Hair Analysis Be Useful?

On its website, Nutri-World Hair Analysis Inc. (NHA), in Palm Desert, California, quotes former U.S. Sur-geon General C. Everett Koop: "Eight out of ten Americans are dying of diet related conditions. The time for action is now!" The company states:

. . . [N]o normal ranges have been established in the scientific community for any particular minerals in hair . . . .

Have you ever wanted to know how your regular nutritional regimen is affecting your overall well being? Is your dietary intake meeting your body's requirements? Diet, stress, medications, pollution, nutritional supplements & inherited patterns are major factors that can contribute to mineral imbalance. Your Hair Analysis Profile is like a road map indicating where you are & what direction you are heading

. . . . Hair analysis provides a profile that's as unique as a finger print. . . .

Hair analysis has been called unscientific, economically wasteful, a scam, and quackery. . . .

Hair mineral analysis is a screening test, which measures the mineral content of your hair. Mineral content of the hair reflects the mineral content of the body's tissues. If a mineral deficiency or excess exists in the hair, it usually indicates a mineral deficiency or excess within the body as well. . . . Tissue mineral analysis is unique in that it inexpensively provides information directly about cellular activity . . . .

As a screening tool, hair, according to many researchers, is the tissue of choice for measuring toxic elements and many nutrients as well. . . .

Hair analysis clearly shows individual deficiencies or ex-cesses as well as the presence of toxic metals. . . .

In most instances if you are low in one nutrient, other nutrients will also be low, indicating a deficiency in general. . . .

Excepting the statement "Hair analysis has been called unscientific, economically wasteful, a scam, and quackery," NHA's description of the utility of hair analysis is misleading. Consider that:

  • no laboratory method reliably enables differentiating what proportion of any particular mineral in hair came from the body (i.e., became part of the hair physiologically) and what proportion came directly from the environment (e.g., from hair dyes);
  • cosmetic hair treatments can affect the concentrations of many elements in hair;
  • the mineral content of hair can vary with age, the hair's natural color, and the speed of its growth;
  • no normal ranges have been established in the scientific community for any particular minerals in hair; and
  • for most chemical elements found in hair, no correlation has been generally established be-tween (a) concentrations of the element in hair and (b) measures of nutritional condition estimated through those tests designed for such that are established in the biomedical community.

Stephen Barrett, M.D., board chairman of Quackwatch, Inc., has called commercial hair analysis "a cardinal sign of quackery." He and another ACSH advisor, Robert S. Baratz, D.D.S., Ph.D., M.D., suggest that hair analysis is medically useful only for detecting (a) compounds (e.g., drugs) whose presence in the body is abnormal, and (b) particular poisons, such as arsenic. Drs. Barrett and Baratz note that because (a) little about the hair, and virtually nothing about the hair growth, of particular individuals is known, and (b) hair growth can vary occasionally, population standards for hair analysis do not exist. Thus, they state, hair analysis is not a reliable basis for conclusions about internal bodily processes.

Dr. Baratz states:

There are no "normal" ranges for hair minerals and metals. There are a variety of reasons for this, but basically the number of variables is too great. Also, hair is an epithelial product and does not reflect the milieu of the connective tissue or intercellular fluid the usual benchmarks of "relating" something to the "body" itself. Hair growth varies by color, sex, genetic heritage, place on the body, age, diet, and a host of other factors. Also, hair grows in cycles, and the particular stage of the cycle of a particular plucked hair is largely un-known. Ad-ditionally, things can leach out of hair, or be "put into" hair by various treatments, shampoos, conditioners, heat, sunlight, the wind, number of times brushed, etc. . . .

Hair analysis is useful for "foreign" materials in a qualitative way is it there or not but not in a quantitative way. Thus you can find drugs of abuse, arsenic, etc., if they are present, and know, for forensic purposes, that they were present. But you can't know precisely the dose or even the exact date of exposure, since you don't know the growth parameters of the hair you are analyzing.

In a 1982 issue of the Journal of Holistic Medicine, several major proponents of alternative medicine Elmer Mitchell Cranton, M.D., (then President of the American Holistic Medical Association), Jeffrey S. Bland, Ph.D. (whom Stephen Barrett describes as "one of the health-food industry's most prolific interpreters of nutrition-related scientific developments"), Rob Krakowitz, M.D. (then Vice President of the Orthomolecular Medical Society), and Jonathan V. Wright, M.D. depreciated hair analysis:*

Tightly bound elements in hair, not extractable in aqueous solutions, may be related to the metabolic control of these respective elements in the biologically active hair tissue. The hair concentrations of these elements may be influenced by many factors, including dietary intake, overall nutritional status, endocrine and metabolic function, age, sex, general health status, and other sociologic factors. Reduced or elevated concentrations of an element in human hair should not, therefore, be interpreted to necessarily indicate a respective nutritional deficiency or excess. . . .

Hair element analysis is, emphatically, a screening rather than a diagnostic tool. Before a medical diagnosis is firmly established, hair analysis results must be confirmed by other tests and other biomedical parameters must be taken into account. . . . In no way should aberrations in hair concentrations of any given element be considered to positively substantiate the firm diagnosis of a specific disease.

How Reliable Are Hair Analysis Results?

If ever the use of hair analysis as a broad diagnostic method became evidentially well-founded, the utility of hair analysis would depend largely on how accurate or imprecise the lab-test results are. In the August 23-30, 1985, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Dr. Barrett reported a study in which hair samples from two healthy teenagers were sent to 13 commercial laboratories doing hair mineral analysis. He said of the results: "The reported levels of most minerals varied considerably between identical samples sent to the same laboratory and from laboratory to laboratory."

In the January 3, 2001, issue of JAMA, Sharon Seidel, Ph.D., and four other public health professionals with the California Department of Health Services reported a followup to the Barrett study. In the followup, samples of "untreated" scalp hair from one of the investigators were sent to six commercial laboratories in the United States advertised as providers of hair mineral analysis for "health assessment." These labs represented 90 percent of instances of hair analysis in the U.S. Among the labs the research-ers found significant differences, consistent with those found in the Barrett study and in a study published in 1998, between test results and between reference ranges.

Furthermore, the researcher whose hair had been sampled was, according to lab statements, "at increased risk" for adrenal insufficiency, anemia, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems. But there was no clinical evidence that she had such health problems.

The investigators concluded: "Hair analysis of individuals for trace elements and nutritional balance is generally unreliable."

In an editorial in the same issue, Steven J. Steindel, Ph.D., and Peter J. Howanitz, M.D., both of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated: "Until laboratories reach an agreement on how to standardize both methods and materials for hair analysis, the large differences among laboratory results will persist."


Hair analysis is not invariably pseudoscientific. It may, for example, be useful in community surveys, conducted by professionals in public health, of human exposure to heavy metals. But the usage of hair analysis outside biomedicine, public health, and toxicology is distinctively pseudoscientific. Lay-persons should not submit to it except at the direction, and under the guidance, of a physician who is not a practitioner of alternative medicine.

Jack Raso, M.S., R.D., is the author of A Dictionary of Alternative-Medicine Methods (http:// Dictionary/home.html).

hair analysis: 1. (hair element analysis, hair mineral analysis, hair-shaft analysis) A procedure characterized by laboratory testing of a sample of scalp hair for its mineral content. 2. Chemical testing of a sample of scalp hair.

chelation therapy (chelation): 1. Administration of any of a group of drugs called "chelating agents" or "sequestrants" (e.g., calcium disodium edetate, penicillamine, or the manmade amino acid EDTA) to improve health, and/or to delay health problems, by removal of particular materials from the bloodstream and/or from arterial walls. 2. (EDTA chelation, EDTA chelation therapy) A treatment characterized by intravenous injection of ethylenediamine tetra-acetic acid (EDTA, also called "versene" and "sequestrol") to improve health, and/or to delay health problems, by removal of particular materials from the bloodstream and/or from arterial walls. EDTA chelation may include simultaneous injection of other substances (e.g., vitamins).

orthomolecular medicine (orthomolecular nutritional medicine, orthomolecular therapy): An approach to therapy whose centerpiece is megavitamin therapy. Orthomolecular medicine encompasses hair analysis, orthomolecular nutrition (a form of megavitamin therapy), and orthomolecular psychiatry. Linus Carl Pauling, Ph.D. (1901-1994), coined the word "orthomolecular." The prefix "ortho-" means "straight," and the implicit meaning of "orthomolecular" is "to straighten (correct) concentrations of specific molecules." The primary principle of orthomolecular medicine is that nutrition is the foremost consideration in diagnosis and treatment. Its purported focus is "normalizing" the "balance" of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and "similar" substances in the body.

Source Notes:
Priorities Volume 12 Number 4 & Volume 13 Number 1